Versatile rocker aims to please
By David Malitz
Friday, June 29, 2012
Whatever you need Daryl Davis to play, he’ll play it.
“I can play country. I can play jazz, rock-and-roll,” says the show-stopping pianist. “Blues, boogie-woogie, rockabilly, R&B.”
Davis ends his list there, but you get the sense that he could keep on going. He’s regularly shared the stage with such legends as Chuck Berry and the late Pinetop Perkins and has cemented his status as one of the area’s most versatile performers with his Daryl Davis Big Band, a 13-piece ensemble that has been a recent and welcome addition to his deep repertoire of sounds.
On Friday at the Going Out Guide Weekend concert series at Carter Barron Amphitheatre, Davis will be leading his standard five-piece group -- piano, guitar, bass, drums and saxophone -- and it’s sure to be a rollicking set, with lots of boogie, blues and rock.
When you see Davis, 54, behind the piano, it’s clear that’s where he belongs. His fingers are blurs, bouncing off the keys like they have tightly wound springs beneath them. You could call him a showman, but it all looks so effortless. Davis has spent the past 30-plus years bashing away at the ivories, playing about 200 gigs a year, from private shows to clubs to festivals. All of which means he has learned to adapt.
“Whatever the buyer’s looking for, that’s what I’ll give them,” Davis says. Such a statement may surprise those who see musicians as artists with singular, uncompromising creative visions. But Davis writes and arranges his own material and says he enjoys being able to shift from trio to quintet to big band, switching up the set lists and making each gig unique.
Actually, the set lists aren’t switched up as much as they’re nonexistent.
“What happens is when you write out a set list, no matter how well you plan it, you don’t really know who your audience is going to be until you get there,” Davis says. “You start playing these songs on your list, and the audience is not reacting to them the way you expect. You have to think pretty quick, ‘How do I come up with something they are going to react to?’ If you’re not used to doing that, you can’t do it on the spot.”
Davis learned from one of the masters of changing things on the fly: Chuck Berry. Davis has been playing with the rock-and-roll pioneer for 31 years, often sharing the stage with Berry when he makes his way to the East Coast (including as recently as an April gig at the Howard Theatre). To play that long with Berry is a testament to Davis’s talent, as Berry doesn’t tolerate players who don’t know his material or aren’t able to keep up with him onstage.
“But he’s right, though!” Davis says of Berry’s demands for perfection. “That’s rock-and-roll. If you can’t play Chuck Berry, you can’t play rock-and-roll! He invented it -- it’s only three chords! Who cannot play ‘Johnny B. Goode’?”
Davis has emulated Berry -- and Elvis Presley -- since he began playing late in his teens. But when he was younger, he had very different ambitions -- to be a spy or a computer programmer. Davis didn’t even play in his high school band. But eventually, he decided to bail on his dream of becoming James Bond. At 17, he taught himself well enough to be accepted to Howard University’s music school and graduated in 1980 with a degree in jazz. And Davis has been gigging ever since.
His band members have numbered in the hundreds. If you include jam sessions, sit-ins and all the other performances over the past three decades, Davis has probably shared the stage with a couple thousand musicians.
“Oh my goodness, yeah,” he says. “Maybe even a little more.”
And for those who will add to that number in the coming years, here’s a simple piece of advice: Just try to keep up.