Guitarist/composer Matt Davis left Philadelphia in late 2008 to study at the Manhattan School of Music, but before making his exit he created a unique, kaleidoscopic musical portrait of his longtime home. “City of Philadelphia, 2008” was composed for a year-long residency at the late South Street club Tritone, where Davis determined to create a new suite of music each month for his chamber-jazz ensemble Aerial Photograph. He conducted a series of interviews with diverse communities in the city – senior citizens, immigrants, recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, children – and wrote pieces inspired by those conversations, often incorporating audio from the recordings themselves into the music.
Five years later, having become somewhat settled in Manhattan, Davis set out to replicate the project in his newly adopted home. “City of New York, 2013” wrapped up just before the calendar did with a gig at Brooklyn’s ShapeShifter Lab, and now Davis is returning to Philly to perform music from both of the projects with Aerial Photograph at Johnny Brenda’s on Saturday night.
Founded to meld ideas from the jazz and classical worlds, inspired by Davis’ love for Ravel’s String Quartet in F major, Aerial Photograph joins string players with jazz musicians to form something between an adventurous chamber ensemble and an unusually intimate and impressionistic big band. Following a year of relative inactivity with the band in 2007, Davis was casting about for a way to work more with the band when inspiration struck during a haircut on South Street.
“The woman who cut my hair was from Laos,” Davis recalls, “and one day we were talking about our families. She started telling me about trying to escape from Laos when the dictatorship took over, stories of her grandparents trying to bribe fishermen to help them get away. It was amazing because I’d seen this woman every month and a half for years, and suddenly she was telling me this wild, horrific story. It was really inspiring to me, so I started thinking about a way to incorporate the residents of Philadelphia and their stories into music.”
With New York City as his subject for the project’s second incarnation, Davis had an exponentially larger pool of potential interviewees to draw from. The scale of the undertaking was daunting, especially given the relative unfamiliarity of his new surroundings.
“I’d lived in Philly for over ten years when I started writing that music and I knew the city really well,” Davis says. “When I started ‘City of New York, 2013,’ it had been four years since I moved to New York and I was starting to feel like I knew at least how to get around. But you never really feel like you can know New York City. In Philly, I felt like I had a handle on the city and could feel comfortable making generalities about it. You can’t do that in New York – there are five times as many people in a smaller area. It’s a moving target.”
Nevertheless, Davis took aim at that target and came away with a dozen new pieces of music over the course of 2013. Most of the communities he describes in “City of New York, 2013” are the same as those he took on in Philly – only one, victims of crime, was changed for the new version. “That was a hot topic at the time because there was a serious murder rate in Philadelphia,” Davis explains. “I decided not to do that in New York because, although it’s definitely an issue, it didn’t have the same resonance that it did in Philadelphia. And I also like to keep the music optimistic, but there was no silver lining that month. These were horrible experiences and it was impossible to take away anything positive, so I didn’t want to go through that experience again.”
Instead, Davis replaced victims with caretakers as his subject for October. With that substitution, he forged another link in a thematic chain that connects most of the music’s subjects – a universality to be found in the subjects’ personal experiences. “The one unifying characteristic of all of these communities,” he says, “is that any one of the communities that I focus on could be anybody. Everybody’s a child at one point, hopefully everybody will be a senior citizen at some point, everyone can find themselves an immigrant in some capacity.”
With a less extensive network of personal connections in New York, Davis relied more on the help of service organizations to help him locate subjects for his interviews. The interviews themselves reflected the city’s grander scale as well, taking place more in public spaces like parks or diners than in the more intimate homes and workplaces where many of his Philadelphia-set conversations happened. The music that results, however, is just as personal and expressive, distilling the emotions of a wide variety of experiences into gorgeous, elegant sound.
The process of translating people’s personal stories and experiences into musical expression varied from month to month, but would either revolve around focusing on the basic emotions expressed, abstracted and translated, or take more concrete formal paths. While spending a day speaking to seniors at a care facility, one subject that came up repeatedly was routine, the way in which the elderly subjects’s lives were regimented by habit and discipline. With that in mind, Davis created a steady, repetitive vamp for January’s “City of Reminiscence.”
In addition to his own compositions, Davis folds several imaginatively rearranged tunes into several of the suites. April’s children-centered “City of Beginnings” includes reharmonized versions of kids’ rhymes “This Old Man” and “Twinkle Twinkle,” while July’s “City of Need” concludes with a melancholy “Brother Can You Spare a Dime.”
The deeper pool of musicians in New York allowed Davis greater freedom to write whatever the mood required, confident that his band could pull off his creative leaps with little rehearsal as he gathered them into the studio each month (the music is available for download at his website, mattdavisguitar.com). “The players I worked with in Philly were amazing,” he’s quick to say, “but they had a more personal approach to the music that meant some of the music was out of their comfort zone. If the string players were classically trained, I might have shied away from writing a bebop line because I didn’t think it would be possible to get it together in two hours to record it. Whereas here, I could write anything and they would nail it the first time out. I didn’t feel penned in by ability or reading or style.”
Having just completed his year-long exploration of New York, Davis is hesitant to draw a singular picture of the city, which he calls “a huge megalopolis, a wild and crazy place that’s always spinning.” But he looks forward to venturing into other cities in the future, perhaps revisiting the concept sporadically to expand his approach to creating for the malleable Aerial Photograph. “I’d like to try a different city every five or six years,” he says, “and maybe make it a lifelong pursuit.”
Matt Davis’ Aerial Photograph plays Johnny Brenda’s on Saturday, January 4th, with Joshua Stamper and Murmuration. The 21+ show begins at 9 p.m., tickets are $10 and available here.