Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Walter Davis Project

The Walter Davis Project is an important new album on Electro-Fi Records that brings together new performances by several blues artists that celebrate the music of the pioneering blues pianist-vocalist-songwriter. Davis was one of the most recorded blues artists (over 200 sides in a 22 year old span), an indication of his popularity amongst African- American record buyers, although his name is probably not well known among many who listen to blues today. Davis' music was what producer, and pianist, Christian Rennenberg termed one of the "citified down home Blues singers" that included Tampa Red, Bumble Bee Slim and Big Bill Broonzy, although he music was a bit more sober and reserved than others were capable of. His songs were 

German pianist Christian Rennenberg put together The Walter Davis Project. In the booklet he explains how he was first introduced to the music of Walter Davis. Then when he was driving various blues musicians from town to town he became educated about Davis. There was Willie Mabon who had a love-hate relationship since back in the States he had to play Davis' songs all the time. As ambivalent as Mabon was, Sunnyland Slim was a Davis fanatic and this led to his immersion in the music of Davis. Besides other pianists like Blind John Davis and Henry Gray, Billy Boy Arnold and Jimmy Rogers were others that helped feed the passion for Davis. 

I will not summarize every detail about what led to this CD as his liner notes does that superbly. It did lead to him recording with Billy Boy Arnold, Jimmy McCracklin, Keith Dunn and Charlie Musselwhite as well as secured a track from Bob Corritore of Henry Townsend. Arnold, Dunn and Musselwhite were fans of Walter Davis' music, but Townsend and McCracklin had deep personal ties to Davis. Townsend played guitar with Davis, being on many recordings particularly those after World War 11, while McCracklin (as revealed during an interview appended after the 17 selections of music) was Davis' godson and deeply influenced musically by Davis.

Rennenberg has a nice two-page analysis of Davis' music noting in certain respects its similarity to certain Delta blues guitarists. His playing built upon licks, phrases and riffs and was very modal in his approach. Davis almost rarely soloed and rarely played uptempo, with the focus on supporting his own lyrics which were focused on relationships and only rarely full of the bragging and swagger of some blues artists. 

Henry Townsend opens this collection up with a recording Nothin' But the Blues, that is pretty close to Davis' style of music. Townsend's piano recordings over the past couple decades of his life will give some a sense of Davis' sound. Rennenberg himself has attempted to channel Davis' approach as well and provides accompaniment on the other selections while the various singers so justice to a variety of Davis' compositions. The lyrics certainly are striking today as sixty years ago. For example not only did they put Ashes In My Whiskey, they also put strychnine in his glass as Keith Dunn sings so ably. Davis was amongst the earliest to record a cover of Robert Johnson's Sweet Home Chicago, which McCracklin reprises here against Rennenberg's rolling piano and Steve Gannon's guitar. Rennenberg himself does his take on Davis playing the dozens. Other choice performances include Charlie Musselwhite's world weary vocal on Friends We Must Part, and we may never see each other anymore and Billy Boy Arnold's Please Remember Me, with some really nice playing from Rennenberg.

Walter Davis was an important and influential individual in the history of the blues who has been overlooked in recent years. Honestly his music will not be for everybody's tastes. There are always artists that one simply may not get or like. Some of this is listening and some is what one's listening background is. For those into 'rocking blues,' Walter Davis' music may be something that are not ready for or simply that does not have appeal for. For others, the substance and depth in Davis' blues will reward close listening. The excellent performances on The Walter Davis Project hopefully will provide an introduction for many into this significant body of blues and hopefully lead them to explore Davis' substantial recorded legacy. Electro-Fi is to be thanked for this important and exceptional release.

I received my review copy from Electro-Fi. For those wanting a good sample of Walter Davis's recordings, check out Please Remember Me which is available as a CD on Amazon from third-party sellers as well as a download (also available as a download on itunes).

Here is Henry Townsend on piano playing in a fashion influenced by Walter Davis.

Here is Walter Davis' original recording of "Ashes in My Whiskey."

No comments: