“There are many ways I communicate through music,” says pianist and composer Roger Davidson. And his work speaks of a man of profound spiritual concerns, worldly sensibility and an unquenchable curiosity. It has taken the form of choral, orchestral, chamber music, jazz, Brazilian, tango or klezmer. But it is also articulated by the work of The Society for Universal Sacred Music, a global organization he founded to spread a spiritual message through music, and Soundbrush Records, his critically acclaimed music label. For Davidson, “it’s the same statement expressed in a different ways.”
Roger Davidson was born in Paris in 1952 to a French mother and an American father. The family moved to New York when he was a year old. He started playing piano on his own at 4, and taking violin lessons at 8. “Playing the piano is all I did. We didn’t have a TV,” he reminisces. “Two things I did as a kid for entertainment: I climbed up the piano bench and played, and I read about cars, a hobby I still have.”
Although he taught himself how to read and write music, Davidson learned to play through improvising, a practice that has served him well as a jazz pianist. But, he says, “I had to take piano lessons in graduate school because I had to learn repertoire.”
He attended Boston University, studying with David Del Tredici and Theodore Antoniou among others, and earning a master’s degree in composition in 1980. After graduating, he studied with early baroque music scholar Sidney Beck. It was at his suggestion, that Davidson enrolled at Westminster Choir College, in Princeton, New Jersey. “I wasn’t intending to pursue choral conducting, “ says Davidson. “ I was already an orchestral conductor. I had started a community orchestra in Boston while I was a student. But they didn’t have a composition program at Westminster at the time.”
However, while at Westminster he also began writing choral music, which soon bloomed into the expression of a personal mission. “I realized early on that any choral music I’d write had to have a message of unity and aspiration that included all humanity. This was not about one faith,” he explains. “This was about celebrating what we all have in common, not what separates us.” He coined the term “universal sacred music,” and, in 2000 , founded the Society for Universal Sacred Music “with the mission of creating a repertoire of music to express the unity of God and especially His unconditional love for all humanity.” Since then, the Society, has become a global organization which has already commissioned new works and organized festivals and performances around the world.
After graduating, Davidson spent a summer in Germany, studying voice and teaching improvisation at the Lichtenberger Institut (near Darmstadt). Returning to New York, he unexpectedly reconnected with the late Helen Keane, jazz producer and longtime manager of pianist Bill Evans. Davidson had met Keane while he was a child. She was the mother of a schoolmate and friend. Keane had not only given Davidson his first Evans album, but also gave him a glimpse of another world.
“I was 10 or 11 she took me and her son to recording sessions. I remember we heard Woody Herman, and in another instance also [folk singer] Jo Mapes. Helen was also producing folk musicians then.” The two lost touch with each other, but in 1987, Keane attended a concert by Davidson. “And after the concert she came up and said ‘Nice to see you again. You played really well. How about jazz?’,” recalls Davidson.
“Actually, I’d been listening to jazz since I was a child,” says Davidson. “I loved improvisation and rhythm. I just didn’t think I knew enough.” And by the time Keane reappeared in his life, he had also attended the Stanford Jazz Workshop at Stanford University, CA, twice: in 1983, when the main teacher was Stan Getz, and 1984, when it was led by Dizzy Gillespie.
Keane introduced Davidson to bassist David Finck, and drummer Dave Ratajczak, “and it was like awakening a part of myself that hadn’t been fully awake. I had learned by improvising and jazz is the best musical vehicle for that.”
The informal sessions led to a recording. It was “a trial run,’” recalls Davidson, but, the 11 tracks recorded in 1991 were eventually were released as Ten to Twelve by Soundbrush Records in 2006, the label Davidson founded in 1997.
The name alludes to the initial concept of documenting projects involving visual arts and music. But since, Soundbrush has grown both in breadth and depth. In his various capacities as the label’s main artist, producer and A&R man, Davidson has developed an impressive roster of hand-picked musicians from around the world and a broad, diverse catalogue that already has won the label a Latin Grammy. And throughout, Davidson has remained true to his vision.
“The most important thing for me is: does the music we pick have passion, energy, or is it too cerebral?” he says. “A lot of jazz is completely in the head and does not come from the heart. All the music at Soundbrush Records has to have a feeling, come from somewhere. The music has to connect emotionally.”
It’s not surprising, then, that Davidson would become increasingly intrigued by tango, Brazilian music and, most recently, klezmer, all styles that elicit, and demand, direct emotional responses.
“I heard tangos most of my life,” says Davidson. “But as a player I got interested in the late 80s, and I started to write a few tangos in the early 90s.”
His tango explorations as a composer were first documented on Mango Tango (1995), a recording “featuring different kinds of tango, not just Argentine.” Since, he has also recorded Amor por el Tango (2002) and Pasión Por La Vida (2008), a duet with Latin GRAMMY winning Raúl Jaurena, a master of the bandoneón, the button squeezebox that is the quintessential instrument in tango. Jaurena, won his Latin GRAMMY in 2007 for Te Amo Tango, a Soundbrush Records release.
But Davidson has also had a long standing love affair with Brazilian music, sparked by hearing Stan Getz and Gary McFarland’s Big Band Bossa Nova when he was still a child. He has recorded Rodgers in Rio (2005), a Brazilian-tinged take of Richard Rodgers’ standards, Bom Dia (2007), which included some of his own songs, and Brazilian Love Song (2009).
The pianist’s most recent release, however, is On the Road of Life, a collaboration with contemporary klezmer master Frank London and featuring virtuoso clarinetist Andy Statman and master accordionist and cimbalom player Joshua Horowitz.
But for all his diverse interests, Davidson sees his efforts as a composer and interpreter, as well as his work with Soundbrush and the Society for Universal Sacred Music, articulating a single vision.
“The spiritual core is what I’m doing with the Society,” explains Davidson. “But , in essence, Soundbrush Records is not that different from that. Look at our artists, listen to our music. We all come from different places. We are a cross-cultural organization, and the nature of what we are doing is building bridges between people.”
Helping humanity to cross those bridges into a more unified world is Roger’s goal.