“This is my year to play,” says Anthony Davis, composer, pianist, and professor of music at UCSD for the past 16 years. “Last year, I mostly concentrated on writing, but this project with Wadada is really opening up a lot of performance opportunities. Already, we’ve done three nights in São Paulo, three nights at Roulette in New York, and this week, we’re headed to Austria.”
The project Davis refers to is Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers, a four-disc release containing four and a half hours of music that was nominated for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in music — it made the final cut of three.
The pianist came to the La Jolla campus in 1997, after teaching at Yale and Harvard, and isn’t planning on leaving. “It’s a very supportive environment. Being here has afforded me the opportunity to pursue many creative projects.”
This isn’t the first time Davis, a University City resident, was nominated for the Pulitzer — in 1984 his composition “Wayang #4” for piano and orchestra made the short list, and he also wrote the music for playwright Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, which won the Pulitzer for drama in 1993 and a Tony award as well.
Ten Freedom Summers is Smith’s musical distillation of the Civil Rights movement, scored for jazz quartet/quintet and chamber group, with titles like “Dred Scott 1857,” “Emmit Till: Defiant, Fearless,” and “Buzzsaw: The Myth of a Free Press.” I asked Davis about how much work it took to prepare for the project.
“Wadada’s compositions are very challenging. He uses a special system of notation, and we had to blend with a conductor and small orchestra, so we rehearsed for a week, did three nights of performances at REDCAT (Disney Concert Hall), then took a week to record it.”
“I knew this had the potential to become really big,” says Davis, reflecting on the multiple honors the music is up for. “Wadada has been one of the most original and creative composer’s in the world for many years. I thought that when we first started playing in the early 1970s. This recognition is long overdue.”
Davis turned down the opportunity to become a household name in 1971 when he declined an invitation to join the Grateful Dead after they heard him playing in a small club in Iowa. “I was 18 years old and still living at home. My parents said, ‘You’ve gotta finish college!’” Any regrets? “No, not really. I had a very practical reason for staying in college. The draft was still on, and I had a very low number. All things considered, things have worked out really well for me.”