Anthony Davis, the estimable American composer, pianist, and bandleader born in Paterson, NJ, on February 20, 1951, celebrates his 65th birthday today. Having declined an invitation to join the Grateful Dead as a 20-year-old Yale student in 1971 (an incident reported in 2011 by George Varga in the San Diego Union-Tribune), Davis initially came to wide renown as a jazz pianist - he's fabulous on the David Murray Octet albums Ming and Home - and for the string of groundbreaking recordings he made for the Gramavision label during the 1980s, on which he combined strains of European and African-American composition and jazz improvisation with pronounced gamelan influences.
These records - in particular Episteme, Hemispheres, Middle Passage, and Undine, plus the glorious I've Known Rivers, a trio with flutist James Newton and cellist Abdul Wadud - are long out of print, languishing along with everything else in the sorely missed Gramavision catalog. (When will someone rescue these lost treasures?!)
Also missing is the Gramavision recording of Davis's milestone first opera, X: the Life and Times of Malcolm X, which was developed by Philadelphia's American Music Theater Festival and had its premiere at New York City Opera in 1986. I suspect that the Koch International Classics recording of his third opera, Tania (1992), a surrealistic spin on the Patty Hearst abduction saga, is also out of print; Amistad (1997), his fourth opera, remains available on a New World recording featuring the Lyric Opera of Chicago led by Dennis Russell Davies. Davis's second opera, Under the Double Moon (1989), was not recorded, nor evidently were his subsequent operas, Wakonda's Dream (2007) and Lilith (2009).
Davis has continued to play in jazz settings, notably with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quartet, while also keeping up his concert-music and opera output. One terrific relatively recent piece for chamber orchestra and improvising soloist, You Have the Right to Remain Silent (2007), originally composed for Miller Theatre's Pocket Concertos series, is included alongside two older scores, Wayang V (1984) and Notes from the Underground (1988) on a warmly recommended CD by conductor Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.
Davis's latest opera, Five, about the Central Park Five case, will have its premiere on Nov. 12, 2016, at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, NJ, mounted by Trilogy: An Opera Company. Mark your calendar now.
"Jazz: A New Anthony Davis," John Rockwell, The New York Times, Oct. 19, 1981
"Anthony Davis - Beyond Jazz," Robert Palmer, The New York Times, Nov. 15, 1981
"For Composer Anthony Davis, X Marks the Premiere of What May Be the First Major Black Opera," Barbara Rowes, People, Oct. 6, 1986
"'Amistad,' a meditation on history and its consequences, fits an epic tale with a soaring libretto into an undersized two hours," Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times, Dec. 1, 1997
"Fleishedik and Milchedik," Francis Davis, Village Voice, May 25, 2004
"Of Coyotes, Men and Tribal Memory" [review, Wakonda's Dream], Steve Smith, The New York Times, March 9, 2007
"At Spoleto Festival, Revisiting a Fateful Chapter in Slavery," Daniel J. Wakin, The New York Times, May 24, 2008
"Revised Amistad makes its mark," Wes Blomster, Opera Today, May 28, 2008
"By Any Means Necessary: An Activist's Life As Opera," Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, May 13, 2010
"'Lilith' a family affair; in this family you start young," George Varga, San Diego Union-Tribune, Nov. 30, 2009
"Anthony Davis at 60: Jazz, opera and beyond," George Varga, San Diego Union-Tribune, Feb. 13, 2011
Anthony Davis's most significant work is largely unavailable through authorized channels, out of print and invisible to streamers like Spotify. It's effectively impossible, then, to provide a serious representation of his achievement. Right now on Spotify you'll find under Davis's name just three recordings: Of Blues and Dreams, a 1978 Sackville session with Leroy Jenkins, Abdul Wadud, and Pheeroan ak Laff; the Lyric Opera of Chicago recording of Amistad; and Cerulean Landscape, a terrific duet with saxophonist and former Davis student Jason Robinson, issued by Clean Feed in 2010. A clutch of sideman recordings, including the two essential David Murray Octet albums Ming and Home, are also available via streaming services. One more must-hear you'll find on those services but really should acquire while it's around: the Boston Modern Orchestra Project CD featuring Notes from the Underground, You Have the Right to Remain Silent, and Wayang V.