Emotional tribute to Mel Davis proved music says far more than words

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Mel Davis, a multi-instrumentalist who influenced a generation of jazz players and helped make improvisation and free music accessible, died at the end of October 2013. Known for piano, Davis also played a variety of other instruments and his recordings include 1969’s Alchemy (the Third Ear Band’s third album), where he played ‘cello and pipe: 1988’s Loverly Play World Wide Music, on which he played piano and also composed some of the tracks; 2000’s Resonance Volume 8 Number 2/Volume 9 Number 1: LCM the first 25 years, 2001’s Not Necessarily English Music, and the People Band’s 69/70, which was re-mastered in 2009. He was also a nature lover.

Davis was one of the founding members of the People Band in 1969. Led by Mel and drummer Terry Day, they played for a few years and had a central core of musicians but also a flux of others who joined for occasions, periods or just a set or two. They have gathered on occasion to play their brand of free-form jazz under various incarnations like Mummy, Ommu the Smooch and often as the larger collective, the People Band. The core remained Mel Davis, Terry Day, Charlie Hart, Paul Jolly, George Khan, Charlie Hart, Davey Payne and Tony Edwards.

Each musician has gone on to achieve success in different fields. Terry Day formed the London Improvers Orchestra and played with Peter Cusack, Steve Beresford and scored films such as Summer in 1984. Paul Jolly played with Maggie Nicols and George Khan with the Battered Ornaments, Kilburn and the High Roads, and Robert Wyatt. Charlie Hart played with the Kilburns, Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance, The Battered Ornaments and with Wreckless Eric and wrote for films. Over recent years, the People Band have found themselves drawn together several times, playing at events like the Vortex’s 25th celebrations, London’s Café Oto, and projects at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Other people have joined them to become part of the musical family including the guitar and trumpet player (and film director) Mike Figgis.

While the People band have never achieved (and perhaps not sought) recording success per se, they have nevertheless influenced many other players, opening doors and proving that free playing and total improvisation can be accessible to audiences and continually developing. Mel’s importance in driving and encouraging other musicians to play free cannot be overestimated. His improvisation around two, three or four chords when he played was mesmerizing.

He last performed in March 2013 at Café Oto and, a year to the day of his death on October 28, 2014, the People Band core along with many musician friends came together at the same locale again — and Mel’s spirit was invoked to provide a musical event which proved to be both interesting and served to show how both the music and the musicians who play it have moved on. To call this a People Band gig would be wrong, though it was billed as the People Band and friends. This was more of a gathering, a celebration of the life of one of improvisation’s major influences and a great loss to those following in his wake.

The first set opened with a host of musicians on stage producing a wall of sound which had no real beginning, no middle and no definitive end. Musicians came in and out, wove their riffs, chords and vocals into and out of the music, played manic interludes, fell silent. Eventually the individual elements melded together into something of a musical agreement. This set the theme for the rest of the set and musicians on stage were sometimes two, sometimes seven, maybe twelve or more but the theme was free playing and it proved sublime at times, chaotic at others.

It was clear that many of the musicians had not played together for a while. It took a time before they began to really tune in, to listen to each other and find that common ground — but it did come and when it came, it was enveloping. Mike Figgis introduced a short film he had made about Mel Davis. It showed Mel improvising around four chords, and discussing how it was important to feel the music, to treat the chosen chords as precious, guard and treasure them as you improvise around them. His understanding of music was incredible and his explanations put into words what many of us feel about free music.

This was followed by a trumpet/sax duet which Figgis led on trumpet. Having seen Mike play a few times before, I have never heard him play with such emotion or make notes sound quite as sweet. It was a heartfelt tribute to a man who he had affection for. The only problem was, Mel himself probably would not have approved because it was tuneful, melodious and had a ‘lift jazz’ feel to it. But many of the audience liked it, even if one or two musicians, realizing this was in danger of becoming more about Figgis then Davis, heckled him to stop.

The set ended with a little more anarchic mayhem then came the break, followed by a second set of continuous, unbroken free playing by all musicians — some wandering to and from the stage, some remaining centre stage all the time and others sitting silent, listening at last to the others and joining in when they felt it right to do so. Most got to solo, a few seemed to feel happy just being there, savoring the occasion and being part of the tribute to Mel Davis. At last, they were playing free and adjusting to the feel, atmosphere and celebrating the essence which Mel has injected into the music.

What was interesting was how the musicians have changed since they came under the influence of Davis who, at the time was an encourager, mentor, friend and one who dared them to explore, to develop and change — which they have — and, at times, it felt there was a bit of competition going on stage so that the essence of the one-ness which free music can create was lost. However, the background sounds were interesting at times; a lovely flute motif came floating through the chaos at one point, bringing the tone down to a quieter interlude, swiftly replaced by frantic sax and tuba blowing, then back to screeching vocals playing off against the sax of Paul Jolly.

Paul Jolly and Davey Payne provided a sax duet and there were short segues of duets, trios, sextets and full ensemble playing. Terry Day’s drumming ranged from gentle tapping to manic obsession — playing as if the very hoards of hell were behind him. He remains, perhaps even out of all those on stage, one of the most intuitive players I have heard.

With so many musicians coming together, many of whom had not played together for a long while, it took time for the intuitive playing associated with free jazz happened and at times, the listener was perhaps left wondering where, in all this competition, individuality, striving for dominance on stage and obvious miscommunication at times, it was going. In the end, the journey did not matter. Finally, at last and when the individuals gelled, they were back to free playing and when they reached a point where they were fully engaged, listening to each other and playing from the hearts rather than the egos, it worked — beautifully.

There was a poignancy about the event. It will probably never happen again because these musicians are excellent in their own right. To put so many of them on stage together is almost asking for trouble, and they are busy people. One or two seemed a little lost. These players have achieved success individually or in their own small bands or businesses and have undoubtedly changed since they were first drawn together by the free music which Mel held so dear. One or two had perhaps lost the abandonment of self which free playing requires and it took a while for confidence to re-emerge. What came across is how people develop, change and yet remain grounded in free playing, encouraged by people like Mel Davis and, by the end of the night, the music they were producing as a whole was beautiful, engaging, communicative with the listener and each other.

Mel would never have expected the players or the music to stand still. He would have expected it to develop, change and for the people he befriended and encouraged to have moved on and develop their own styles. The fact that at the last, they tuned in, listened and felt each other’s playing was a sign that Mel’s influence was good. There were a few words, a few personal tributes but at the end of things, the music says far more than words — and if Mel Davis could see these friends of his now, how they have grown and changed, I believe he would have whole heartedly approved.

Many musicians were involved, and many of them played different instruments so it is impossible to assign instruments but those on the programme included Terry Day, Mike Figgis, Terry Homan, Tony Edwards, Charlie Hart, Davey Payne, Maggie Nichols, Brian Godding, Ollie Blanchflower, Ben Higham, Russell Hardy, Ed Deane, Paul Jolly, Dave Chambers, Jim Dvorak, Julia Doyle and the artist Gina Southgate — who created large canvas images inspired by the music as they played.

Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Sammy Stein
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