I thought of “Old Time Modern” while watching a wonderful new concert DVD. That title originally was from a Nat Pierce composition recorded for Vanguard in the Fifties, blending boppish harmonies with a Thirties Basie feel.
Now it perfectly summons up the inspired pairing of Eddy Davis, banjo, vocals, and badinage, and Conal Fowkes, piano, vocals, and commentary. This duo had a wonderful opportunity to appear in a Barcelona club for an extended run; they found a most hip Brazilian filmmaker, Arturo Querzoli, and the results are now available.
Most jazz videos (including mine) suffer from the demands of impromptu recording: poor lighting, people walking in front of the camera, extraneous noise. Devoted types like Rae Ann Berry and myself grin and bear it and call the results “cinema verite.” But how rewarding it is to see two completely relaxed musicians captured from every angle with beautiful sound in high-definition video.
And what musicians they are! I know that some people get pale and anxious when they even hear the word “banjo” in a sentence, and I can hardly blame them. Badly played, the banjo can provide hours of painful listening experiences. Many banjo players seem to have modeled their approaches on power tools, giving their instruments a metallic twang. Not Eddy Davis. His approach is subtle but his rhythm propulsive, and although he doesn’t look the part of a Thirties romantic hero, he has a deep sentimental streak. Eddy writes his own appealing tunes and digs out those you’d forgotten or never heard. Where Eddy looks much like a small-town pharmacist with a decided FDR image, Conal could pass as a multi-lingual European statesman. A diplomat, perhaps, or even the head of a large bank. But beneath that sedate exterior there is a fine, stomping Jelly Roll Morton – Joe Sullivan – Fats Waller pianist, a singer both hilarious and tender, and a wonderful accompanist to Eddy. In fact, one of the great pleasures of this duo is watching two fine soloists who are also splendid accompanists. This duo isn’t a cutting contest; it’s a friendly conversation, with one egging the other on.
By the way, I first saw (and met) Conal and Eddy sometime in 2005 when Eddy’s multi-named small group (eventually called WILD REEDS AND WICKED RHYTHM) had the Wednesday-night spot at the now-vanished Cajun. Most nights, Debbie Kennedy was on string bass and occasional vocal; Scott Robinson and Orange Kellin were the hot winds, and the group rocked as few others I’ve ever heard have done. If you weren’t sitting near me to hear this group, you definitely need this DVD. And if you were at one of the front tables, you won’t need any convincing.
And (for me) the best part — including the musical intimacy, the beautiful recording, the fine camerawork — is the amazingly broad repertoire. Most groups limit themselves: the Fowkes-Davis collective is happy playing Morton, Ory, Oliver, Eubie Blake, Morton, Ellington, Henderson — but these musicians have a deep streak of sentiment, so you’ll also hear I FALL IN LOVE TOO EASILY, LA VIE EN ROSE (with a tender reading of the original French lyrics by Conal), and MY FOOLISH HEART, crooned in a near-whisper by Eddy.
And here’s some brilliant musical and visual evidence from the DVD:
Here are WILD MAN BLUES and MEMORIES OF YOU:
WHAT A DIFFERENCE A DAY MAKES and DINAH:
SNAKE RAG and I FALL IN LOVE TOO EASILY:
Henderson’s THE STAMPEDE:
ORY’S CREOLE TROMBONE and MY FOOLISH HEART, surely a surprising pair:
LA VIE EN ROSE and HANG OUT THE STARS IN INDIANA:
Finally, there’s CRY ME A RIVER:
Now. that’s a generous helping of music for free. But there’s more! The DVD includes a dozen selections (some of them lengthy medleys) and one bonus track with an appearance by A Famous Mystery Guest. You can find out how to buy this at www.davisfowkes.com (a little Barelona bird told me that the price is $20.00 plus shipping, certainly cheaper than the round-trip flight). It’s a consistent pleasure.