Ron Davis, composer & jazz pianist

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

Big question. Many people, many things inspired me. Great pianists like Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson. Great musical minds like Glenn Gould and my teacher Darwyn Aitken. Great performers like Take 6 and Bobby McFerrin. My parents’ deep respect for music, although they weren’t musicians themselves (and they hated me taking up music professionally – no way to make a living, for them!)

Above all, it’s the music that inspired me – the compositions of Bach, Chopin, Brahms, Bartok, Vaughan Williams, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Fats Waller, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington. So many more.

Many personal musician friends like Daniela Nardi (we’re now married!), Tania Gill, Drew Birston, Andrew Forde, Sasha Boychouk. Of course my colleagues in Symphronica – Kevin Barrett, Mike Downes, Aline Homzy and the others. So many more people I could name.

And I must mention the saxophonist Doug Banwell. He’s actually the cause of all this! I had left professional music in the 1980s. But then one day in 1997, I met Doug by chance. A friend who was passing by introduced us. Doug convinced me to resume playing piano. I was reluctant at first. He persisted. We started playing small duo gigs. Irregularly, then regularly. And, boom, I was back in music full-time.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career?

The preternatural Art Tatum, for sure. I still can’t grasp the breadth and depth of his genius. After decades of listening to him.

J. S. Bach, ditto.

And Take 6, the a cappella gospel/ jazz/ funk group – ditto.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

Music is always challenging. Composing music is hard. Playing piano is challenging. One tends to be highly self-critical. But facing and overcoming the challenges is what makes being a musician so rewarding. So I haven’t answered the question.

The greatest challenge? Business. The music business. We often spend more time tending to it than to the actual music. The great jazz saxophonist Phil Woods once said “I’ll play a gig for free, any time. But you have to pay me to arrange it and to travel!” Spot on.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a piece?

Each piece has its own unique challenges and pleasure. For example, my piece Torontango, from the Instrumental Music Liberation Front, was hard to compose. It took me a long while to find the right way to capture what I was feeling and hearing inside: the playful but sultry sexiness of the nuevo tango of Astor Piazzolla. I tried many ideas before arriving at the final piece. I had to go at times note by note. But I am so happy with how it turned out. That is the joy!

On the other hand, my piece Spatialism from the same record came fairly easily to me. But the execution of it, how Symphronica was to play it as a group, was hard. I had to work through fairly extensively to decide how we were going to play it to bring out all the negative space in the tune. But we got there in the end!

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

The challenges and pleasures are the same! When you find the right collaborators, there is nothing like the joy of the sum of your music and music-making being greater than the parts. On the other hand, when you just don’t see musically eye to eye with a colleague, it can be nightmarish. I’ve seen other musicians lose it because someone else has either laid down a beat a fraction of a fraction later or earlier, or played a note marginally differently than them.

Fortunately, in Symphronica, I am working with people who mesh wonderfully together. It sounds like a fantasy, but it isn’t. It is a source of unending pleasure to make music with people who are all headed in the same direction as you, or who lead you into a direction that feels just right.

Of which works are you most proud?

Which work? That’s like asking a parent which child they love most. I love them all. Every one! Equally!

But OK, if pressed, I would pick two works that I am most proud of: 1. my Symphronica “Upfront” record that earned a JUNO Award nomination for us, and 2. the most recent Symphronica record, the “Instrumental Music Liberation Front”. They both reflect the openness in music that I value, and the great ensemble camaraderie that we have developed in Symphronica.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Music without borders.

How do you work?

Chaotically. Creative-chaos chaotically.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Oh my… so many… J. S. Bach, Robert Schumann, Fryderyk Chopin, Bela Bartok, Josef Hofmann, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Thomas “Fats” Waller, Art Tatum, Nat “King” Cole, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Martha Argerich, Oscar Peterson, Glenn Gould, my teacher Darwyn Aitken, Vladimir Horowitz, Arvo Pärt, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Daniela Nardi, my Symphronica colleagues including Aline Homzy, Mike Downes, Kevin Barrett, Steve Heathcoate, Louis Simão, Bobby McFerrin, Take 6… I’m just beginning…

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Hearing a sound in your mind’s ear, making that sound happen in the real world, and being satisfied that you ended up making the sound that you first heard in your mind’s ear.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Do what you believe in and believe in what you do. Never compare with others, only learn from others. Don’t confuse the music business with music: business is about revenues, whereas music is about talent and craft.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Alive, somewhere in the world playing concerts with Symphronica.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Don’t have one. I only know absence of pain and the presence of pleasure or satisfaction.

What is your most treasured possession?

My marriage

What do you enjoy doing most?

Being with my wife and making music.

What is your present state of mind?

Hopeful. Optimistic. Fatigued. Reflective.

JUNO Award Nominee Ron Davis released his new album ‘Instrumental Music Liberation Front’ on 15 May 2020.

Together with his ensemble SymphRONica, Ron brings instrumental music back into balance with vocal music, which he believes has disappeared amongst an ocean of vocal music. With his new album, Ron invites us on a journey to where jazz meets the entirety of classical music.

Ron Davis is a Canadian jazz visionary. His music blends genres and pushes boundaries, building on his jazz and classical training. He seeks new textures, new forms, new compositions, new formations and new ways of presenting his signature sound without losing a connection to audiences. The music is diverse in a characteristically Canadian way.

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