One of the greatest musical treasures in San Diego is composer/pianist Anthony Davis. He came to town in 1998 to teach at UCSD, a move that has blessed the entire music community since. On February 19, Davis played an all-too-rare hometown solo piano gig at the James S. Copley Auditorium in Balboa Park, delivering a program that illustrated his singular gifts in rich detail.
Davis began the program with "Five Moods From an English Garden," while a huge projection of Wassily Kandinsky’s "Improvisation 29" hovered in the background. The pianist traversed moody territory that ranged from a still calm that reminded me of Duke Ellington to a jarring kinetic energy to manic toy piano scrambling, all more or less defined by his instantly identifiable left hand -- one of the most compelling sounds in modern music.
Languid spaces and gauzy harmonies set the backdrop of "Goddess Variations," punctuated by rollicking bass lines and turgid atonality in a composition that seemed to rock between quiet agitation and abject violence. Fitting, since the music represented the horror of the Trans-Atlantic kidnapping of millions of Africans en route to the American shore.
"Variations on Matisse Prints" was completely improvised as Davis invented whimsical structures based on ever-shifting visual cues. But even the most playful of those structures contained an underlying violence and a sharp rhythmic attack that served as the connective tissue to the whole series of thematic cells.
Most satisfying was a distillation of his masterpiece, "Wayang Variations," where manic repetitions evolve, layer and rotate in and out of focus. One could definitely picture the Balinese gamelan puppet theater that served as this composition's initial reference. In fact, the images being projected on the screen were entirely superfluous -- the music itself, an endless stream of descriptive themes, was more than enough to engage every facet of the listener's imagination.
As an encore, Davis explored "Shimmer," a music theater work about New York City in the McCarthy era. Again, there was the profound duality that seems to course through the best of his work: lush Strayhorn romanticism that ebbed into wicked spells of left-hand stride like lyric silks flowing from a dissonant temptress.
Kudos to the San Diego Museum of Art and to Jann Pasler, who curated this momentous occasion.
Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.