Lowell Davidson

ESP-Disk ESP 1012

One of the most frustrating – and saddest – musical tales from the 1960s, a decade riff with sad and frustrated musical yarns, makes up the background of this exceptional reissued CD by pianist Lowell Davidson.

Recorded in 1965, with the trio filled out by master bassist Gary Peacock and legendary percussionist Milford Graves, this five-track session is the sum total of Davidson’s recorded work. Then doing graduate work in biochemistry at Harvard University, Davidson was recommended to ESP by Ornette Coleman himself. Unlike other shadowy figures on the label, such as Byron Allen, the pianist was never part of the New Thing scene in New York and returned to Boston after this disc was recorded. Gravely injured in a lab accident, Davidson died in 1990 at 49 and never recorded commercially again. Tapes of his playing piano and percussion (!) in Boston do exist, but have never been released.

Why does Davidson deserve to be heard, unlike some other 1960s jazz myths whose brief tenures in the big time are best forgotten? Perversely it’s because Davidson was a pianist. Completely self-contained in his improvising he was then – and probably still remains – the proverbial missing link between Herbie Nichols and Cecil Taylor. While followers of John Coltrane numbered in the quadruple digits then and have grown exponentially since then, no other keyboard player since then has followed Davidson’s lead. Yet just as Randy Weston’s ascendancy a decade previously, with a style equally influenced by Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, had confirmed Monk’s bone fides in the jazz pantheon, then Davidson’s appearance did the same for Taylor.

With careful phrasing, an undertow of impressionistic harmonies, and a propensity for musical story-telling that advanced melodies chromatically without relying on convention, he also took Nichols’ individualism one step forward. At the same time, his eddying and churning touch and discontinuous rhythmic sense authenticated Taylor’s linkage to the jazz canon. Ironically in the subsequent decades, Taylor’s magnificent improvising would become even more highly rhythmic and staccato, frightening a new generation of musical neo-cons. But that’s another story.

As well, despite their subsequent fame Graves and Peacock stay mostly in the background throughout. In short, Davidson is pretty much the entire show on the self-penned compositions that make up the disc.

Showing the sort of restraint characterized by sul ponticello runs and thumping rhythm that would later characterize his role with Keith Jarrett’s trio, Peacock remains grounded. Graves too settles for time-keeping support. Furthermore, he’s also incredibly less showy and bombastic in his playing on this disc than he could be then, and which characterizes his contemporary sound. Even his introduction of military-style snare-drum rattling plus characteristic rolls and pops while the pianist comps on “Ad Hoc”, doesn’t detract from the trio’s overall exposition.

Cascading phrases, key clipping plus fragmenting and bonding note clusters, Davidson runs the changes while running his own race throughout Trio. Stirring and imposing in equal measures on the CD, it’s a shame that as of this moment, slightly more than 44 minutes of music are both the pianist’s personal best and entire legacy.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. “L” 2. Stately 1 3. Dunce 4. Ad Hoc 5. Strong Tears

Personnel: Lowell Davidson (piano); Gary Peacock (bass) and Milford Graves (percussion)