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Content to Fly Under the Radar: Charles Davis Quartet, Thursday, May 18, at the Figge Art Museum PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Wednesday, 17 May 2006 02:18

Neither Tardo Hammer nor Charles Davis can explain their success in jazz.

Hammer, who has been called “the best jazz pianist you’ve never heard,” said he never planned on a music career when he was starting out in the late 1970s.

“To me it was ridiculous to think of a career,” he said in a phone interview this week. “There wasn’t a lot of work, and jazz was really not popular. ... You hardly saw an upright bass player, and almost every piano player had to get a Fender Rhodes. If you played ‘Straight Ahead,’ that was considered something that was just about to vanish off the planet, holding onto something that was ready to expire.

“I was thinking, ‘I’ll do this now because this is what I love to do. I’ll go where this is and see what happens. I’ll worry about tomorrow tomorrow.’”

Nearly 30 years later, Hammer has stumbled into that jazz career, performing regularly with singer Annie Ross and also releasing three discs as a bandleader. He’ll be playing in a quartet with the venerable saxophonist Davis at the Figge Art Museum later this week. (The pair will be joined by drummer Jimmy Wormworth and bassist Lee Hudson.) 

 

Davis didn’t map out a career, either. He said in an interview that he always wanted to be a professional musician, but he said that his success – performing with Sun Ra, Billie Holiday, Ben Webster, and Dinah Washington – has been due more to existence than persistence, “by being there and being around.”

It helps to be talented, too. In praising his last album as a bandleader, R.J. DeLuke in Allaboutjazz.com said that Davis is “a smooth storyteller with a sonorous sound influenced by his upbringing in Chicago.”

And of Hammer’s latest CD, David A. Ortmann in the same publication wrote: “The pianist doesn’t mess with the bebop blueprint; rather, he excels at executing its fundamental elements. Neither franticly busy nor gratuitously virtuosic, most of the tracks move along at a pace that invites the listener to pick up on telling details and appreciate the trio’s interaction.”

Davis said he picked up the saxophone as a teenager, and his style has been informed by all the people he’s played with. “You’re not going to learn everything from one person,” said the sax player, who will turn 73 on Saturday. “It’s not one; it’s all.”

Hammer echoed that comment, noting that Davis always seems to be learning new tricks. “He’s always developing,” the 48-year-old pianist said. “He’s always got something new.”

Asked what he liked about working with Davis, Hammer half-joked, “It’s easier on me because I don’t have to plan the sets. Or speak.”

Davis said that Hammer is very rhythmic player and has a great sense of harmonics. But he kept returning to a refrain when speaking about the pianist. “I enjoy performing with him,” Davis said.

The Charles Davis Quartet spent some time in the recording studio three weeks ago, Hammer said, and although there’s no release date for the sessions (and no record label at this point), he expects the CD to be available in the next six months. Davis added that the group just came back from Italy and Spain, and hopes to return to Europe in December.

About the show at the Figge, both Hammer and Davis cited the same tunes as probable highlights: a treatment of Herbie Nichols’ “Wandering Bushmen” – full of odd time signatures, Hammer said – and a fresh arrangement of Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale.”

While Davis had some sense that he wanted to be a full-time jazz musician, Hammer didn’t. He chose the piano by “necessity,” he said. “Most of the other kids that were playing instruments had guitars and drums. They had the cooler instruments. ... I was relegated to piano, ’cause it was less prestigious. ... It just wasn’t as loud as the other instruments.”

His first professional gig was at a New Year’s Eve show when he was 15, when a friend’s doo-wop band was double-booked and sent Hammer’s jazz outfit to one venue. They got fired shortly before midnight.

“It’s a slow learning curve to improvise,” Hammer said. The band could play some of the jazz repertoire, but only one song that people knew. “And then the solos were hit-and-miss. We were just finding our way. But we thought we were good. So we were kind of insulted that they’d even think of firing us.”

Hammer splits his time between teaching and playing, and the income from teaching affords him the opportunity to pick and choose his performing engagements. “I can politely say I’m busy,” Hammer said. “Sometimes it’s really advantageous to not take your instrument out. ... When you go to play, you play music the way that you want to play it.”

And that satisfaction is what drives him. “I don’t think I was ever fame-motivated,” he said. “I like it when people like the music that I’m doing.

“I was never the guy to walk into a room full of people, and there’s a piano there, and say, ‘Oh, let me perform. Notice me. Let me show you what I can do.’ I played music for myself and socially amongst other musicians, and wasn’t really thinking of performing it until people came and offered me money to do it. Which overcame whatever introversion I was dealing with.”

As for finding more fame and money through major labels, Davis sounded more interested than Hammer but suggested he has all the time in the world. “We’re still working on it,” he said.

The Charles Davis Quartet will perform at 7 p.m. in the Figge Art Museum’s John Deere Auditorium. The event will be followed by a dessert and wine reception at Restaurant 225 at the Figge. Tickets are $35 and can be purchased at (http://www.restaurant225.com), or by visiting or calling (563-326-7225) the restaurant.

An audio recording (mp3, 24 minutes, 5.5 megabytes) of the
Reader interview with Tardo Hammer is available here.
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