An interview with
believe that the first piece by Francis Davis that I read was a profile of
Roscoe Mitchell that appeared on Musician magazine about twenty years ago.
I greatly appreciated that article, but finding more material by Davis proved
to be not so easy, the majority of the pieces he wrote appearing in U.S. newspapers
(New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer) and magazines (The Atlantic Monthly,
The New Yorker, Stereo Review, The Village Voice) that were for me quite difficult
to get. So I was really glad when his first collection was released. Titled
In The Moment (1986), it was followed by Outcats (1990) and Bebop And Nothingness
are many reasons why Francis Davis is held in high esteem by many. He obviously
knows his stuff - jazz, sure, but also rock and pop; and let's not forget
theater, cinema and television, in those instances when music plays an important
part. He knows how to explain facts pertaining to musical language in a way
that's deep but clear, so as not to exclude the uninitiated reader. He knows
how to place musical artifacts in the context of wider cultural frameworks,
but never at the expense of the music - i.e., the "cultural signifier"
never becomes the smokescreen behind which music disappears. His writing stile
is quite cultured, while at the same time making for smooth reading.
Young (2001) was his most recent collection when - last year - I contacted
him via e-mail, asking for an interview. Though he's a very busy man, he kindly
agreed. His answers arrived two days ago. His most recent collection is being
released as I write: titled Jazz And Its Discontents:
A Francis Davis Reader (DaCapo), it includes his own selection of the best
material from In The Moment, Outcats, and Bebop And Nothingness, along with
a few pieces not previously collected.
Norah Jones's debut album
on Blue Note went multi-platinum and won many Grammys. (A cover version of
her "surprise hit" Don't Know Why is featured on a recent CD by
Pat Metheny, One Quiet Night.) For all practical purposes, is this what "a
jazz tune" and "a jazz artist" are for the "average American",
or is this only true when it comes to the press?
question. Only the press, I think, and not the millions of people who bought
her first CD and probably think of it as pop - as do I. I hear what sounds
like a certain Vince Guaraldi influence in her piano playing on Don't Know
Why, but I don't consider her a jazz singer. Her model as a singer - consciously
or otherwise - seems to be Stevie Nicks, of Fleetwood Mac, rather than Billie
Holiday. As a songwriter, she's like Carole King, though nowhere near as good.
again, I don't think Cassandra Wilson, for example, is a really jazz singer,
either, and truth be told, I actually like Norah Jones a little better, or
mind her a little bit less, because she's not as pretentious.
In a way, what does it matter if something is jazz? Ninety-five per cent of
the world's great music, from the beginning of time, has been something other
than jazz. But the only problem with touting Norah Jones as jazz is that to
do so creates unrealistic sales expectations for everybody else. The major
labels aren't going to be satisfied with an instrumentalist or another singer
who sells only twenty or thirty thousand CDs, which would once have been considered
quite respectable. They want another jackpot, another Norah Jones.
your first collection, In The Moment, you talked about "Ornette Coleman's
Permanent Revolution". After, say, Rova Saxophone Quartet, who do you
regard as doing valuable (structural, compositional) work in the "jazz
field" (whatever meaning you attribute to this word)? If I'm not mistaken,
you singled out trumpeter/composer Dave Douglas as one of the most vital realities
in recent years in jazz. Has he lived up to your expectations? Are there any
names you'd like to add to the list?
Douglas has certainly lived up to... I feel more comfortable saying "his
potential" than I do saying "my expectations", because my expectations
or those of any other critic should be of no concern to Douglas or any other
musician. He's working closer to the mainstream now than he was five or six
years ago. I mean, Strange Liberation, his newest CD, takes as its starting
point 1960s Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter in much the same way that Wynton
Marsalis's Black Codes From The Underground did, the only difference - an
important one - being that whereas Marsalis's starting point was Miles Smiles
or Sorcerer, Douglas's
is Miles In The Sky or
Filles De Kilimanjaro, when Miles and his
band were beginning to incorporate elements of progressive rock, including
electric keyboards and an 8/4 time feel. But Douglas is doing it superbly,
doing more with the same basic materials than Wynton managed to, I think.
other younger (or fairly young) musicians who are really doing something different
and exciting, and who come to mind most readily, are all pianists - Matt Shipp,
Vijay Iyer, Jason Moran. I don't know that any of them would describe it this
way, but it seems to me that all of them take off from early Cecil Taylor,
pursuing some of the things that Taylor himself abandoned when his music opened
up wider in the late 1960s.
all of that, though, the stuff I've heard lately that's excited me most has
tended to be by musicians in their sixties or seventies. I'm thinking of Wayne
Shorter, Andrew Hill, Steve Lacy, Roswell Rudd, Sam Rivers, Misha Mengelberg,
Ornette - people like that. Overall, I think this current period isn't as
exciting as... well, you don't have to go back to the bebop revolution of
the late 1940s, or free jazz in the 1960s. The 1980s were a tremendously fertile
period, thanks to players and composers like Henry Threadgill, John Carter,
Muhal Richard Abrams, Julius Hemphill, and Anthony Davis, all of whom were
questioning the very nature of jazz, which is to say the relationship between
composition and improvisation. Practically no one noticed, because the music
was in the doldrums commercially. But there was a great flowering then. I
hope it doesn't prove to have been a last flowering.
your most recent collection, Like Young, you included a piece on Ken Burns's
Jazz TV series. Was the series-influenced jazz sales boost in the USA a permanent
reality or a brief phenomenon?
was a very short-lived phenomenon, and the only CDs that got much of a boost
from it were the anthologies that piggybacked off the series.
see that Down Beat magazine now lists at the end of their CD reviews the URLs
of the websites where one can purchase the CDs. What is the current situation
when it comes to the distribution of (major, indie) jazz CDs in the shops,
I live in Philadelphia, which is a pretty large city, and get to New York
pretty often. So theoretically, I should be able to put my hands on any CD
I'm looking for. Yet I find myself ordering more and more on line, because
I read about things, or hear about things, that I can't find in stores in
Philadelphia or New York. And buying CDs at gigs - one of the nice things
about the annual Vision Festival in New York is that there's always a table
in back selling CDs I haven't seen anywhere else, usually put out by the musicians
themselves. But yeah, distribution is lousy in the U.S. It's a real problem.
The chains put a lot of the smaller specialty stores out of business, and
now they're hurting too, carrying fewer and fewer esoteric items all the time.
The web has come to the rescue, to some extent, but it's never going to replace
record stores for people like me, who enjoy the social aspect of browsing.
Like Young you also included pieces on Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, Burt Bacharach,
The Velvet Underground. Are there any "pop/rock" artists you currently
like? Are you familiar with Phish?
heard just enough of them to know I'm not interested, same as I've never been
interested in the Grateful Dead. If all I wanted from music was endless noodling...
well, there's already too much of that in
jazz. What I want from pop are things that jazz can't give me, beginning with
do I like now? Well, I tend to like the sort of things that middle-aged white
people who still bother at all with pop like. Björk, OutKast, Beck, Radiohead,
and a lot of this and that. I don't go out of my way to hear things, the way
I do with jazz. I hear something in a movie or see a band performing on television
and decide I like them. It's all very chancy, but maybe that's the way pop
is supposed to work.
the other hand, I hear plenty of records that way that drive me up the wall.
Pink's This Is My Vietnam, for example, is easily one of the stupidest things
I've ever heard - maybe my least favorite record since Nelly Furtado's I'm
Like A Bird (She's like a bird, all right - a tweety bird.) And most of the
rap I hear, or overhear really, is numbing in its stupidity, or the pride
it takes in its stupidity.
what it's worth, I still listen to a lot of older things - and some newer
things as well - by the people you mentioned, plus the Kinks, Neil Young,
Al Green, Richard Thompson, Bryan Ferry, Leonard Cohen, and other abiding
favorites. This isn't just nostalgia. I think I hear things in Neil Young's
records of the early 1970s, for example, that went right past me back then.
It's as though those records have somehow matured along with me, if that makes
recently read again your piece on Burt Bacharach, which - like most pieces
of yours that I've read - is pretty long and articulated. From my experience,
the trend nowadays is to have pieces that are more like "morsels"
- a "quick read" - on magazines that you can peruse, and especially
so when it comes to the "arts" pages. What's your take on this? And, in this respect, what's
your opinion of the magazines on the Net? (I seem to remember that in his
review of Like Young in The Wire, Ben Watson wrote that your
well-educated readers were a luxury he did not have.)
memory serves, he wrote that The Atlantic Monthly's affluent readership was
blessed with a leisure that allowed them to read long pieces like mine. That's
nonsense - Marxist theory that hasn't been adjusted to changing times. In
the U.S. now, except for those with inherited wealth, the more money you make
the less time you have. And I assume it's that way in the rest of the world.
There are no 40-hour jobs anymore.
the larger point, about the great length of some of my pieces: Actually, my
editors would be delighted if I wrote shorter pieces. (And what you're reading
by me in the magazine, including the piece on Bacharach, is usually shortened
considerably from what I turned in. I restore some of the excised material
in my books.) They let me go on as long as they do because... well, because
I tend to go long, as they say in the magazine and newspaper business, and
because I've been with the magazine practically forever and am shown a consideration
that wouldn't be extended to someone who was just starting out there.
do I go on so long? Part of it is the context. I'm addressing a readership
that knows almost nothing about, say, Wayne Shorter, and consequently I have
to explain things that could be taken for granted if I were writing about
him for a music magazine. I need to establish who he is, and why he's worth
writing about - and that takes up many column inches right there. At the same
time, there have to be ideas in the piece; ideas that transcend music or the
question of whether someone's new CD is any good or not, because regardless
of whether my readers have the leisure to read a long piece or their level
of education, I've got to grab their attention quickly and hold it for a few
thousand words. I mean, after all, there might be an article on the future
of Islam or something like that in the same issue, and I'm competing with
that. It's not like I'm trying to provide the last word on Wayne Shorter (to
use him as an example), or even the first word. In terms of most of The Atlantic's
readers, what they're hearing from me is the only word they're ever going to hear about him.
though, I write long pieces because that's my nature. Believe me, I admire
brevity. I just don't seem able to achieve it.
you currently writing for US magazines only? Once you wrote some pieces for
The Wire, but no more?
wrote for The Wire under
Richard Cook, and for a little while after he left. But they gradually lost
interest in jazz, and - I guess - in me as well. So, yeah, all the publications
I'm writing for now are U.S. publications. But that shouldn't be taken as
jingoism. It's just the way it is. I'll write for anybody if they pay me enough,
give me enough space, and allow me editorial discretion in terms of who and
what I write about.
of the themes running through Bebop And Nothingness was what you referred
to as "The Commodification Of Youth". In this respect, what's your
opinion of singers/songwriters such as Ani DiFranco, Lucinda Williams, Aimee
Mann and Lisa Germano who (with various degrees of success) deal with "adult"
themes in an "adult" way? Are they popular in the USA?
They're popular enough, I suppose, but nowhere near as popular
as Pink or Eminem or Britney Spears. I've come to like Aimee Mann a lot, especially
after hearing her songs in the Paul Thomas Anderson movie Magnolia. Lucinda
Williams I like, too, though not as passionately as some people I know do.
What I've heard by Ani DiFranco sounded pretty silly to me, and I don't know
that I've ever heard Lisa Germano.
It's tough to put forward an "adult" point of view
in pop, because pop as it's evolved since the 1950s is pretty much about youth
and youthful expression. Some of the women you mention manage to do it once
in a while, but a lot of the older, more grown-up singer/songwriters I hear
are as self-dramatizing as any 18-year-old teen princess or gangsta rapper.
you catch The Rolling Stones during their recent US tour?
I saw them in 1972, and they seemed too old for what they were doing even
then. I shudder to think what they're like now.
Beppe Colli 2004
| March 16, 2004