Richard Davis at Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society with John Carter, Andrew Cyrille and Bobby Bradford 2/28/87© Brian McMillen


Evan Gregor


Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Music in the College of Arts and Communications William Paterson University


The goal of this study is to develop an understanding of Richard Davis’ unique style of bass accompaniment, which is both highly personal and successful in a variety of idioms. A condensed personal and musical biography of Davis was compiled. A diverse array of recordings which feature Davis was selected in order to cover a broad range of his playing. Selected pieces from these recordings were transcribed. Characteristic musical devices of Davis’ that span the performances were identified, and various examples of each device were provided and discussed. Tables were created to demonstrate which device Davis used at each particular section of a composition, as well as the general activity of the other band members. Analysis of these tables illustrates patterns and logic in Davis’ playing that are critical to his compositional style. It is hoped that the resulting data will instill a new awareness and respect for this master musician, prompt further study and transcription of his work, and provide specific techniques for the bassist interested in expanding and developing a personalized accompaniment style.



One of the more significant and virtuosic bassists in the history of the instrument, Richard Davis was critical to the musical success of numerous ensembles from 1954 to the present. Creative and commanding yet supportive, Davis’ bass accompaniment is always musically clear while projecting emotion, energy and confidence. Utilizing sudden, radical shifts in register (spanning the entire range of the bass), varied contours, rhythmic intensity, and many other devices to continually push the music into new directions, Davis’ playing has a strong element of both musical and technical fearlessness. In a landscape where the bass is often expected to provide an unobtrusive background for the soloist, Davis’ uncompromisingly individual approach can often sound radical and unexpected to those less familiar with this style. Reviewer Scott Thomas described it on a recording session with Van Morrison asdomineering, aggressive, and sometimes violent (p. 2). This is not to suggest that Richard Davis ignores his duties as a functional accompanist—nothing could be further from the truth. While strength, intensity and creativity may be Davis’ most immediately noticeable qualities, analysis of his accompaniment behind soloists reveals a studied musical sophistication and sense of architecture. Davis achieves a desirable balance of spirit and intellect that always serves the soloist and the music.

Perhaps the most heavily referenced attribute of Richard Davis in interviews and literature is his versatility— his unusual reputation as a first class performer in a variety of idioms. Having worked with quintessential artists in the classical, pop, avant-garde and straight-ahead jazz arenas, Davis clearly is able to handle any task at hand. A significant distinction however, is that Davis is able to handle it in his own unique way. While some diverse artists are hailed as chameleons for their ability to sound traditionally correct in a variety of situations, Davis draws from his wide-ranging experiences and incorporates them in ways that give him a unique ‘voice’ as a bass accompanist. This voice shines in all musical situations, while adding originality and excitement to the music beyond serving a purely functional role.


Goal of the Study

The purpose of this study is to develop an understanding of Richard Davis’ highly personalized accompaniment style and how it is maintained across a variety of idioms. Davis’ playing emphasizes the unexpected, pushing the traditional harmonic and rhythmic boundaries while still fulfilling the necessary role of his instrument. Unlike many stylists who require a certain musical framework in order for their specific approach to sound appropriate, Davis has the unique ability to successfully maintain his personality in several diverse musical situations.

Because much of music education is based upon presenting the “rules” for a particular context, many musicians have a difficult time finding a unique voice that translates regardless of the setting (if they are even aware of this as a possibility). This is particularly true in the case of bassists, as the majority of bass accompaniment literature seldom delves deeper than the development of functionality—playing harmonically and rhythmically accurate phrases specific to that genre. Analysis of Davis’ performances demonstrates how truly flexible these genre-specific “requirements” are however, as he is able to incorporate a wide range of musical devices and influences within a single composition.

While some theoretical texts elaborate on the subtleties of the bass’ impact on an ensemble based on specific musical decisions (such as playing pedal points, counterpoint, riffs, and others), there is little discussion of how the utilization of these techniques can lead to an individual style in bass accompaniment.

The emergence of fresh, original voices that expand upon the tradition while pushing new boundaries is, and always has been, critical to the evolution of jazz. Therefore, the discussion and analysis of one who was able to achieve this with particular success is invaluable; not only will it expose students of the music to a concrete example of such progressive individuality, it will provide tools towards achieving it. A unique musical personality should be seen as a standard goal, not a rare exception. Those fearing the career -inhibiting limitations of being too distinctive in the supportive domain of bass playing need only peruse scope and depth of Davis’ resume. Clearly it is not only possible to contribute something unique as an accompanying bassist, it is desirable.

In addition to the musical value of studying Richard Davis and his style, my thesis also addresses the general lack of published transcription and analysis of his bass playing. Those sources which mention him have a tendency to discuss his diversity merely by listing his varied employers, without getting into the specifics of his musical personality. Others focus entirely on his contributions to free music or race relations.

Chapter II: A Review of Selected Literature


Biographical Sources

Richard Davis’ Chicago upbringing provided him with a plethora of educational, social, and professional experiences, along with proximity to several important bassists and mentors. Combined with talent and a strong work ethic, Davis’ willingness to take full advantage of these opportunities was critical in his development.

The origins of Davis’ strength, fearlessness and diversity can all be traced to his formative experiences. Bennett (1999), in a condensed biographical entry in the Grove Dictionary, reveals that one of Davis’ earliest musical experiences was singing as a bass voice along with his brothers in choir (p. 1). His exposure to the double bass is revealed in Panken’s 1993 radio interview, which focused Davis’ upbringing and musical experiences. As a student at the acclaimed DuSable High School (whose alumni include Dinah Washington, Milt Hinton, Gene Ammons and Clifford Jordan, among others) Davis approached music director Walter Henry Dyett requesting to become involved in the program and study bass. An extremely diverse musician who worked as a concert violinist, pianist, and banjoist in swing bands, Dyett encouraged this open-mindedness in his students and focused on the universal skills in music combined with a positive and professional attitude. (pp. 1-2). Trained in a variety of instruments, Dyett did teach Davis the fundamentals of the instrument (Davis,) which Davis further developed in classical studies with bassist Rudolf Fahsbender of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Bennett p. 1).

In addition to school ensembles, Dyett would include students on professional gigs playing ballroom dances and jazz charts, which was an invaluable learning experience for Davis (Bennett p. 1). In a 1997 course handbook for a class that Davis teaches in Madison, WI, he credits Dyett as one of the most significant influences in preparing him (and many others) for his diverse career, as well shaping his outlook and attitude in a positive manner. Most former students, including Davis, remained in contact with Dyett for decades after leaving the DuSable High School (p. 6).

The particularly active music scene in Chicago also provided constant opportunities to hear live music, participate in jam sessions, exchange recordings, and rub shoulders with master bassists Wilbur Ware, Israel Crosby, Eddie Calhoun, and Karl Byrom (Davis, Panken p. 5). Davis did not imitate any of these players, but rather looked up to them as examples of making a living as great bassists (Davis). In Bennett, Davis talks of his obsessive desire to learn not only the mechanics of playing jazz but also the history of it, giving further weight to Davis’ solid traditional framework. This dedication quickly led to professional engagements and a number of on-the-bandstand growing experiences. (Bennett p. 1). This intense and diverse musical background helps to demystify Davis’ nearly unprecedented career success in a variety of idioms.

One Davis’ most significant early mentors was the flamboyant free jazz icon Sun-Ra, who met with Davis frequently on Sundays early in his development to talk about music and life; they also worked together professionally. Davis attributes as much if not more value to Sun-Ra’s individuality, philosophical ideas and independence as he does to his music (Panken pp. 6-7). This influence provides some insight into Davis’ uncompromisingly adventurous and personal approach to bass playing. As he continued to develop musically and artistically while studying at the Vandercook College of Music (Bennett p. 1), Davis played his first significant gig—in terms of exposure and consistent work—with pianist Ahmad Jamal in 1952. In 1954 he traded the Ahmad Jamal gig to bassist Johnny Pate, in order to work in New York City with Don Shirley (Panken pp. 9-10). Interestingly, fellow Chicago native Israel Crosby would later produce his most significant and acclaimed work with Jamal in 1951-53 and 1957-62 (Coolman p. 28). Davis revealed to Panken that he was terrified by his decision to move to New York (p. 11), but it ultimately allowed his career to truly take flight.

After two years working with Shirley and playing various sideman gigs in New York City, Davis’ most significant break occurred: he received a surprise phone call from Sara Vaughn’s office. Though he was not sure specifically what led to the call (he had not worked with Vaughn in any capacity before), Davis has stated that the most likely scenario involved a recommendation from Roy Haynes, Vaughn’s legendary drummer, whom Davis met and worked with in Chicago (Panken p. 11). Working and traveling consistently with such a high-profile artist as Vaughn provided Davis with significant exposure and musical growth. Besides the functional demands of supporting a vocalist (such as using appropriate dynamics, following her cues, tempo, and unusual keys, shaping the music to match her emotional projection,) Davis cites Vaughn as an influence in phrasing and a sonic model for creating a more lyrical bowed bass sound (Henken p. 1).

Davis’ work ethic, talent, and constant search for new experiences all contributed to the development of his career. While many musicians with a gig of such caliber as Sarah Vaughn’s might give up at least some of their other activities, Davis’ boundless energy led him to take on several other tasks simultaneously: earning a masters degree at the Manhattan School of Music, freelancing in symphonies and Broadway musicals, recording for pop singers, and working with many high level jazz and experimental musicians in the city (Bennett pp. 1-2). For example, Bennett describes how Davis “recalled” a day where he worked with Stravinsky in the afternoon and Kenny Dorham in the evening. This picture encapsulates Davis’ life as a bassist at that time (Bennett p. 1).

After leaving Vaughn’s band, Davis met saxophonist Eric Dolphy randomly in the subway one afternoon. Davis was hired on the spot for a gig at the Five-Spot, presumably based on his reputation (Panken p. 12). This began a long term, significant relationship that produced records like Out to Lunch and Iron man, well known among jazz musicians as important records that contributed greatly to free jazz and the avant-garde.

Well established as one of the best and most versatile bassists on the jazz scene, Davis was a natural choice for the coveted bass chair when Thad Jones formed his big band with Mel Lewis. Davis worked with Jones from 1965–1972, appearing on at least eleven albums (Big Band Paradise). One of the most unique aspects of the Jones / Lewis Orchestra was a level of spontaneity and creativity that rivaled many small-groups. Joachim E. Berendt describes the band as the “musically most convincing of all more recent big bands… for most of the seventies,” (p. 420) noting that:

“as swinging as it was in the traditional sense, [it] was full of sounds and ideas never heard before. Jazz from all periods—including the jazz of the sixties and the music of John Coltrane and the post-Coltrane era—merged in the compositions and arrangements…” (p. 420).

Interestingly, such a statement could be used to describe Richard Davis’ playing as well. Extended solos, staggering rhythmic flexibility within the entire orchestra, and a high level of interaction between rhythm section and the ensemble and soloist are all instantly apparent when listening to any recordings of the band. Richard Davis’ fearless creativity and instrumental abilities were key in establishing these qualities, as his sonic and musical concepts were so clear and strong that they could not help but push the music down several creative avenues. Evidence of this will be revealed in the examples presented from two separate Davis performances of the same composition with the orchestra.

After establishing himself on the international jazz scene, Davis continued broadening his professional experience with a variety of world class artists. Bennett (1999) focuses on listing notable Davis recordings, performances, and musical relationships within the jazz idiom. The absence of pop recordings and symphonic relationships is curious, but the list (which includes J.J. Johnson, Sonny Stitt, Milt Jackson, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, and many others,) is effective in indicating that Davis was clearly in demand among the highest caliber of “straight-ahead” jazz performers. His work with these artists reiterates that Davis was able to provide the harmonically sound, unobtrusive, swinging bass accompaniment that straight-ahead jazz requires, while simultaneously working in various free / modern situations at an equally high level.


Works That Include Transcription and Analysis of Richard Davis

An essential prerequisite for fully appreciating Richard Davis’ style is an understanding of how accompaniment decisions—rhythmic and harmonic density, playing softer or stronger tone, and placement of musical devices (pedal points, riffs)—are critical in shaping the music. Because these issues are more complex and subtle than choosing appropriate notes for chords, they are rarely given an in-depth exploration in bass method texts. Though her work is a broad study of jazz improvisation’s many components through quotes, transcription/analysis and research, the Grooving and Feeling” section about the bass in Monsen (1966) addresses this gap in bass literature with a particularly insightful discussion on the role of the instrument. Monsen uses quotes and transcribed examples of Richard Davis to demonstrate her examples, in addition to those of bassist Cecil McBee and others. A quote from Richard Davis best summarizes this discussion, as well as provides an excellent overview for the in depth analysis that will occur later in this thesis.

… There’s certain ingredients that make you reach a certain level [of intensity]: repetition, change of octave, sometimes change of coloration of the notes, a repetitive phrase that catches on to something. You know, a musician doesn’t talk about this too much, but it happens–because that’s where it’s at (Monson p. 38).

My purpose in this thesis is to “talk about this-” the use of various ingredients which elevate the music to higher levels of intensity. Though important issues are addressed adequately for Monson’s purposes, further detail and additional musical examples are needed in order for bassists to utilize these ideas within their own playing. While Monson’s written discussion of pedal-point is particularly strong, the musical example provided is suspect. Monsen points to a few repeated notes in Richard Davis’ walking line behind Freddie Hubbard—not nearly achieving the liberating effect of an extended, static bass note as discussed.

A historical analysis of the great bassists in jazz is helpful in understanding Richard Davis’ place, as well as significance in the development of, the evolution of the instrument. Todd Coolman (1985) presents the history of jazz bass playing through study and analysis of the masters who created it. Coolman discusses, in chronological order, many of jazz’s most influential bassists. The format is consistent for each player; a brief biographical summary, musical transcriptions, followed bullet-point analyses of each piece. Even briefly paging through and examining the transcriptions of the bassists throughout history, one clearly sees an increase of range, chromaticism, and rhythmic embellishment, as the years progress. Davis’ transcriptions (which are actually quite simple in comparison to some included in this presentation) represent a rather large leap in all of these areas of musical sophistication in comparison to the bassists preceding him. Because great bassists that Davis cites as direct influences in the Panken interview (Jimmy Blanton, Israel Crosby) are also included, one can directly see and hear their influence on Davis.

Coolman chooses “versatile” as the best single word to describe Davis. He refers to Davis as having significance in freeing the bass from its traditional function through his playing. Davis not only broke the mold by playing unique “free” music with Dolphy and others, but was able to successfully integrate elements of this music into more traditional settings and make it work. Coolman chooses two very effective transcriptions (walking bass on “Shiny Stalkings,” solo on “Like Someone in Love,”) that illustrate this point. Coolman’s bullet-point summary of Davis’ performance on Shiny Stalkings reads very much like a list of headings in a more detailed analysis of Davis’ overall concept. Coolman lists:

  • Angular bassline construction
  • Exploits full range of the bass
  • Overall virtuosity
  • Chromaticism
  • Variety of ideas
  • “Loose” rhythmic feel
  • Rhythmic variety (p. 69).

This is an effective summary of citing general concepts/techniques in Davis’ performances, though it invites a far more detailed discussion than Coolman presents. Such details will be provided in my analysis. The “variety of ideas” category is particularly relevant to my thesis, which will be clearly demonstrated in the musical examples.

Detailed analysis of other bassists is useful not only in demonstrating how widely varied personal styles can be, but to show the contrast between the more traditional approach (favored by the majority of bassists) and one like Davis’. Reilly (2006) examines the contributions of George Mraz to the Thad Jones Mel / Lewis Orchestra in greater detail, through biographical, discography and interview research. Analysis of Mraz’ performance on “The Little Pixie” on Live in Tokyo (released 1997) is also included.

After transcribing sections of Mraz’ bassline, Reilly focuses on the overall shape of his performance and how it relates to the activities of the soloist. There is far less analysis of specific pitches and musical motifs than my analysis of Davis, which is warranted by the dramatic difference in style between the two players. Mraz’ performance is almost entirely quarter note walking through the harmony, whereas Davis incorporates pedal points, riffs, radical register changes and other ideas that require specific explanation and mapping. The value in this comparison is that the performances are so radically different, yet they are from the exact same chart with the same band. This demonstrates that it is Davis’ personality that accounts for his unique performance, rather than something warranted by the Thad Jones / Mel Lewis Orchestra.


Works related to the pieces analyzed

The actual chord changes a musician sees on the page when performing a piece of written music can certainly influence his/her thought process when creating improvising bass or melodic lines. Therefore it is valuable, when possible, to view the original score or sheet music of a composition which is to be analyzed. The score to “The Little Pixie” by Thad Jones provides the specific harmonic approach used for this “rhythm changes” (a chord progression based on George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”) composition as well as written out basslines. This provides valuable insight into Davis’ interpretation of the written music.


Chapter III: Method of Study

In order to demonstrate the consistency, strength, and flexibility of Davis’ musical voice, it is necessary to analyze his playing in a variety of situations. My selection of pieces is designed to explore the widest range possible in terms of stylistic diversity (both in the music itself and the musicians performing), as well as the highest level of musical expression. As a critical component of this study involves expanding preconceived ideas about the “rules” for the bass in a particular context, effort has been made to include pieces that run the gamut in terms of their rhythmic and harmonic constraints. This ranges from free jazz, in which the performer’s choices are essentially limitless, to straight-ahead swinging standard progressions and pop music, in which there are many specific requirements that must be adhered to.


Pieces Analyzed

“Straight up and Down” from Out to Lunch (Eric Dolphy) provides an example of free playing, in which Davis’ voice and imagination are fully liberated. Interestingly, many aspects of his performance here can be seen directly in his more straight-ahead playing, even in harmonically structured big-band and pop settings.

Rather than focusing only on the extremes, I have chosen to analyze compositions and contexts that bridge the gap between free playing and straight-ahead jazz. In such settings, harmonies and forms may be used as a general framework for improvisation, but great room for exploration within them is allowed. Andrew Hill’s music resides in this unique area of the jazz lexicon .Heavily informed by modern classical music, Hill generally avoids bebop and standard clichés of the idiom and embraces the avant-garde. The harmonic and rhythmic context of his compositions rarely align with standard walking 4/4 jazz, demanding a freer, exploratory approach from the bassist. Unlike “Straight up and Down” however, this music has definite form and structure that must be adhered to. “Land of Nod,” a composition on the album Black Fire, is particularly specific in that the harmony frequently changes at specific rhythmic points (which will be referred to as hits,) that must be played in unison with Hill during the short solo form. Even in the heavily demanding rhythmic structure, Davis still manages to maintain his signature style while accompanying Hill’s piano solo.

“Rip, Rig, and Panic” (Rashaan Roland Kirk) exists in similar territory between freedom and structure. Saxophonist Roland Kirk deserves special recognition for his personal approach in this area. As Dr. Billy Taylor points out “it is evident that this multitalented virtuoso has developed his own approach to jazz which calls for total involvement every time he plays.” (p. 1). A sense of freedom, fearlessness and “boundless energy permeates every Roland Kirk performance” (p. 1), thus requiring accompanists with the same acumen.

Roland Kirk’s composition “Rip, Rig and Panic” on the album of the same name features Richard Davis in a hard swinging, high energy modal situation in A A B B A form, providing another unique framework in which to observe Davis. Modal compositions rely on tonal centers as opposed to frequently changing chords. This provides more opportunity for melodic and textural exploration, as the stress of constantly navigating moving harmony is alleviated. Some use the slower-moving harmony as an opportunity to relax the music, such as Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue (credited with having created the Modal “movement”). John Coltrane used the modal context to eliminate the demands of outlining consistently moving harmony and create an intense and energetic jazz style. “Rip, Rig, and Panic” falls more into the latter category, which is important to be aware of in the analysis of Davis’ performance.

In order to observe Davis’ maintenance of a personal yet flexible approach in less avant-garde situations, selections from Stan Getz and Bill Evans, and Music DuBois (Phil Woods) will be discussed. Both in terms of repertoire and playing style the context established by the lyrical and sensitive masters Getz and Evans is far removed from the avant-garde styles of Eric Dolphy and Andrew Hill. There is however, a certain natural kinship between Bill Evans and Richard Davis in terms of their relationship to the bass. Bill Evans himself can be seen as a key figure in liberating the bass via his inventive approach to collective trio playing within standard song forms.

“Grandfather’s Waltz” from Stan Getz and Bill Evans is a lyrical waltz that contains differently textured sections within the form, including pedal points and interludes. Music DuBois contains a version of Wayne Shorter’s “Neffertiti.” A rhythmically open tune with modern harmony—played with the bebop oriented Woods and rather straight-ahead drumming of Alan Dawson—this excerpt reveals much about Davis’ rhythmic flexibility and thematic continuity.

Richard Davis is able to exercise his impressive technique and creativity in a situation that can often be quite limiting. The Complete Solid State Recordings of the Thad Jones Mel / Lewis Orchestra includes a version of “The Little Pixie, a ‘rhythm changes’ composition with quickly moving diatonic harmony and a specific form that can be very restrictive to a bassist. With a fearlessness and resourcefulness that certainly stems from his diverse musical experiences, the many devices Davis incorporates into this performance is masterful. A second version of “The Little Pixie” from Opening Night: Thad Jones / Mel Lewis at the Village Vanguard provides the opportunity to explore the variations in Richard Davis’ approach to the same piece in the same year (1966).

The Thad Jones / Mel Lewis Orchestra – Live in Tokyo presents of a version of “The Little Pixie” performed by Davis’ replacement in the ensemble, George Mraz. This rare opportunity to hear a different bassist playing the same composition with the same band allows for comparative analysis of two world-class players, further illustrating how differently two strongly developed players can make their voice shine through the music.

Davis’ consistency throughout these diverse performances demonstrates that he has developed a voice that incorporates his eclectic experiences in a way that translates into many situations. He does not drastically tone down or alter the more adventurous, “free” side of his playing in more straight ahead situations, nor does he shed his penchant for grooving hard or outlining harmony while playing free. Besides providing bassists with a plenty of specific musical ideas, it should bring the idea and process of developing a personal voice into full awareness; ultimately leading to deeper musical goals and therefore greater contribution to the musical world.


Analysis of the Performances

After transcribing excerpts of Davis’ performances, certain musical devices and tendencies began to reveal themselves consistently. Besides the obvious factors of an individual tone and time feel, these devices provide an undeniably personal stamp on everything Richard Davis performs. Of particular note in Davis’ case is how these devices are tailored to fit appropriately into a variety of situations. Several gestures found in Davis’ free improvisation recur while walking standard harmony behind a big band, or even backing a singer in the pop arena. The question here is; how and why is this possible?

It must be noted that the focus will be strictly on the musical content of Davis’ playing: his use of various devices and the compositional manner in which they are employed to shape the music. While analysis of the rhythm section as a unit in texts such as Monson (1966) focus on the critical interaction between the bass, drums, chordal instrument and soloist, much of my detailed analysis will isolate Davis’ content as a compositional performance in and of itself. However, the general activity of the soloists and rhythm-section will be included in the musical “maps,” and particularly interactive moments where a motif is specifically inspired by another instrument will be referenced.

The goal of this study is to examine Davis’ individual performance style, which is highly expressive while simultaneously fulfilling the understood duties of a bassist in a jazz ensemble. Those interested in developing a greater understanding of these basic duties in a more general sense should look to sources like Monson, which explore the fundamental role of the bass in great detail. It is implied throughout this entire presentation that Davis is continually providing harmonic and rhythmic support, ‘locking in’ appropriately with the drummer, and playing material that while adventurous, is nevertheless idiomatic.

Isolated analysis is particularly appropriate in Richard Davis’ case, for at least in the examples presented, he is a strong leader of the rhythm section who instigates changes in the music rather than reacting to them. Davis presents strong, clear ideas that present his band mates with essentially three options; mimic/work with the idea, ignore it, or contrast it. It is a given that jazz musicians interact with each other while performing, but particularly individual performers like Davis always do so with their own distinct ‘voice.’ The goal of my analyses is to examine the techniques and concepts that create this voice- the specifics of the conversation it is involved in is a different subject demanding an entirely separate document.



While a thorough look at harmonic, textural, rhythmic and other musical decisions will reveal much about Davis’ adventurous process, a ‘map’ of when Davis chooses to utilize a certain aspect of his bass playing will simultaneously develop. This will be presented as a table, indicating what device Davis is using (pedal point, angular walking, etc.) at each place in the form of the composition, as well as the general activity of the soloist and rhythm section. This will be critical in the macro analysis of Davis’ musical architecture- how and when certain techniques occur, recur, and are varied to create a unique compositional bass performance. Maps are not included for the transcriptions of “Nefertiti” or “Grandfather’s Waltz” as the linear nature of these performances do not lend themselves well to this analysis.


Sonic Analysis of Richard Davis’ Bass Playing

Having developed as a player before the time of bass amplification, it was necessary for Richard Davis to create a powerful, projecting acoustic sound on his instrument in order to be a significant voice in the band. In an era where sound systems and amplification are standard, it is difficult for some to comprehend the idea of an acoustic bass backing a big band like the Thad Jones / Mel Lewis Orchestra without one. Due to Davis’ technique, training, and concept however, there is never an issue of bass presence. Naturally, there are certain physical and tonal characteristics that come into play when producing such an acoustic sound, which vary greatly from players (like George Mraz) who play lightly and rely on the speaker for volume. These characteristics are significant in not only the tonal, but also the rhythmic and musical impact Richard Davis has on the ensemble and are thus worth exploring briefly.

Video footage of the Thad Jones / Mel Lewis Orchestra from a 1968 appearance on “Jazz Casual” offers insight to Davis’ technical approach. With confident, upright posture, Davis appears to play gracefully and effortlessly. He pulls the strings with the entire force of his arm, stemming from the shoulder and often uses the side of the index and middle fingers in tandem to attack, alternating for faster passages. The result is a powerful sound with an effective balance of low and high frequency. The pitch is clear and relatively bright compared to the sometimes dark and nebulous thud the instrument can sometimes produce.

This also creates a very clear, percussive ‘point’ of attack when Davis pulls the strings, resulting in a palpable beat much like that of a bass drum. Playing the same musical content as Davis but with a lighter, more legato touch (which future Jones / Lewis bassists George Mraz and Steve Gilmore both possessed) will not create the same musical effect.

A percussive sound can be dangerous in the wrong hands, as the production of such a powerful thump can easily clash with the beat of the drums if there is a disagreement. Davis’ exceptional time and rhythmic flexibility however allows this concept to compliment as well as add more dimension to the rhythm section. All of these qualities place Davis’ position in the overall “mix” of the ensemble very high, providing all of his musical decisions with an undeniable presence that impacts the rhythm section and soloists alike.


Chapter IV: Results of the Study

Summary of Richard Davis’ Style

As mentioned, transcription and analysis revealed consistent use of several musical devices, despite the great variety and contrast among the different musical situations. This list of musical devices could be considered an updated extension of the bullet-point list analysis of Richard Davis’ performance in Coolman (1985), and each will be explored in greater detail to establish the essence of his style:

  • Pedal-Point (in various ranges / rhythmic patterns / note choices)
  • Simultaneous use of low and high registers (generally via open strings)
  • Ostinato-like’ patterns, even within the walking context
  • Extreme rhythmic variation and tension
  • Sudden shifts in register and/or contour
  • Use of slides and glissando, sometimes with octaves
  • Repeated notes, often to emphasize harmonic substitutions
  • Absolute clarity of ideas, whose content often shifts the direction of the music
  • Continuity and development of established ideas, used consistently in the same sections or as a means of connecting contrasting ones
  • Variation of similar content- ideas are almost never repeated verbatim

Richard Davis makes consistent and effective use of Pedal points; a repeated single pitch, often accented by an interesting rhythmic pattern, which can occur in any octave. While they can be dictated by the compositions themselves, bassists may choose to enforce a pedal point at will, repeating their chosen bass note despite the moving root motion in the piece. In most cases the repeated pitch is either the tonic of the particular section, or the dominant of the section that follows (providing a strong buildup and drastic release once resolved.) With the bass no longer outlining specific harmony or providing the forward motion of a walking line, an immediate shift in the dynamic of the music is felt. This is generally a calling card for the rhythm section to break up their accompaniment patterns as well as experiment with different harmonic colors against the chosen bass note. Monsen (1966) explains that “the relaxation of the pace of the chordal rhythm and the suspension of the walking bass line in some ways necessitate increased activity from the remaining band members” (p. 61). Thus, drummers and chordal instruments tend to play with greater rhythmic and harmonic intensity during these moments, and there is a sense of tension that is released with the conclusion of the pedal. This gives the bass player a powerful compositional device to be used at will. Monsen feels that the “pedal point can provide tremendous support for a soloist’s climactic moments” (p. 61), and while this is true, it can be equally effective at building the tension towards an intense (not necessarily climactic) moment. Analysis will show Richard Davis using pedal points both as a climax and as a means of building towards one.

While bass pedal points are generally considered to be in the low register, holding a sturdy foundation or “anchor” (p. 34) as Cecil McBee refers to it, it is extremely common for Richard Davis use the high register of the bass. In fact, even when there is a low pedal note, Davis often includes the high register in tandem. Examples from the transcribed performances show Davis using the pedal point in several creative ways, varying in intensity as well as content.

On the both transcribed versions of “The Little Pixie,” Davis frequently employs a tonic pedal points in the A sections, but demonstrates variety in their use. On the Complete Solid State version, the pedal begins on the 2nd A section of Sir Rolland Hanna’s second and final piano chorus, serving as something of a climax. As is often the case, Davis uses in an Ab in the high register of the bass. In this example, a 3/8 hemiola is used to add another layer of rhythmic tension to that already achieved by the pedal effect. Note how the pedal is suddenly destroyed with a low open D to setup the G minor chord of the bridge, demonstrating Davis’ preference for dramatic changes in register.



Figure 1. “The Little Pixie,” Solid State. Piano solo, 2nd A of 2nd chorus.


On the Opening Night version of the same piece, Davis interestingly begins use of the pedal idea in a similar place in the form (A sections of the 2nd chorus). As this is behind a saxophonist as opposed to pianist, and is less than halfway through the solo rather than nearing the end, there is a different level of energy.

In the first A section, repeated high Ab quarter notes appear followed by linear walking, in which Ab remains the clear target. This introduces the color and effect of the pedal seamlessly into the walking that precedes it, rather than a sudden drastic change. Note how once again the pedal is destroyed by an open D (which was used to set up the G minor chord of the bridge), even though there is another A section to follow. As is characteristic of Davis, he uses this as a motif to build upon.



Figure . “The Little Pixie,” Opening Night. Sax solo, 1st A of 2nd chorus

With the sound of the pedal introduced and the drastic effect of the sudden open D string still in the awareness of the listener, Davis continues and combines both devices in the next A section. Davis uses the open D to sound the low register of the bass while continuing to pedal the high Ab. This technique of sounding two different registers via the use of open strings is an effect Davis is particularly fond of that occurs in many of his performances. In this particular instance, a special compositional effect is achieved: while the Ab serves as a tonic pedal for the section, the D serves as continuing dominant pedal toward the G minor chord of the bridge, creating a strong sense of resolution when reached. Note that the Ab also has a chromatic resolution to the G minor chord, in addition to being the tonic of A section. Thus, the entire section serves more as an extended tension building device to resolve at the bridge, superseding the standard chord changes that normally appear in the section of the tune. Davis’ content alone essentially forces the section to be perceived this way harmonically, which only the bass has the power to do. This is a fine example of Davis utilizing the power of the instrument to shape the music.

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Figure . “The Little Pixie,” Opening Night. Sax solo, 2nd A of 2nd chorus

The pedal can contain mixture of octaves, as in this example:

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Figure . “The Little Pixie,” Opening Night. Sax solo, last A of 4th chorus

When the tune structure itself has a built-in pedal point vamp (as is the case in “Grandfather’s Waltz,”) Davis takes a compositional approach to the section rather than merely repeating the pitch. The two bar introductory figure of a sustained C and offbeat Gs sets the rhythmic framework around which the preceding material is based, much like a clave in Latin music. Notice how both rhythmic intensity and range increase towards bar 7, at which point Davis also works in a repeating riff within the structure. Descending back to the original sustained low C, a complete and coherent musical statement is created within the pedal structure. Note how the section is gracefully ‘bookended’ by starting and ending with the same material, without sounding the least bit forced.


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Figure . “Grandfathers Waltz,” Intro

Unlike a true pedal point which is sustained over large parts of a section in order to liberate it, Davis will sometimes repeat notes within the context of walking, particularly to emphasize a harmonic substitution. These two examples from “The Little Pixie” show Davis repeating notes other than the root defined by the score, allowing the substitute harmony or inversions to be clearly perceived.



Figure . “The Little Pixie,” Solid State. Piano solo, last A of 2nd chorus



Figure . “The Little Pixie,” Solid State.

Richard Davis also has a deep understanding of rhythm and rhythmic tension, using this to constantly impact the overall shape of the music. As in all areas of his approach, variation is critical. Besides alternating between complex / dense rhythms and simpler ideas, he will also vary the way he subdivides the pulse (for example, dividing a beat evenly into two eighth notes when the established groove has been dividing each beat into three triplets).

In this example from “Nefertiti” the beat divided in various ways, but the subdivisions and approaches within those divisions vary as well. Singing the rhythm in this phrase alone proves interesting and satisfying, while the note choices and use of register only increase the feeling of tension and release.



Figure . “Nefertiti,” Sax solo

. The following excerpt from “Grandfathers Waltz” demonstrates Davis’ rhythmic flexibility in ¾ time. Notice how clearly the phrases resolve and relate to each other, with the extended note at measure 73 creating a sense of finality. The tied note in measure 75 beautifully dovetails two phrases, creating the effect of one intricate sentence punctuated with the final half note.



Figure . “Grandfather’s Waltz,” Sax Solo

For the second and final extended D7 section during Andrew Hill’s solo on “Land of Nod”, Davis begins with a small fragment of D to Eb—a sound that has been consistently utilized and developed at this section of the tune and developed since it was introduced during the bass solo. Davis unleashes high register, rhythmically adventurous content which contains a variety of dense subdivisions and rhythmic flexibility. This clearly takes the music into new territory, as Davis has essentially joined in with Hill’s soloing. While the degree of change here is more sudden and dramatic, it is consistent with Davis’ gradual increase of density and range throughout the piano solo, which this excerpt concludes. The loss of low register combined with the content of Davis’ playing here almost creates the effect of “free,” unmetered music as in Out to Lunch. This is a striking climax which ends appropriately with another reference of D to Eb.



Figure . “Land of Nod,” Conclusion of piano solo

In addition to his command of rhythm, Davis is masterful at manipulating his placement of the beat (pushing certain notes forward or laying others back) in order to create another layer of tension in the music. While traditionally the bass supplied an unwavering pulse for the other musicians to place their beat against, Davis is able to ebb and flow with the music when appropriate. This type of flexibility is reminiscent of Charles Mingus, who pioneered and developed the intellectually titled “Rotary Perception,” which he readily admitted was a “gimmick like ‘Third Stream’” (Priestly p. 124). This of course is a reference to the title, not the concept itself. Rotary perception involves imagining a circle around each obvious beat pulse, giving the performer the option to place his attack anywhere within that border. This creates a feeling of rhythmic looseness while still maintaining tempo and groove. If either begins to feel questionable, it can be realigned by placing an attack directly in the center of the beat (Priestly pp. 124-125). This is of course easier said than done, but it is very significant tool in consciously shaping the feel, energy, and tension in the music. It is impossible to notate or accurately verbalize this effect, but many listeners are not conscious of its existence until it is explained. A close listen to Richard Davis’ performance on Nefertiti, looking for phrases that feel as though they are rushing forward or pulling back, will reveal the dramatic effect of this technique. It must be noted that this is only effective if the rest of the band, particularly the drummer, is able to hold the pulse steady. Because Richard Davis is playing with world class musicians in all of these examples, and can clearly be very precise when needed, the effect is both musical and intentional.

Another unique aspect of Davis’ playing is his dramatic use of changes in register and contour. Many if not most players, including Mraz and particularly Israel Crosby (whom Davis saw frequently coming up in Chicago) strive to create lines that gradually work their way up and down through the changes with a smooth contour. This creates a continuous yet interesting motion, much like driving on a well paved road filled with hills and valleys. Davis on the other hand, will often jump from one register of the bass to the next, possibly through a sliding note, dramatic arpeggio, or in a completely abrupt manner.

In this example from “The Little Pixie,” Davis breaks his walking line with a lyrical, descending arpeggio using accented chromatic approach tones in order to shift from the high to lower register of the bass. This is dramatic in the particular context it occurs, but is a relatively smooth way of changing registers in a short amount of time.

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Figure . “The Little Pixie,” Solid State. Piano solo, 2nd A of 1st chorus

Here is a far more extreme example of Davis jumping abruptly from the low to high registers of the bass, alternating measure by measure. Besides the virtuosity involved, this creates a ‘call and response’ type theme that catches the ear without disrupting the quarter note flow.



Figure . “The Little Pixie,” Opening Night. Sax solo, B of 2nd chorus

Even when staying fairly calm in terms of register shifts, the contour of Davis’ walking lines will often have a number of directional changes. When Davis does utilize cliché walking phrases (lines that all players use for the sake of clarity) he often twists the familiar slightly, putting his own stamp on the tradition and adding another layer of surprise to his playing. These lines, used in combination with the register leaps discussed earlier, create an edgier, more disjointed feeling that always keeps things unpredictable even while walking. In this example, notice how only a few pitches at a time move in the same direction, in addition to the variation of leaps and steps, all while staying within one octave.



Figure . “The Little Pixie,” Opening Night. Sax solo, bridge of 3rd chorus

Sometimes Davis will create interesting shapes through the use of intervallic patterns while walking. In this example from the bridge of “Rip, Rig and Panic,” Davis uses tritones and fourths, expanding the interval to sixths. Though these are consecutive moving quarter notes, this structure creates a noticeably different color than stepwise walking lines, standing out as a powerful effect which continues for eight measures.



Figure . “Rip, Rig and Panic,” Sax solo, bridge of 1st chorus

Davis often uses glissandos in his playing, sometimes incorporating octaves and tenths. This is of course a strong way to make a statement on the bass in jazz as it contrasts the usual steady, percussive single-note voice. During his ‘walking solo’ in the Solid State version of Little Pixie, Davis uses sliding 10ths to create interest while maintaining the quarter note flow.

pixie-solidstate Slide-10ths

Figure 15. “The Little Pixie,” Solid State. Walking solo.

In Nefertiti, the use of sliding recurs frequently, becoming a motif itself in the accompaniment. This is equally a testament to Davis’ ability to establish, maintain and develop ideas (which will be examined in more detail later) as it is to his personal style and virtuosity on the instrument.



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Figure 16. “Nefertiti,” Music DuBois. Various slides.

Davis’ radical shifts in register, glissandos and double stops require a level of virtuosity on the bass that likely stems from his study of the classical repertoire. Bassist Steve LaSpina recalls Davis’ use of these techniques to be particularly unique and influential, as Davis’ level of technique on the bass was not nearly as commonplace in the 1960s as it is today.

Davis is particularly skilled at creating ostinato-like figures or riffs via repetition of a series of pitches with a similar shape, even within the confines of rapid harmonies and specific forms. Davis’ riffs are always compositionally interesting and effective, and the repetitive nature gives the listener a ‘hook’ for their ears to gravitate towards. As is the case with pedal point, the texture of continuous walking or phrases is broken, giving these moments the feeling of being their own special section.

The following example from “Rip, Rig and Panic” takes place during a modal D minor solo section. The highly lyrical two measure motif stays within the modality specified by the composition, but the arrangement of pitches clearly implies the related but brighter sounding C Major. The preceding series of voicings played by pianist Jaki Byard is the likely catalyst for this transition of modality, affected by Byard and Davis simultaneously. The simultaneous change provides an even greater element of contrast and musicality, as it emerges from a series of intense, frequently dissonant sections of minor and wholetone tonalities. The riff is repeated three times and serves as a send-off into the wholetone based bridge.



Figure . “Rip, Rig and Panic.” Sax solo, 2nd A of 2nd chorus

In this final A section of the first solo chorus of “The Little Pixie,” Davis creates a two bar pattern within the harmonic structure of rhythm changes. After a traditional walkup from root to fifth, the stepwise contour is broken by a powerful A natural to G. These pitches serve as a double chromatic approach resolving to a downbeat Ab, from which the pattern could hypothetically repeat endlessly. Davis plays this twice before proceeding to walk upwards as he has in previous A sections. This lyrical riff has a catchy, melodic quality that still satisfies the proper tonality and harmonic resolution points for this section. The second example shows Davis using the same technique with a different set of pitches and a more dramatic change of register.



Figure . “The Little Pixie,” Solid State. Piano solo, last A of 1st chorus



Figure . “The Little Pixie,” Solid State. Piano solo, last A of 2nd chorus

Sometimes Davis will create a small riff and extend it over an entire section. This could essentially be seen as a ‘pedal riff,’ in that the tonic Ab is enforced as the basis of the entire section, but rather than simply repeated, it is emphasized with a riff that starts and ends with this pitch. Note these riffs, in addition to those above, all appear spontaneously within only two performances of “Little Pixie.”


Riff-1-3-2-b2 Figure . “The Little Pixie,” Solid State. Soprano solo, 1st A of 2nd chorus



Figure . “The Little Pixie,” Solid State. Soprano solo, 2nd and 3rd choruses

In this example from “Land of Nod,” Davis brilliantly works an ostinato pattern into the only section of extended tonality within a very specific and short solo form. Following the rhythmic angularity up to this point, this riff provides a welcome contrast and as well as a propelling groove. The riff also helps to maintain clarity of barlines and pulse, as the drums develop into a particular degree of complexity at this juncture. This example demonstrates Davis’ creativity, ability to react, and quick thinking in creating a natural sounding, effective pattern on the fly.



Figure . “Land of Nod,” piano solo, first chorus

In freer compositions, the repetition and development of riffs is essentially limitless as pitches need not be adjusted to accommodate changing harmony or form markings. Davis takes advantage of this opportunity in these moments from “Straight up and Down,” staying with one idea long enough for it to settle in as the underlying theme of the section and backdrop for the soloist.

In this example, during the beginning of Eric Dolphy’s solo, the ‘basic pulse’ of the tune (which Dolphy mentioned in the liner notes) is clearly established via Davis’ quarter notes. After only two measures, Davis rhythmically modulates this pulse with a high register whole step figure played blatantly out of the established tempo. This figure quickly settles into a repetitive pattern whose implied tempo becomes the new pulse of the band once Williams locks in with it, shifting the solo section in a very different direction. The figure itself encapsulates three of Davis’ recurring techniques simultaneously; it sounds high pitches with low open strings (creating a D dorian tonality), the open string itself works as a pedal point, and the repetition of the entire figure makes it an ostinato pattern. This phrase is repeated several times, creating a temporarily structured, meditative backdrop for Dolphy to solo against.

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Figure . “Straight Up and Down,” beginning of Eric Dolphy’s solo

straight-125 3-CherryRiff

Figure . “Straight Up and Down,” beginning of Don Cherry’s solo

In this example from the introduction of “Rip, Rig, and Panic” Davis uses a similar scheme to that of the riff in “Out to Lunch” that achieves a multitude of harmonic, rhythmic and textural effects. Using high register whole steps (Bb and Ab) in combination with open E and D strings, Davis clarifies a wholetone scale texture, sounds multiple registers of the bass, creates an ostinato vamp effect, and this time creates a hemiola effect through his varied groupings of high and low pitches.



Figure . “Rip, Rig and Panic,” introduction

Perhaps more significant than any individual technique is the compositional manner in which Davis presents, maintains and develops clear ideas throughout his performances. As much as extreme variation is critical to Davis’ style, the inherent musical logic behind his decisions is what makes it work so effectively. Often this has to do with the placement of a specific device in the macro scheme of the form; for example, consistently using Ostinato-patterns in the last A section of Little Pixie, or consistent intervallic walking on the bridges of Rip, Rig and Panic. When these devices do recur however, there is always variation, either with a new idea or an expansion of a previous one. There is plenty of development at the micro level as well, such as the repetition of an intervallic idea or gradual rhythmic expansion within a single phrase. One clear example of this was presented in the discussion of the pedal point, figure 3. Here Davis introduced the dramatic sound of a high Ab followed by an open D string to conclude one A section in “The Little Pixie,” then continued to repeat this figure as a ‘double pedal’ through the entire next phrase. This section will present a variety of examples showing the development of ideas in Davis’ accompaniment as they can be traced through (or in some cases even across) performances. Some may find it surprising that Richard Davis never studied composition, and that the sense of form and architecture in his performances is just the natural result of him playing what he feels in the moment (Davis).

An excellent example of Davis’ ability to establish, develop and maintain ideas can be found in his thoroughly musical approach to the free improvisation sections in “Straight Up and Down.” Approximately two minutes into the composition, during Eric Dolphy’s solo, Davis abruptly establishes a medium swinging D-minor feel reminiscent of the initial framework created at the end of the melody. After a few moments of establishing the beat, Davis and Williams resolve into clearly marked 4/4 swinging time, with plenty of embellishment by Davis. It is important to note the F to B tritone figure played so prominently in measure three of this walking section, which recurs in the free double stops that follow.


Figure . “Straight Up and Down,” middle of Eric Dolphy’s solo

Though it is during a particularly free and unstructured moment in the piece, Davis clearly brings out and repeats this tritone figure at 2:54. The more chaotic rhythmic freedom continues, beginning to solidify again after a series of repeated high Ab pitches by Davis who then walks briefly. This is reminiscent of the high Ebs which preceded the last D minor walking section.

Immediately after the melody, during Eric Dolphy’s solo, Davis quickly established an ostinato figure utilizing high register A and B pitches with an open D string. When the increased energy from the other musicians indicates that it is time for new content, Davis uses the high register pitches in the figure as a motivic point of departure. First the pitches are repeated in rapid succession out of tempo, destroying the comfortable backdrop of the ostinato. The intervals then expand from whole steps to minor thirds, after which Davis builds three note arpeggios, thus taking one smaller section of his ostinato as the new motif and expanding upon that. Throughout this process, the established groove progressively breaks down as Davis becomes increasingly free rhythmically while losing the low register open strings. This section climaxes and concludes with a series of repeating high Eb pitches.



Figure . “Straight Up and Down,” early in Eric Dolphy’s solo

Later in Don Cherry’s solo, Davis’ accompaniment develops into a series of A and B whole steps with an open D string, initiating the same rhythmic pattern and approach as the ostinato which began Dolphy’s solo. Because the first ostinato was such a clearly defined, long-lasting idea so early in the piece, the re-introduction of similar content adds compositional integrity to Davis’ performance while giving the listener something now familiar to the ear. Davis expands upon this section which now serves as a more free and transitional moment than a steady ostinato. Just as Davis expanded upon the A and B whole steps in Dolphy’s solo into arpeggios, he here plays with a series of high repeated Abs and As to Bbs and Bs (thus transposing the whole step figure.) This pattern expands into a cell which precedes the whole steps by a 4th (Eb Ab Bb, E A B), and is repeated at an increasingly rapid speed. This is an example of Davis retaining an idea he used for one soloist, returning to it later in a different musical context and developing it in a different way.


Figure . “Straight Up and Down,” Don Cherry’s solo

Coming out of the melody of “Rip, Rig and Panic,” Davis plays the first measure with a D minor figure that utilizes the same pitches in the same register as that of “Straight up and Down.” It is interesting to see Davis use a similar shape at a similar point in two different compositions, despite their drastically different tempos and energy levels. The development of this idea is of course entirely different in the two compositions.

The D minor phrase quickly morphs into a pattern of high register E and B naturals with occasional anticipations. Besides being an interesting choice of pitches harmonically against an established D minor, this figure once again creates the simultaneous effect of a recurring riff combined with pedal point in the high register. On the eighth measure, Davis drops two low open A strings to mark the form through extreme register contrast, then returns to the E and Bs for four measures.



Figure . “Rip, Rig and Panic,” sax solo, 1st A of 1st chorus

At the arrival of the bridge (which being comprised of two sustained tonalities, I have divided into two sections, B1 and B2,) Davis begins walking intervalically, heavily featuring the sound of the tritone. Therefore, at this point in the saxophone solo, Davis has used a D minor send-off into a riff featuring high Es and Bs for the A sections, followed by a tritone / wholetone oriented B1 section.

At the arrival of B2, Davis masterfully integrates all of the material he has used thus far. With the same D minor sendoff as that of the first A section, Davis continues to play a very similar pattern, but rather than alternating Es and Bs, he uses F and B—a tritone. Thus, the section is comprised of A section material with the tritone featured in B1, all fitting appropriately into the wholetone tonality.

Besides the cleverness of this section, it also comes as a surprise that can catch the listener off guard in terms of the form. Because the B2 riff is so similar to that of the A sections, and so unlike the material at B1, it can sound as though the final A section has arrived. The variation in pitches however, and the clear whole tone harmonies by the piano keep things from becoming too ambiguous. Note that the open A string appears once again as a device to signify the end of the section.



Figure . “Rip, Rig and Panic,” sax solo, 1st bridge

In the next A section, Davis begins introducing more stepwise motion in the high register, combined with periodic riff like fragments (alternating between two notes) and open A and D strings. The A and Ds serve several functions: incorporating the low register sound of the bass, ‘disrupting’ the flow of the high register walking, and sounding as a motivic device due to the separation from the rest of the upper-register material. This is in many ways a further combination of the material thus far: using riff fragments, multiple registers, and stepwise walking all at once.

In measure 64, Davis once again plays the send off figure reminiscent of “straight up and down” starting with the open D string, which is now a natural result of the A to D open string motif recently established. This figure continues into five measures of stepwise, high register whole-tone walking with a single open D string.

These choruses represent an incredible level of organization at a blistering tempo. Essentially every note Richard Davis plays here is part of a clear idea that is developed, incorporated into different sections, and then organically combined into a seamless whole. In a short amount of time, Davis clearly defines his separate ‘ingredients’ and then mixes them together.

Continuing with “Rip, Rig and Panic,” Davis’ material in B1 reveals itself to be a recurring theme throughout the performance. From Davis’ standpoint, the B1 section is always defined by the balance of intervallic lines and those of a stepwise, more traditional walking contour in a whole-tone tonality. Note how Davis uses the same basic concept but varies its balance and specific content at each ‘B’ section of the piece.

riprig Bridgelike-opening

Figure . “Rip, Rig and Panic,” preceding melody

The first bridge during Roland Kirks solo uses entirely intervallic walking with a large range of interval distances.



Figure . “Rip, Rig and Panic,” sax solo, 1st bridge

The second bridge, like the first, starts with fourth-based intervals, then shifts to more linear walking—similar to the first occurrence of this section in the melody (figure 29).


riprig Bridge2

Figure . “Rip, Rig and Panic,” sax solo, 2nd bridge

What is audible (due to the intensity of the drums) of the third and final bridge of Kirk’s solo shows Davis’ integration of the linear and the intervallic, making a less dramatic difference between the two. This is the only bridge to start with more linear lines, and end with thirds and fourths.



Figure . “Rip, Rig and Panic,” sax solo, 3rd bridge

In this harmonically open composition, Davis is able to consistently establish, develop and maintain clear ideas, some of which can specifically be found in other performances. By using specific material at specific sections in the form and then integrating them together, Davis creates a highly compositional performance.

Davis’ development of the rhythmic theme during the piano solo in “Land of Nod” is another prime example of his ability to maintain and embellish ideas. Davis begins with an ascending perfect fourth, then embellishes the hits of the first 4 bars with parallel perfect fifths (sliding down slightly after each fifth as an effect) which will serve as the basic ‘theme’ to be embellished in this section:


Figure . “Land of Nod,” beginning of piano solo

Measure 5 recalls the A to D perfect fourth in measure 1, and Davis continues to play the hits with a contour that decreases then increases in register. In measure six Davis omits the upbeat of one, which keeps the density lighter while still adhering to the specified rhythmic hits. He leaves this first measure of G minor completely open with a whole note open string, maintaining the relaxed, open quality established thus far.


Figure . “Land of Nod,” piano solo, mm. 5-9

Continuing the descending theme, Davis works his way downward on the next set of hits but plays them rhythmically looser via triplets and as double stops, providing a noticeable change of color. He begins working his way upward in the last two measures in order to approach the following D7 section in a higher register.

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Figure . “Land of Nod,” piano solo, mm. 10-15

At the top of the form Davis once again begins with a D to approach the Ab. Though this is now a tritone, the rhythmic pattern and similar interval distance make this sound like a reference to the previous material. With this set of hits, Davis weaves in several layers of development. He refers to the perfect fifth idea played at this point in the first chorus, with slightly more rhythmic embellishment (a theme in eighth notes) for the first two bars. The second two measures continue the eighth note theme but incorporate the double stops introduced earlier. Higher pitches sounding in the double stops as the lower notes continue to descend create the effect of a simultaneously descending and ascending contour. With all of these factors combined, this group of hits is an encapsulation of everything Davis played earlier, with some compositional variation. This adds noticeable musical interest and depth to the bass part.

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Figure . “Land of Nod,” piano solo, mm. 22-26

On the second set of Eb and Bb descending figures, Davis provides variation by playing them in the highest register yet, with a small sixteenth note embellishment. This introduces both a new register of the bass and a more active rhythmic subdivision, thus continuing the sense of increased intensity and development. This is followed by a measure of four consecutive quarter notes in the low register. Though it goes by quickly, there has been nothing like this measure in this section of the music, and it feels like a noticeable ‘departure’ into the realm of walking jazz bass. This impression immediately ends at the downbeat of the G minor measure, in which Davis quickly leaps to the recently introduced high register with an A natural—a reference to the melody of the tune. The Eb on the downbeat of four serves as the beginning of a development of the perfect fifth motive which will be continued in the next section.

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Figure . “Land of Nod,” piano solo, mm. 27-30

Davis expands upon his recurring fifth idea on the next set of hits. While there was a slight downward slide during the opening hits, this time Davis slides upward into clearly defined pitches. Once again, Davis approaches a similar set of material in a way that is fresh, but compositionally related to that which he played earlier. He approaches the next set of hits simply, playing the material in the low register.

landofnod 7-Hits-Slidingup

Figure . “Land of Nod,” piano solo, mm. 31-36

In “Land of Nod,” Davis upheld his necessary duties of adhering to the rhythmic hits while still incorporating variety and compositional integrity. Through changing registers, use of double stops and consistency of motives, Davis manages to create a highly individual, deeply musical bass part in a piece constricted by specific rhythmic hits and modern, moving harmony. The lessons here can be directly applied to all similarly-structured compositions, which are particularly common in modern jazz.

In the Complete Solid State Recordings version of “The Little Pixie,” Richard Davis interjects a syncopated arpeggio pattern using accented chromatic passing tones during the first solo of the piece, by pianist Sir Roland Hannah. This figure recurs several times throughout the duration of the ten-and-a-half minute piece, always with variations to accommodate the different energy levels of the moment.



Figure . “The Little Pixie,” Solid State. Piano solo, 1st A of 1st chorus

The figure is alluded to during the saxophone solo at the same point in the form (1st A of 1st chorus) as it was introduced initially, appearing this time as strict quarter notes.



Figure . “The Little Pixie,” Solid State. Sax solo, 1st A of 1st chorus

At the second A of the first chorus in the clarinet solo, a variation of the lick appears with a similar same shape and rhythmic concept as it did initially behind the piano. This time, the idea is expanded and reaches a higher register of the bass before descending. Note that this occurs more than two minutes after the original appearance of the idea, and in all three cases, Davis uses it at an early point in the soloists development.


pixie-solidstate Riff3-BehindSax

Figure . “The Little Pixie,” Solid State. Clarinet solo, 2nd A of 1st chorus

During Davis’ walking bass solo, the idea is developed even further, covering an impressive range of the bass with impeccable intonation and rhythmic accuracy.


pixie-solidstate Riff4-Walking

Figure . “The Little Pixie,” Solid State. Walking bass solo

Davis’ ability to remember an idea that was played at the beginning of the first solo in the piece, recall it a single time in three future solos spanning several minutes, and vary it each time demonstrates a highly developed sense of compositional awareness. This lick by itself would be interesting and musical, but the carefully placed development of it throughout the entire piece takes Davis’ performance into an entirely different level of sophistication and depth.

Another example from the “The Little Pixie” demonstrates Davis’ ability to develop a riff with sophistication on the fly, against moving chord changes and across sections. The last A section of the third saxophone chorus is concluded with an Ab pedal embellished with Ebs above it, creating a combination ostinato / pedal effect.



Figure . “The Little Pixie,” Opening Night. Sax solo, last A section of 3rd chorus


Davis plays four quarter notes at the downbeat of the next chorus, deceptively suggesting that he will return to walking as a change of color for this new section. Note however that the quarter notes represent two perfect fifths, the first ascending, the second descending moving from 1 (Ab) to flat 3 (Cb or B natural). Davis turns this into a 1, flat 3, 2, flat 2 riff with fifth-above embellishments like those used on the Ab pedal in the preceding section. This idea expands into the second half of the phrase, where the line continues to descend until the last two bars.



Figure . “The Little Pixie,” Opening Night. Sax solo, 1st A of 4th chorus

Once again a single idea is presented then used as the foundation for a new section. Developments are made in a musically sophisticated manner, yet also adjusted to correspond to the harmonic shape of the composition, all in real time.

Even in the context of strict quarter note walking, Davis is able to maintain and develop motives with creativity and finesse. At the beginning of the piano solo in the Complete Solid State version of “The Little Pixie,” Davis begins his walking by working upward diatonically towards a high Ab, emphasizing the tones Eb, E natural, F (scale degrees 5, sharp 5, 6). This sequence occurs four times in the space of the first four bars. The motion is primarily stepwise during all of this first A section—after reaching the Ab high point, Davis works his way down again emphasizing the 5 b6 6 sound. After a sudden drop the line

ascends in a similar manner emphasizing the same chromatic tones.



Figure . “The Little Pixie,” Solid State. Piano solo, 1st A of 1st chorus

Though the bridge is approached in a more angular, intervallic manner, the F7 chord is dealt with in a very traditional way. Davis’ decision to do this is significant in that it accommodates a reference to Eb, E, F cell.



Figure . “The Little Pixie,” Solid State. Piano solo, bridge of 1st A

Davis returns to the Eb, E, F motif at the top of the next chorus. After two bars which simply repeat the idea, Davis jumps up an octave to repeat the same material in the highest register of the bass. Due to the repetition, the cell essentially becomes an ostinato pattern at this point. Davis’ use of extreme high register also thins out the texture, further heightening the tension and producing an audible “yeah!” from Thad Jones. Davis continues upward to the highest Ab on the instrument and works his way back down, with smooth voice leading, to the next A section.



Figure . “The Little Pixie,” Solid State. Piano solo, 1st A of 2nd chorus

This chorus of rhythm-changes demonstrates Davis’ ability to creatively establish, maintain and develop a motive using quarter notes—all while successfully reinforcing the chord changes, walking with contour, and supporting the soloist.

Even in the pop music arena, where the function of the rhythm section is more about laying a steady foundation for the vocalist than interaction, Davis is able to fill the role without sacrificing any of his musical personality. His performance on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks is four solid minutes of clear ideas and their development, full of rhythmic tension, contrast, and virtuosity spanning the entire range of the bass.

The harmony and form of Sweet Thing are quite simple. The verses are comprised of a repeating eight measure phrase, two measures of E Major, two of F #minor, four of A Major. The chorus alternates between four measures of E Major and four measures of A Major.

In the introduction (two cycles of the verse without vocals, with Davis entering on the last measure of first cycle with a sliding B natural,) Davis once again presents the seeds for most of the material that will be developed throughout his performance Note how Davis presents the use of octaves (m. 3), melodic embellishments (m. 4), fifths, and plenty of rhythmic variation. The slide during his B natural entrance also recurs. The only thing missing is the use of 10ths, which Davis first introduces and uses consistently during the chorus section.

sweetthing Intro

Figure 50. “Sweet Thing,” intro.

Davis very smoothly connects the verse and chorus sections, while continuing to expand upon ideas as they are introduced. In the first verse, Davis primarily plays the roots in a single octave (with the exception of the melodic fills at the ends of phrases, which will be discussed below.) The single pitches are repeated with rhythmic interest and variation. At the first chorus, Davis introduces 10ths, once again making use of open strings while sounding a higher register of the bass.


Figure 51. “Sweet Thing,” 1st chorus

Now that the higher register and the sound of 10ths have been introduced, Davis incorporates them into the next verse.

sweetthing A2

Figure 52. “Sweet Thing,” 2nd verse

One of Davis’ melodic fills during this verse takes him into the high register of the bass while highlighting the sound of fourths and fifths. In order to maintain continuity and the flow of the line, Davis plays through the next verse cycle in the highest register possible with fifth embellishments.

sweetthing A2-HighestRegisterRoots

Figure 53. “Sweet Thing,” 2nd verse

Davis continues to use the fifth idea in the next verse cycle, and the idea carries over seamlessly into the bridge. By continually using the high E as either an octave or fifth, it begins to sound like a high pedal point.

sweetthing A3-into-B3

Figure 54. “Sweet Thing,” 2nd verse into 2nd chorus

In the final verse, Davis once again organically connects to the final chorus. The repetition of high As leads nicely to the high E which is sustained, and then the same high As become the high embellishment of the A major chord ( two octaves higher than the open string, and a departure from the 10ths which have frequently occurred here.)

sweetthing AintoLastB

Figure 55. “Sweet Thing,” last verse into last chorus

Once the drums enter during the first verse, Davis begins to play melodic fills over the A Major chord at the end of the phrase. Examining these fills reveals their obvious relationship to each other; the former introduces a lyrical phrase, the latter embellishes it. Davis turns his melodic contributions at this point in the form into a recurring theme, developing new, but similarly melodic ideas at each verse.

sweetthing Fills1

Figure 56. “Sweet Thing,” phrase-concluding fills during first verse

In the second verse, Davis plays two clearly related ideas during the last two bars of the phrase. In the last cycle, he expands these measures into a flowing, lyrical six measure phrase to conclude the section.

sweetthing Fills2

Figure 57. “Sweet Thing,” phrase-concluding fills during second verse

Appropriately for the final verse, Davis summarizes material that has occurred previously. The 10ths refer to the first bridge. The first and third fills are related to those played in the first and second verses, and fills four and five take a similar intervallic shape but introduce a new rhythm. Davis concludes the section simply with high A naturals, which become the basis for the final bridge, creating a seamless transition.

sweetthing Fills3

Figure 58. “Sweet Thing,” phrase-concluding fills during third verse

In a very simple pop setting Richard Davis is able to create an interesting, compositional bass part. Not only does it seamlessly integrate a variety of ideas, it helps to build the intensity and interest of the song throughout.

Through his virtuosity and consistent, musical integration of a variety of techniques throughout these varied performances, Richard Davis has provided a strong example of how to develop a unique style that can enhance a wide variety of musical contexts. Examining these techniques separately provide many options for bassists to explore. Internalizing how the various motifs and musical threads connect throughout entire sections, or performances, can aid functional bassists in the journey towards masterful, compositional accompanists.

In a very simple pop setting Richard Davis is able to create an interesting, compositional bass part. Not only does it seamlessly integrate a variety of ideas, it helps to build the intensity and interest of the song throughout.

Through his virtuosity and consistent, musical integration of a variety of techniques throughout these varied performances, Richard Davis has provided a strong example of how to develop a unique style that can enhance a wide variety of musical contexts. Examining these techniques separately provide many options for bassists to explore. Internalizing how the various motifs and musical threads connect throughout entire sections, or performances, can aid functional bassists in the journey towards masterful, compositional accompanists.

Musical Maps and Explanations

The following maps outline Davis’ decisions of when and how specific devices are used throughout each transcribed composition, thus demonstrating his ‘arrangement’ for the piece and structure when organizing and developing his performance

Map of “Straight up and Down”

The impressionistic melody of his piece is composed, played in unison by Dolphy and trumpeter Don Cherry. Dolphy describes it as “a recurring figure around an improvised chorus. This figure, in 5/4, sets the rhythm section up with a definite solo feeling” (Spellman p. 4). Dolphy explains that “In the improvised sections, the rhythms overlap. The bass follows no bar line at all. Notice Tony. He doesn’t play time, he plays. Even though the rhythm section breaks the time up, there’s a basic pulse coming from inside the tune. That’s the pulse the musicians have to play” (Spellman p. 4). It takes Richard Davis a matter of seconds to modulate that pulse into a new, faster tempo once the solos begin.

Table 1. Map of “Straight Up and Down” – Eric Dolphy and Don Cherry’s Solos

Free improvisation, no specified form or tempo.

Form TimeDavis’ ActivitySoloists ActivityRhythm Section Activity

98 bpm

Dmin arpeggiation

Groove in tempo
1:03Establishing Riff

Sudden tempo change – no barlines

More angularD: Still swinging but must adjust
1:12D Dorian Riff

105 bpm

High register A and B / Open D

Repeated with little variation

Figure 23

Bluesy calls and Sparse angular linesPiano Doubles Melody
1:41Destruction of Riff / Tempo

Repetition / expansion of high register

Increasingly rapid

Ends with repeated high pitches

Figure 27

Angular single pitchesBoth continue grooving despite Davis
1:51Establishing Walking

Tempo increase.

Bass notes feel like upbeats

Barlines being established

Repeated phraseDrum roll
2:00D Dorian Walking


6 measures of traditional walking

Note use of B / F tritone

Bluesy ‘crying’D: Groove in tempo

V: upbeat riff

2:12-2:35Double Stops, Slides

Time suddenly destroyed

Maintains similar colors in intervals

and note choices

Figure 26

FlourishesD: More broken time, to steady time against. 2:24 goes to 2x time

2:35 vibes figure inspires new system

2:37-3:02Completely Free

Repeated notes

Random content

2:55 Tritone B / F (callback to 2:00)

Repeated high notes signal end

‘crying’ + flourishesD: Cooking groove against the freedom

2:55 vibe lines


Quarter notes, establishing a pulse

Drums/Vibes make this feel unlike

Traditional walking.

Continue- end with bluesy materialDrums break down the intensity
3:13Major 6ths to Minor 6ths

Repeated motif, establishing a groove

Cherry joins and matches DolphyLocking in to Davis
3:18Ostinato–Like Pattern

125 bpm

Repeated minor 6th, A-F, in time

No barlines, but hinting at 5/4

Lyrical phrases to Angular swinging linesD: March-like groove

V: Arpeggios


Same color, but Major 6th B to G#

5/4 repeated pattern

Figure 24

Denser / more angular lines
3:48Ostinato – Transposed

Same figure but literally transposed

ContinuedV: clusters
3:57New Ostinato

Sudden, instant change

D minor, ¾ pattern, D / A / high F

Gradually embellished and loosened

Flourishes / rapid linesD: Active cymbal-bell pattern, gradually breaks down

V: Clusters, flurries


Sliding around F (top note of pattern) and F# area

Fast pattern-oriented linesD: Grooving, increasing towards a 2x feel

V: Clusters, arpeggios

4:38Variation of 1:12 D Dorian Riff

Same pitch sequence at first

Out of time, repetition of top notes

Transposition of top notes w/ open D

Figure 28

Continues – to swinging linesD: Continue grooving

V: Sparse activity, single notes

5:00Fragmentation / Development of Riff

High register whole steps from 4:38

Expanded into a 16th note sus4 Arpeggio – repeated / transposed

Figure 28

Flourishes – swinging linesContinued
5:15Repeated High NotesSwinging linesContinued
5:25Double Stops / SlidingRepeated NotesD: Continued

V: Clusters

5:38D Dorian Walking


Strong, traditional walking

Long colored notes – lyricalDrums and vibes lock in

A valuable lesson for bass players here is that Davis takes an open canvas and makes it uniquely his through strong, clear intent. There is essentially no meandering in Richard Davis’ bass part, in that each ‘segment’ is defined by and draws upon compositionally related material. Because the riffs and walking bass lines are so clear, they create a form-like ‘section’ with a particular rhythmic and harmonic landscape. This provides something for the freer sections to contrast against, while creating two ends of a spectrum: structured and free, with a middle ground (the gradual rhythmic/harmonic destruction of riffs/basslines) that Davis fully explores. As shifts in this spectrum or introduction of new material often occurs abruptly, approached a certain freedom and looseness, their inherent logic and motivic relationship to each other may not be readily apparent to a casual listener on first pass. Some may potentially hear these sudden shifts as ‘disruptive’ acts of bass accompaniment, but the solo to solo analysis reveals otherwise.

Davis’ ability to recapitulate and expand upon material played early in the piece at later points adds considerable compositional depth to the overall performance. Ultimately Richard Davis plays a significant arrangement role through the particular placement of his powerful musical devices.

It is important to remember that infinite options are available to the bassist, particularly in such a free context. One could play chaotically throughout the entire performance (see, for example, bassist William Parker, who clearly does so with a ‘voice’ that would essentially be impossible to transcribe in musical notation), play exclusively walking bass, maintain fixed patterns throughout, or perhaps mix one or two of these ideas. How players negotiate this level of freedom provides a great insight into their personality. Davis’ ability to create what is essentially a logical composition with his balance of chaos and order, full of intensity and bursting with the flavor of the avant-garde is particularly noteworthy. In Eric Dolphy’s words:

“Richard Davis represents still another departure in avant-garde bass playing. Unlike most post Haden-LaFaro bassists, who’ve been largely concerned with catching up with the saxophone, today’s pre-eminent instrument, Richard Davis has stayed closer to the traditional heavy pizzicato bass lines, though he can strum and bow with the best of them. The importance of this is that in a rhythm section where everyone solos constantly (“Everyone’s a leader in this session,” says Eric.), Richard is a steady reference for changing rhythmic patterns… Richard doesn’t play the usual bass lines. He plays rhythm with his lines. He leads you somewhere else” (Spellman p. 3).

Map of “Rip, Rig and Panic”


Table 2. Map of “Rip, Rig and Panic”

279 bpm, AABA, 4/4 swing

Form TimeDavis’ ActivitySoloists ActivityRhythm Section Activity



High register / open E/D strings

Hemiola effect, wholetone tonality

Figure 25

Colored angular phrasesUptempo Jazz Time

Drums continue swinging throughout




4mm Angular, 4mm Stepwise

Figure 31

SimRiff like piano figure
Head1:53Stop TimeMelodyPiano Doubles Melody
A2:01Dmin Ostinato

Quarter notes w/ syncopation

High register pitches E and B

Low open strings bookend section

Figure 29

Lyrical phrase / responseLow reg. D minor lines
A2:08Dmin Ostinato

Quarter notes w/ syncopation

High register pitches E and B

Long note phrases to eighthsContinues
B12:14Intervallic Walking

Repetitive tritone sequences

Increasingly wide intervals

Figure 14

Constant chromatic legato eighth-notesRiff like piano figure

As per intro but busier


Pattern like previous A sections

Adjusted to pitches F and B

(Tritone sound also strong in B1)

Figure 30

Continues – forms melodic shapesBusy piano ‘rolls’
A2:28Dmin Walking

High register, based upon ostinato

High statements punctuated by low open strings. Merging of two registers.

Inside intervallic figure, transposed/ developedDmin swing comping


2:35Dmin Walking

Low D helps mark form

Continuation of previous A idea

Lyrical D minor phraseBusier Comping – Riff

CMajor based lyrical ostinato

All quarter notes, maintaining flow

Figure 17

Development of phrase /overtonesComping – tonality shift with Davis
B12:49Intervallic Walking

Tritone featured again

Figure 33

Chromatic to intervallic ala 2:28Very busy whole tone figures. Drums intensify
B22:56Intervallic Walking

Sudden high reg. marks form

Very wide intervals

Drastic changes in register

Sustained high notes to chromatic lineFigures Continue – transposed

Smoother contour with lower register to ‘mark’ phrases

Chromatic LinesSwing Comping


A3:16Ostinato-like Walking

2 bar walking phrase repeated

High note phrase repeated

Sounds like a ‘B section’ due to change of color

Two horns – chromatic to sustained chords.Stroll – Sparse Dissonant ‘banging’

Drums polyrhythm

B3:23Broken Playing

Figure 34

B3:29Broken Playing

Drums cover bass

Cont.Drums at most intense
A3:36Sliding TritonesVery inside

Modal lines

Tension releases

Map of “The Little Pixie” from The Complete Solid State Recordings

Table 3. Map of “The Little Pixie” from The Complete Solid State Recordings

222bpm, ‘rhythm changes,’ 4/4 swing

Form TimeDavis’ ActivitySoloists ActivityRhythm Section Activity
MelodyDespite the written bass part specifying quarter notes in the score, Davis adds several eighth note anticipations.

These are carefully placed to accent or respond to the activity of the horns.

A2:20Linear Walking

Linear with recurring Eb-E-F motif

Very ‘inside’ the tonality and chords

Cliché walkup pattern ends phrase

Figure 47

Right hand only. Short ideas, developedSwinging brushes
A2:28Linear Walking

First appearance of chromatic approach descending lick

Figure 41

B2:37Angular Walking

Noticeable increase in interval sizes

Use of arpeggiation

Reharmonization / repeated notes

Figure 48


development Longer phrases

A2:45Ostinato to Linear Walking

Repeated lyrical phrase cycling with open syncopated low A

Figure 18


add left hand



2:54Linear / Ostinato Walking

Eb – E – F motif as quarter notes

Figure 49

Longer phrases

High Ab pedal – dotted quarter note hemiola

Figure 1

Shorter phrases

denser rhythm / 2x lines

B3:11Angular Walking

Very colorful note choices- dramatic reharmonization. Some repeated notes. Measures of stepwise movement mixed with wider intervals

A3:19Ostinato to Linear Walking

Pattern using 10ths (Figure 17)

Use of repeated notes (Figure 6)

Figure 19

Figure 6

Shorter, motivic phrases


3:28Linear Walking

Shape of chromatic approach “lick” appears as quarter notes

Figure 42

8th note linesDrums to sticks

Piano swing comping

A3:36Linear WalkingContinued substitutions
B3:45Walking / Repeated Notes

Repeated notes at the end of section w/ reharm, idea continues into A

Figure 7

8th notes, bebop vocabulary
A3:53Repeated note / Walking

Starts with repeated note reharm (Fm)

ContinuedPiano hemiola


4:01Linear WalkingPlays off of backgroundsPiano lays out
A4:10Ostinato-Like Walking

Repetition of a 2 bar walking phrase

ContinuedSingle notes in piano
B4:18Linear Walking

A few repeated notes at the end of section

Longer notes to 8th note linesChromatic sustained comping

Repetitive quarter note walking phrase

Riff – some chromaticismPiano lays out


4:36Linear Walking8th note lines


A4:44Linear Walking + Lick

A longer, embellished version of the chromatic approach lick

Figure 43

Quarter triplet

to 8th note ideas

B4:51High ‘Pedal’ Phrase

4 bar motif of repeated high notes followed by walking phrase is played twice

8th note lines
A5:00Walking with Repeated Notes

2 bar phrases similar to 4:10

8th note lines


(Bari Solo / Walking Solo)
5:52Further expanded version of the chromatic approach lick occurs in Davis’ walking solo.

Figure 44

6:05Davis concludes his walking solo with 10ths in an ostinato-like pattern, fitting for the last A section.


6:16Linear Walking / Interplay

Walking is broken up to interact with soprano solo

Motivic figure

(interacts with Davis)

Drums soft

Piano out


Figure using perfect fifths – then transposed up an octave

ContinuedDrums join pattern
B6:32Repeated Notes

Dotted quarter hemiola

8th note linesDrums swing
A6:40Linear WalkingFigure to lines



1, b3, 2, b2 using perfect fifth embellishment—established from 6:24

Figure 20

Motivic 8th note playingPiano rejoins, pattern based on backgrounds
A6:56Ostinato continues8th note lines
B7:04Angular Walking

Abstract, large range, some rhythmic variation

8th note linesSwing comping
A7:13Ostinato like figureSparse

ends with trill

Back to figures w/ backgrounds


7:21Repeated Notes – Turning into pedal

Eb (dominant) pedal established

Lower register line
A7:29Eb PedalMotivic to

8th note lines

Continues, emphasized minor 3rd
B7:37Angular WalkingAngular linesRhythmic comping with similar register/sounds
A7:45Walking – to Ostinato

Begins with linear walking,

1, 6, b7, 7 ostinato established

Figure 21

Riff to flourishes#9 sound comping, sets up next horn backgrounds



1, 6, b7, 7

Flourishes to linesComping fits w/ horn backgrounds
A8:02Ostinato continuesLines


B8:10Angular Walking

Extreme register contrast

Flourishes to

high sustained notes

Rhythmic comping – denser chords
A8:18Ostinato ResumesLinesHorn backgrounds return


8:26Walking Solo

A: Linear Walking

B: 10ths, angular

A: 10ths / sliding

A: 10ths / sliding

B: Angular / abstract walking

A: Walking, ends with short fragment of ‘lick’ which has recurred

This is essentially a summary of his tendencies throughout the tune behind the soloists!

Though Davis’ musical choices and techniques vary frequently in this performance, note the structural consistencies that become themes in and of themselves— For example, the consistent use of an ostinato pattern in the final A section of the form becomes a ‘theme,’ as does the consistent use of more angular walking during the bridges (which often serve as a release for the pedals or riffs that occur during the first two A sections.) Even within the confines of the harmony and form of this composition, Davis shows limitless invention, compositional manipulation of the material, and the ability to logically connect his frequent changes in color to shape the overall composition.

Map of “The Little Pixie” from Opening Night

Table 4. Map of “The Little Pixie” from Opening Night

206bpm, ‘rhythm changes,’ 4/4 swing.

Form TimeDavis’ ActivitySoloists ActivityRhythm Section Activity
MelodyIn this version, Davis sticks to quarter notes as dictated by the written bass part
A4:57Linear Walking

Smooth contour

This section alone contains scalar, chromatic, and arpeggiated walking lines

Rest – single melodic phrase
A5:06Linear Walking

Expands range.

Note Eb – E – F cell from solid state recurs frequently in these A sections as well

Sparse motivic ideas to ‘outside’ line
B5:15Linear Walking

Some rhythmic anticipation

8th note lines


A5:24Linear Walking

Smooth, stepwise

8th note lines


Chorus 2

5:33Pedal / Walking

Repeated high Ab with interjected chromatic walking. Measure 39 contains high Ab to open D, basis of next section.

Figure 2

8th note lines

“Double” pedal of high Ab and open D. Ends with chromatic walking to setup bridge

Figure 3

Bluesy figures to lines
B5:51Angular Walking

Begins with theme of one high register phrase, one low register.

Second phrase is more linear

Flourishes / Lines
A6:00Repeated Note Walking

1, 3, 4 #4 pattern that has recurred throughout both performances at this point

8th note lines


Chorus 3

6:09Linear Walking

Very smooth descending to ascending contour. Note Eb – E – F, and repeated notes at measure 71.

8th note lines to flourishesHorn backgrounds, drums intensify
A6:17Repeated Note Walking

First phrase repeats notes for 4 beats, then two. Second phrase is linear

High trills / sustained notesHorn backgrounds, piano rolls
B6:26Angular Walking

Reharmonization. Several changes in direction. Ends with powerful open A

Figure 13

Flourishes to linesSwing comping
A6:35Pedal – Embellished

Tonic Ab pedal embellished with 5ths above

Figure 45

8th note linesBackgrounds

Piano rolls



Chorus 4


First measure is walking, but turns into 1, b3, 2, b2, with 5ths above. An extension of the previous section

Figure 46

Dense motivic figureTrumpet riff

Swing comping, lower register

A6:52Repeated Note Walking

Repeated notes with octave displacements. Ends with linear walking.

8th note lines to high registerContinues
B7:01Angular Walking

Extreme upper register walking while dropping occasional low open strings

Descending linesPiano two hand call / response

Tonic Ab Pedal with octave displacement.

Two note motif to linesTrumpet line

Lower register comping




Figure 4

Very intense – trills / flourishes etcDrums intensify greatly. Middle register rhythmic comping

Dissonant, sparse rhythmic comping

B7:36Angular WalkingContinues to LinesDrums back to 4/4 swing, but intense

Piano sparse, lower register

A7:44Ostinato to Walk8th note linesContinues, piano more active, lower register


7:53Pedal to Walk8th note linesHorn background hits
A8:01Linear Walking8th note lines chromaticismPiano out, drums swinging with intensity
B8:09Angular Walking / Repeated NotesLines, chromaticism


Piano sparse, higher register
A8:18Long notes – 8th notesIntensifying horn backgrounds to dissonant chord

It is particularly revealing to compare Davis’ performances of “The Little Pixie.” He clearly uses the same devices that create his unique style in both versions, often in similar ways; note the use pedals in the A sections, and the use angular walking in the bridges as a ‘release.’ The specifics of the material are almost never identical however, and always extend naturally from one section to the next. A strong high Ab to open D sound while walking sparks an entire section of this sound as a pedal. The ostinato at 6:43 is a direct development of the embellished pedal established in the previous section.

This contrast in performances proves that Davis not only invents material on the fly (often informed by those around him, such as in his interaction with the soprano solo,) but actively develops and derives the material in the moment. As this naturally leads him down different avenues and to different logical conclusions, it assures that every performance will be unique. At the same time, the material will naturally exist within the personal style he has derived through his technical approach and musical devices, giving it a unique, instantly identifiable quality.

It is important to remember that regardless of how well Richard Davis manages and integrates these various techniques, their very presence, particularly in such abundance, is the very essence of this study. If one were to make a ‘map’ of the included performance of George Mraz on the same composition with the same band, essentially all of the columns would read “linear walking.”As Kevin Reilly notes in his analysis of George Mraz performing the piece; “One undeniable way that Mraz successfully accompanies soloists is by utilizing (nearly entirely without exception) quarter notes as a rhythmic base throughout” (Reilly p. 11). This would also hold true for the majority of renowned bassists of the era playing a rhythm-change based composition in this context. Davis’ approach is the exception rather than the rule, and it is only because of his unique approach that the use of these maps is possible and valuable.

Map of “Land of Nod”

The solo section for land of Nod can be broken down as follows:


Figure 59. Solo form for “Land of Nod”

Andrew Hill solos on two complete cycles of this form.

Table 5. Map of “Land of Nod” from Black Fire

122 bpm, AAB, mysterious triplet / swing feel.

Form TimeDavis’ ActivitySoloists ActivityRhythm Section Activity
A1:34Roots embellished with 5ths

2 attacks per chord

Figure 35

Hits played with smooth contour, little to no embellishment

Figure 36

Sparse intervallic phrases, runs between hitsRide cymbal only, broken feel. Concludes with brief tom / snare / crash
A1:51Roots as double stops in 5ths

Figure 37

One 16th note embellishment in hits, ascending contour towards B

Broken, loose lines –More active ride cymbal, some polyrhythmic snare rim clicks

D – Eb based ostinato

Concludes with open G

Figure 22

Chordal, broken lines, chordalVery broken


2:17Roots embellished with 5ths

3 attacks, two roots and 5th above

Roots as double stops

Figure 38

Two 16th note embellishments in hits.

Note four consecutive quarter notes in m. 29

Figure 39

Chords connected with linesBroken ride cymbal, more active subdivisions
A2:33Roots embellished.

3 attacks per chord, one root, 5th

then 6th above

Figure 40

Unembellished hits, again ascending towards B section

Denser lines w/ harmonyContinues
B2:45High register, dense, intensely rhythmic linear playing.

Concludes with D – Eb fragment of first B, concludes with G to high register A (reference to melody)

Figure 10

Angular, left / right hand interplaySingle snare shot, then cymbal continues

Map of “Sweet Thing”

Table 6. Map of “Sweet Thing”

172 bpm, A (verse) B (chorus), 3/4 acoustic pop

Form TimeDavis’ ActivitySoloists ActivityRhythm Section Activity
Intro0:00Sliding 5th down as entrance

Octaves, Fifths, Mixed Rhythms and some sliding embellishment.

Except 10ths, nearly every device Davis will use is introduced in these 9 measures

Strumming acoustic guitar
A0:15Roots with mixed rhythms

Upon entrance of drums, Davis begins playing fills during the last 2 or 4 bars of the phrase (A major)

Drums / pads enter at 0:43
B1:04Use of 10ths

Low / high registers sounding via use of open strings

A1:30Roots with octaves

10ths during first A major phrase

Fills resume during A major

Roots expand to fifth / octave embellishments, with use of high register

B2:19Octave / 5th embellishments

Some sliding embellishment of notes

A2:43Mixture of octaves, 5ths, and 10ths, varying registers

Fills during A major

B3:33Use of 10ths and octaves

Low / high registers sounding

Some sliding embellishment of notes

One of the most significant aspects of Davis’ playing clearly revealed through the maps is his inherent sense of compositional form. Many of his musical devices recur at similar points in the composition- the angular bridge sections and riff-based last ‘A’ sections of “The Little Pixie,” the motifs to introduce soloists in “Straight Up and Down,” the intervallic walking on the bridges of “Rip, Rig, and Panic,” and so on. This heightens the musical impact of these techniques by turning their very presence into motifs, while leading the rhythm section to create a coherent arrangement behind the soloist.

The underlying foundation of Davis’ playing is variation; while all of these sonic and musical devices are interesting in their own right, Davis uses a constant balanced combination of them as the basis of his playing. This goes against the standard practice of using these techniques as a dramatic departure from a more transparent, simplistic foundation of walking bass or repetitive patterns. One may see several, if not all, of these techniques in the space of a chorus or two of solo accompaniment (for example, the first two choruses of the piano solo in the Solid State version of “The Little Pixie”). A few measures of scalar, contoured playing are usually balanced by a leap, pedal, or some other offsetting device. When things seem to be getting particularly abstract, Davis will rein things in suddenly with an undeniably clear statement, and vice-versa.

Davis is able to take this approach because his strong time, absolute clarity, compositional integrity and harmonic sensibility automatically make him an exceptional rhythm section player. There is never an issue of his taking care of the necessary duties of supporting the band and providing appropriate accompaniment. Through his use of the various techniques discussed however, Davis creates more intense and frequent moments of tension and release. His intelligent manipulation and integration of motives and thematic material throughout the performance weaves these various sections together in a musical way. This controlled creativity creates a constant anticipation of what is going to come next, yet at the same time instills a confidence that things will remain musical and never stray out of control. This feeling is integral to the spontaneous, exciting atmosphere so beloved in jazz. Simultaneously, Davis helps create the arrangement for every performance by pushing the music down certain avenues, and as the maps demonstrate, he does so with a particular sense of balance and structure.

Chapter V: Conclusion

Richard Davis clearly developed a unique approach to bass accompaniment that while

rooted in tradition, is fearlessly creative and individual. His style challenges accepted practices about what the bass can do in a variety of situations, and through his deep musicality, succeeds greatly. The conclusions reached by the analysis of his performances reveal that bassists have an incredibly vast palette of musical and sonic devices that can be used at certain times, in certain ways, to paint their own unique backdrop. Awareness of this concept is critical in progressing towards artistic levels beyond merely a functional sideman. One can certainly make a living pumping out chorus after chorus of correct notes in time, but Richard Davis’ career demonstrates that a stylized accompanist is also a valued one. First rate musicians of all genres welcomed Richard Davis’ uncompromising musical presence, and the fact that his adventurous performances made it to tape without being simplified by producers, bandleaders, etc., proves that Davis’ performances brought something special to the music. It is my hope that the lessons learned through the study of Richard Davis will aid anyone interested in achieving this balance of creativity and career success.


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  1. keith

    beautiful! thank you so much for posting this. you and i were at berklee studying bass about the same time. i look forward to reading this much more deeply.

    • Evan

      Thanks Keith, hope you enjoy it.

  2. Tore Landro

    I`ve been doing a note-for-note transcription of the Astral Weeks album as a hobby for the last couple of years and have found very little transcriptions and analysis of Richard Davis style so thanks for this! I have transcribed all the bass parts on the album and there is a lot going on. What a great player he is! I`m not a bass player myself so I don`t know how accurate they are though.

    • Evan

      That’s great. I hope you share them online in some way!


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