Words by Josh Werner
The realms of bass, jazz, music, and art lost an absolute giant on September 6th, with the passing of Richard Davis, at age 93. Maestro Davis was a bassist whose creativity, knowledge, and technique conquered the music world. Equally comfortable in classical, jazz, avant-garde, and pop, his career transcended label and genres, enabling him to link sounds from each in innovative ways. He’s also credited with one of the most iconic bass performances in rock history, on Van Morrison’s acclamed album, Astral Weeks.
I was lucky enough to have Professor Davis as a mentor. As his private student, I witnessed him instilling confidence in his students, promoting diversity and equality on campus, guiding generations of students into a lifetime of jazz appreciation, and in many cases into a career of making music.
One of the most widely-recorded musicians of his era, the Chicago-born Davis’s discography is downright staggering. He recorded with many jazz stars of his own era, including Eric Dolphy, Joe Henderson, Booker Ervin, and Bobby Hutchinson, as well as legends who came before him, such as Ben Webster, Sonny Stitt, Sarah Vaughn, and Johnny Hodges. Not to mention classical giants like Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein, and some of the era’s biggest pop stars, like Barbra Streisand, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, and Frank Sinatra.
Here are 10 records every bassist should know that feature Richard Davis:
Sarah Vaughan, Swingin’ Easy [Emarcy, 1957]
One of the young bassist’s first big breaks was playing with the legendary singer Sarah Vaughan, along with up-and-coming drummer Roy Haynes and pianist Ronnell Bright. Their version of “All of Me” has been used by educators as an example of the perfect bass accompaniment of a vocalist. Observe Davis’s note selection, bass fills, and melodic interplay with the vocals, while swinging with a beautifully cool intensity.
Eric Dolphy Quintet, At the Five Spot, Vol 1 & 2 [Fantasy, 1961]
This two-volume set documents Dolphy’s live performance on July 16 1961, and is often paired with the Memorial Album [Fantasy, 1964]. Trumpeter Booker Little, pianist Mal Waldron, and drummer Ed Blackwell all shine here, and it’s an excellent example of how progressive Davis and Dolphy’s playing was in the early-’60s. Hailing from Chicago, Davis had a deep knowledge of the blues, and could make it collide with the avant-garde in any situation. Check out he and Mal Waldron’s deep musical connection on “Booker’s Waltz.”
Eric Dolphy, Out To Lunch [Blue Note, 1964]
One of the most important jazz records of all time, Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch has young prodigy Tony Williams on drums, along with frequent fellow supporting artist Bobby Hutcherson on the vibraphone. On the Dolphy-penned “Something Sweet, Something Tender” Davis’s bowing skill is on full display, as is his ear for time dissonance and concept. Dolphy and Davis’s connection is apparent and transcendent.
Andrew Hill, Black Fire [Blue Note, 1964]
Pianist Andrew Hill’s debut album for Blue Note Records is anchored by drummer Roy Haynes and Davis, who masterfully navigates the odd time signatures and meters. The hard bop pulse relentlessly references Afro-Cuban and Haitian rhythms, while Andrew Hill’s groundbreaking compositions are melodically explored by saxophonist giant Joe Henderson. Again, this record has an intellectual edge that crosses between the worlds of avant-garde and straight ahead jazz. Richard takes a daring, improvised approach for his adventurous solo on “Subterfuge.”
Joe Henderson, In ’N Out [Blue Note, 1965]
This post-bop classic was one of five Blue Note records that launched Henderson into jazz stardom. Produced by Henderson and trumpeter Kenny Dorham, the rhythm section connection here is a deep one, with John Coltrane quartet members Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner adding to Richard’s driving bass lines and unique solos. Notice the intense poise and connection created by Professor Davis’s preference for playing on top of the beat, while Jones lays back deep in his natural feel, on Henderson’s “Short Story.”
Booker Ervin, Heavy!!! [Prestige, 1966]
The core of this hard swinging unit—Richard Davis, drummer Alan Dawson, and Pianist Jaki Byard—would record the bulk of Booker Ervin’s underrated Book series, along with this aptly-titled hard bop classic. Ervin and Byard both worked extensively with the legendary bassist/composer Charles Mingus, and Davis would record as an additional bassist on the the Mingus Grammy-winning release, Let My Children Hear Music [Columbia, 1971].
Thad Jones Mel Lewis, Live at the Village Vanguard [Blue Note, 1967]
A blistering live big band performance which sky rocketed the all-star cast as a collective, this orchestra was loaded wth the New York jazz world’s best of the best. Richard’s groove and pocket drives the orchestra to its defining performance. Professor Davis held the bass chair in the Vanguard Orchestra from 1966-1972.
Elvin Jones and Richard Davis, Heavy Sounds [Impulse!, 1968]
Legendary drummer Elvin Jones had a great affinity for Richard Davis, and he included him on six of his solo outings. This duo release, with tenorman Frank Foster and pianist Billy Greene in support, was Richard’s as a co-leader, and is a favorite amongst rhythm sections to this day. Check out the proto-blues funk of “Raunchy Rita,” as well as Davis’s stunning bowed interpretation of the Gershwin standard, “Summertime.”
Van Morrison, Astral Weeks [Warner Bros., 1968]
Often referred to as one of the greatest rock bass performances ever, Van Morrison’s legendary Astral Weeks is performed essentially as-improvised, one-take via a cast assembled by session guitarist Jay Berliner. Richard is at his peak powers here, seeing the music for the first time, improvising off a lead sheet, and absolutely crushing the session. His nickname for Modern Jazz Quartet drummer Connie Kaye was “the Security Guard,” and you can hear how comfortable the two are here—especially on the 6/8 numbers. Davis’s fearlessness and prowess on the fingerboard is apparent on the album-opening title track, where he begins to play a melodic theme while swinging impossibly hard. By the end of the song he’s bending blue notes and dropping octave bombs, all while dancing with the vocals.
Richard Davis, Philosophy of the Spiritual [Cobblestone, 1971]
Professor Davis made an impressive 27 records as a leader. Progressive and in step with the rapidly changing sound of the ’70s jazz movement, this is one of his finest solo releases. The bulk of the compositions were written by his frequent collaborator Bill Lee—Spike Lee’s father, who also led the New York Bass Choir. Richard’s interpretation of the jazz standard, “Dear old Stockholm” is a perfect example of the artistry he possessed as a master improvisor, interpreter, and player.
Bass Magazine’s Chris Jisi adds: Two gems among the pop hits Richard Davis played on are Bruce Springsteen’s “Meeting Across the River” and Janis Ian’s teen anthem, “At Seventeen,” both released in 1975. “Meeting,” from Born to Run [Columbia], boasts Springsteen, his long-time pianist Roy Bittan, trumpeter Randy Brecker, and Davis, who spices up his firm root notes in the syncopated rock feel with some color tones, specifically leaning into the major 7th. Ian’s “At Seventeen” sports another minimal ensemble that includes Ian on vocals and guitar, Sal DeTroia and Bucky Pizzarelli on guitars, Burt Collins on flugelhorn, and Barry Lazarowitz’s light drum work. Davis drives the bright bossa feel and increasingly steps out as the track develops, utilizing chord tones, slides, pull-offs, and walk-downs to create countermelodies.
Josh Werner is a Bassist Producer and painter who studied privately with Richard Davis from 1994-97. He is a current member of the James Brandon Lewis trio and a frequent collaborator of Bill Laswell. He has recorded and performed with, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Wu Tang Clan, Robert Glasper, Cibo Matto, Popcaan, and Cocorosie.