Ezra Pound said — as an artistic manifesto — MAKE IT NEW. He never heard the master pianist Chris Dawson, but I think he would have nodded appreciatively at what Chris does.
I know there are people who strive for novelty, thinking “Why play those familiar old tunes again? I don’t want to hear ROYAL GARDEN BLUES or DON’T BLAME ME — give me esoterica, like MAKE MY COT WHERE THE COT-COT-COTTON GROWS, or give me nothing. We must have new material to improvise on so that our improvisations will in themselves be new.”
Hooey, says I.
Of course, a pedestrian performance of an overplayed song is going to be formulaic and tiresome. But great improvisers can embody deep truths through the most banal material: think of Louis, Bechet, Django, Jack T., Benny, Lester, and a thousand other players.
In conversation with Jon-Erik Kellso last night (and he knows!) he said that when you have someone like Henry “Red” Allen take on BILL BAILEY, it’s a whole new world. And for my part, I repeated the words of the Sage, Hot Lips Page: “The material is immaterial.”
So when Chris turns his attention to two of the most familiar classics of solo jazz piano, ALL OF ME and BODY AND SOUL, it is an occasion to marvel at his gentle thoroughness. The melody and chord changes are treated lovingly — his touch is superb, his voicings splendid — but he isn’t just walking through familiar territory, half-asleep because of the familiarity of it all. Rather, he is acting on Pound’s dictum of making the familiar seem fresh, of playing the most familiar chord changes and turnarounds as if they were brand new — of imbuing the “traditional” with great emotional power — joy or despair — by believing in it.
ALL OF ME:
Crystalline, from that dancing introduction on — lighter-than-air but steady, with a great deal of breathing space. (Unlike some other pianists, Chris feels no need to fill in all the empty spaces.) Chris doesn’t strive for dissonance, but his subtle harmonic vocabulary is large; his bass lines varied; his rigth-hand ornamentations never predictable. And his improvisation is full of small suspensions — so that the light stride patterns never become mechanistic. For me, the test of satisfying music is, “When it’s through, have I had enough, or do I want to hear it once again right away?” You know the answer to that one: these two performances don’t reveal all their beauties with just one listening.
BODY AND SOUL:
Apropriately darker, with more dense harmonies to offer emotions more complex than the simple joy of ALL OF ME. But BODY AND SOUL — that song of deep romantic self-immolation and abasement — never becomes morose, and the rhythmic engine beneath it never sputters and dies.
How does he accomplish his singular balance between restraint and forward motion, between delicacy and strength? All I know is that once I said something to him after a particularly Dawsonish miracle of music, and he said, wryly, “People don’t know how hard it is to do that,” or words to that effect. I am sure that it is the fulfillment of a lifetime of study, practice, listening, feeling — and swinging empathy. When will the rest of the world discover that Chris Dawson is an utterly stylish improviser? Soon, I hope.
I wish that he, Janice, and Jack lived in the apartment next door to mine — I would never complain about the music, but I probably would get nothing done because I would be listening and grinning all the time.