The 23rd Annual L.A. Music Awards has recently nominated drummer and bandleader Davies as “Jazz Artist of the Year” for 2013, a mere four years after she set up shop in Los Angeles and made it her home. But this bohemian from Belgium has quickly made positive impressions everywhere she goes, including this reviewer when sizing up her third album all about Love a year ago.
For album #4 12 Volt, Davies assembled a new trio to go along with her new songs, in which she constructed around a concept of simplicity and being closer to nature. In this case, being closer to nature meant deconstructing jazz to its base components. The liner notes for Billie Davies’ upcoming album went into the detail of what makes the jazz of this drummer stand out from the herd, but one sentence seemed to sum it up nicely: “Davies is not countering the modern jazz movement so much but rather stripping it down to its essence.”
Moving on from the trumpet/bass/drums configuration of Love, Davies enlisted Amsterdam guitarist Daniel Coffeng and acoustic bassist Adam Levy to make this album live in the studio in a single day. That’s an approach that has fostered simplicity and natural playing. The airy, free flowing way these songs are played are like that, too. Take the opening cut, “Collioure,” an esoteric melody that moves at a naturally occurring cadence. Davis is making melody right alongside Coffeng, and Levy’s arco bass provides a well-defined harmonic counterpoint. The second part of song descends and ascends, Davies soloing while closely following Coffeng’s moves. With such attention to timbre, space and mood, it’s easy to forget that much of the music here and on the rest of the album is dissonant, because it’s avant-garde in a very embraceable way.
When listening to Davies play, it’s easier to think of her not as a drummer but a tonal painter who swipes brushstrokes with her drumsticks. “Collioure” is a prime example, and also in her subtly guiding ever so incremental changes in intonation on songs such as “Tango for Patti” as well as confidently leading the group through a deconstructed section within “Les Landes.” On angular blues such as “!2 Volt” and “Grapes, Plums and Tomatoes” she swings authoritatively without ever having to resort to brute force.
Coffeng employs the pillowy, sweet tones of Jim Hall, and he demonstrates nifty single note run skills during a solo on “Gypsy.” But his economy of notes is perhaps his greatest asset for this session; it fits in fine with the “less is more” mantra Davies champions and allows her and Levy to be heard as equals. The songs generally follow the head-solos-head format, but the extended solo sections are allowed so much freedom, whole other songs are nearly created between the heads; the group members typically improvise as a unit.
It’s some honor for Billie Davies to be considered for the top jazz musician award in a big musical and cultural center such as Los Angeles, but that the institution pays close attention to the likes of her speaks well for their recognition of outlier talent. And 12 Volt can’t help but to strengthen Davies’ chances for winning it.