Richard Davis turned 93 last week. He was born in Chicago on April 15, 1930, and studied under the legendary Captain Walter Dyett at DuSable High School. He got his first big professional break working with pianist Don Shirley in the 1950s, then moved deeper into jazz, touring with Sarah Vaughan and recording with tons of people throughout the 1960s, most notably Andrew Hill, with whom he made six albums between 1963 and 1965. He’s on Eric Dolphy’s Iron Man and Out to Lunch, Pharoah SandersKarma, Bobby Hutcherson’s Dialogue, Joe Henderson’s In ’n’ Out, and was a member of the Creative Construction Company, a short-lived all-star band featuring Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, Leroy Jenkins, Muhal Richard Abrams, and Steve McCall.

He’s also known in the rock world for his playing on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and one track each from Bruce Springsteen’s Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and Born to Run, but I’ve never heard any of those records. (Really.)

Anyway, everything I just listed barely scratches the surface. Richard Davis, according to Discogs, has appeared on more than 800 albums. He’s a genuine legend, someone whose contribution to the history and evolution of jazz music is pretty much incalculable. (Beyond his recording and performing career, he was also one of William Parker’s early teachers.) But in this piece, I’m focusing on just two albums he released on the Muse label: 1972’s Epistrophy & Now’s the Time, and 1973’s Dealin’.

As its title hints, Epistrophy & Now’s the Time features just two tracks, each of which takes up an entire side of the LP. Both were recorded on September 7, 1972, during a live performance at a long-vanished NYC venue, Jazz City. Davis’s band on that night included tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan, trumpeter Hannibal Marvin Peterson, pianist Joe Bonner, and drummer Freddie Waits.

The group’s version of Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy” starts out extremely abstract. All we hear is Davis’s bass, bouncing in that early ’70s rubber-band style, with a few sparse notes from Jordan. It’s not until over a minute into the piece that Bonner and Waits enter, with Peterson still waiting in the wings. The saxophonist tackles Monk’s melody, while the pianist lays down powerful, sweeping chords that periodically erupt into post-gospel runs that may bring to mind Bobby Few or Don Pullen. Davis remains front and center throughout, every bit as active as the pianist. Four minutes in, Waits strikes the snare rim sharply and repeatedly, and Bonner launches into a higher gear as someone — maybe the drummer, maybe Peterson, who’s still staying quiet — shouts exhortations. Soon Jordan is back, taking a high-energy solo as someone whoops and hollers. Finally, six and a half minutes into the piece, the trumpeter enters. Peterson, now known as Hannibal Lokumbe, was a powerhouse player in the ’70s, firing off comet-like upper-register runs, and that’s exactly what he does here. This entire piece, which runs nearly 23 minutes, is a sustained ecstatic blowout, which may seem utterly antithetical to the spirit of Monk, who was often reticent to the point of silence and whose music was filled with dramatic intervals and sudden rhythmic lurches. Bonner in particular is about as “un-Monkish” as it’s possible to be, sweeping across the keys like a harpist in the piece’s final five minutes, as Davis bows his bass to create a sound like a wail of anguish. And yet, the melody — especially when Jordan and Peterson play it together as the music winds down — is so strong that everyone’s love for its composer comes through.

The band kicks off the bebop standard “Now’s the Time,” written by Charlie Parker in 1945, with a ferocious drum solo from Waits. Davis plays a few absent-minded notes early on, as though tuning up, but then lets the drummer have his moment. This piece is even more of a rip-roaring blowout than “Epistrophy,” with everyone, including Davis, taking high-impact solos. But there’s definitely an early ’70s spiritual vibe present as well, as during the bowed portion of Davis’s solo, someone — probably Jordan — is playing cowbell-like percussion, and someone else, likely Peterson, is chanting and softly playing a keening Middle Eastern-sounding reed instrument. The whole thing goes even farther out than Pharoah Sanders would have, heading in an Art Ensemble of Chicago or even Milford Graves direction. The trumpet begins to offer a single, repeated figure over and over again until the tenor returns, playing Parker’s familiar melody, and then they’re back into high-flying bebop territory, demonstrating just how far you can stretch jazz out of shape and still be able to bring it back. It ends as it began, with an eruption of drums, and then there’s a second of silence before the audience explodes in applause and cheers. It’s been quite a journey — 22 1/2 minutes — but as wild as things have gotten, no one has ever given the slightest indication of hesitancy or uncertainty. They knew where they were going, even if the route indicated itself an inch at a time.

(This album was briefly available on CD, with a third track appended — a 17-minute version of Jordan’s “Highest Mountain.” I’ve never heard it, and the only copy for sale on Discogs, a Japanese import, costs $250.)

Dealin’ is a studio album from almost exactly a year later — it was recorded on September 14, 1973 — and features many of the same musicians. Jordan, Peterson and Waits are all present, with Paul Griffith on keyboards (piano, organ, electric piano and clavinet) and David Spinozza on guitar. But it’s about as different from Epistrophy & Now’s the Time as possible.

Davis wrote all the music himself, and plays electric bass on most of the record, as Waits lays down loose, rattling junkyard funk beats and Spinozza delivers stinging, post-Grant Green guitar. Griffith goes back and forth between Stevie Wonder-esque clavinet and the kind of finger-zapping electric piano and organ heard on Miles Davis’s On the Corner. Jordan and Peterson are mostly acting like a soul horn section, playing unison lines with occasional flourishes, but not taking as many long solos as one might expect. (“Sweet’n” is a ballad showcase for Jordan, but it’s less than four minutes long.) The first two tracks, “What’d You Say” and the title track, are seriously hard, back-country funk somewhere between early Funkadelic and the soundtracks to Sanford & Son or Fat Albert. On the third track, “Julie’s Rag Doll,” Davis even sings a few lines — he sounds a little like Dr. John. At the end of the album, he returns to the upright bass, taking a stunning solo on “Sorta” and walking the group through the nearly 11-minute “Blues for Now.”

Here’s something weird: The liner notes claim that this music was written as the soundtrack to a movie of the same name, in which Davis played the lead role — “a latter-day Christ figure, who works as a junkman during the week. Every Sunday, he takes a bunch of kids to the park in his wagon and talks to them about life.” It sounds like a kind of Sounder-meets-season-4-of-The Wire thing, and there’s a lot of detail about the filmmaking process and even specific scenes…but I couldn’t find any trace of such a film actually existing. There’s no profile for its alleged director, Roy Inman, on IMDB, nor is there an entry for a movie called Dealin’. I’m left wondering if the project (which the notes also claim was intended as the pilot for a TV series) ran out of money, or was lost…or if these liner notes are some kind of Jorge Luis Borges-ian metafictional experiment, or a way of explaining/justifying Richard Davis’s choice to make such a gutbucket blues/soul/funk album, so different from anything else in his catalog.

Whatever the deal actually is, Dealin’ and Epistrophy & Now’s the Time are great albums, if depressingly hard to come by. (Savoy bought the Muse catalog in 2002, but Savoy is now part of Concord Music Group, and they’re more focused on repackaging old bebop records than shining a light on the amazing jazz that was being made in the early ’70s.) Find a way to hear this stuff; you’ll be glad you did.

Phil Freeman

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