Pianist Xavier Davis Salutes Motor City


Pianist Xavier Davis explores historical themes on his new album, Rise Up Detroit.

(Photo: Ed Serecky)

Even though Xavier Davis hails from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and teaches jazz piano at Michigan State University in East Lansing, he’s never lived in Detroit. Still, he claims the Motor City as his adopted hometown. He likens Detroit’s towering significance in the Wolverine State to that of New York City’s in the Empire State. “Detroit has had such an impact on [Michigan],” said the 47-year-old Davis, who remembers being excited at seeing so many established black people when he visited Detroit as a child. “When Detroit suffers, the whole state of Michigan suffers. When Detroit does well, the whole state does well.”

Detroit’s heralded jazz legacy understandably played a substantial role in Davis’ artistic development. It provided his entry point into the jazz scene after he met bassist Rodney Whitaker, drummer Gerald Cleaver and fellow pianist Craig Taborn, while he was a freshman majoring in electrical engineering at the University of Michigan. After switching his undergraduate major to music and transferring to Western Michigan University, he encountered an icon: Betty Carter (1929–’98), a native of Flint. Carter recruited him for her trio in the mid-’90s after seeing him perform at a conference for the International Association for Jazz Education (the organization that preceded the Jazz Education Network).

On his new album, Rise Up Detroit (Detroit Music Factory), Davis tips his hat to the city that once was nicknamed “The Paris of the Midwest.” Given the significance of the city’s social, political, industrial and cultural history, Davis could have explored many of its facets. But he narrows his thematic focus on the Underground Railroad and the Great Migration, which brought many African-Americans from the South to the city and its booming auto industry. “I tried to focus on the role Detroit has had on the lives of African-Americans and on the world at large,” Davis explained. “I was just in Tokyo; people there were listening to Aretha Franklin and Barry Harris. And they’re driving cars.”

Supported by a grant from Michigan State University’s Humanities and Arts Research Program, Davis began composing music about Detroit. He also wanted to create arrangements for a string ensemble, which Rise Up Detroit wonderfully showcases. In addition to leading a splendid trio that features Whitaker and drummer Quincy Davis, the pianist buttresses his supple improvisations and haunting melodies with a string quartet led by violinist Regina Carter. The combined forces result in dynamic post-Motown bop, underscored with a sumptuous, cinematic sweep. Although Davis previously has penned string arrangements for other musicians, notably trumpeter Tom Harrell, Rise Up Detroit provided a wider sonic canvas.

Carter praised Davis’ writing for strings as being both “a joy” and a challenge. “His writing for the string quartet provided parts full of rhythmic and harmonic depth, and nuance,” she said.

While Detroit’s halcyon years are evoked, Davis doesn’t avoid addressing some of the city’s more somber issues, such as economic and population decline. “Black Paradise,” the centerpiece of Rise Up Detroit, focuses on the Black Bottom, a once thriving African-American neighborhood that nearly was demolished by the construction of the Chrysler Freeway. “People ended up living in public housing or just leaving the city after Interstate 75 was built,” Davis explained. “It’s a very tragic part of Detroit’s history for many people.”

He depicts that departure on the blues-drenched, McCoy Tyner-ish “Exodus.” “There’s a section in ‘Exodus’ where [the mood] changes from sadness to something more upbeat, as if someone was having fond childhood memories while seeing Detroit’s skyline from a rear-view mirror,” Davis said. “I’ve come to appreciate Detroit even more with the more recent struggles it’s going through. Rise Up Detroit is something that I can do to lift up the city. I put myself indirectly in Detroit’s jazz lineage. I don’t want to disrespect anyone from Detroit by saying that I’m a Detroiter. But just through my connections with the city, it’s my adopted home, musically.” DB

  • Herb_Alpert_-_Press_Photo_01_%28credit_Dewey_Nicks%29_copy.jpg

    “I like to just click on songs that touched me and see if I could do them in a personal way — especially if it’s a well-known song,” Alpert said about selecting material for his new album.

  • Les_McCann_by_C_Andrew_Hovan_copy.jpg

    McCann’s deep roots in gospel and the blues gave his music a gritty, earthy quality and a large supply of soulful licks.

  • 1_Black_Men_of_Labor_Second_Line_Parade_copy.jpg

    The Black Men of Labor Club leads a second line parade, from the documentary City of a Million Dreams.

  • image002_copy.jpg

    ​The Blue Note Quintet includes Gerald Clayton, Immanuel Wilkins, Joel Ross, Kendrick Scott and Matt Brewer. The all-star collective embarks on a North American tour this month.

  • 24_Emmet_Cohen_GABRIELAGABRIELAA_copy_2.JPG

    Emmet Cohen, right, with one of his heroes, Houston Person.