Jazz and the great outdoors aren't commonly associated with each other, but for bassist and bandleader Jason Davis, they've been the twin poles of an emerging career that's as much - pardon the pun - about timber as it is about timbre.
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That's because Davis is not just a classically trained bassist whose tastes range from Stravinsky to Brazilian music, but also an environmental researcher and former park ranger at places like the Cape Cod National Seashore. He has one master's degree in classical performance, and another in ecology.
Now Davis, 31, who grew up in Lexington and is back on the Boston scene after time away for study in Florida and Costa Rica, is merging his fascinations in Earthsound. The new project allies straight-ahead jazz, Latin rhythms, and environmental noise - sounds harvested from nature by means of field recordings.
The group, which includes flutist Fernando Brandao, pianist Doug Johnson, and Peruvian percussionist Jorge Perez-Albela, plays the Lily Pad in Cambridge on Wednesday. At a recent gig, they were joined by klezmer expert Hankus Netsky. Tracks from that show, available online, show a warm polyglot sensibility; they include a Brazilian choro and a Peruvian waltz. But another is more open-ended and edgy: It has Davis and Brandao improvising over a backdrop of crickets and frogs in full voice in a Midwestern field.
On the phone from his home in Lexington, Davis says he's still working out the issues involved in composing with environmental sounds, and he's aware of potential pitfalls.
What I'm really conscious of trying to avoid is the cheese factor, he says. I don't want this to be labeled New Age, light music. It's an intense music in that it draws from the pure jazz tradition. It's not watered-down music for meditation, not that there's anything wrong with that.
There's a high-art tradition of working with sounds from nature that predates the Aquarian age; Davis cites Olivier Messiaen's work with birdsong as the leading example. He could go out with music paper and notate it right there in the field, he says.
Davis says he's far from that level of proficiency, but he has noticed that working with natural sounds has pushed his playing. I've been trying more unusual techniques with the bow and the very insect-like technique called sul pontecello that you can get by playing very close to the bridge of the bass.
It was a potentially catastrophic event in his early musical career that drew Davis to environmental work. In his first year of a music program at McGill University in Montreal, he developed a bad case of tinnitus - constant ringing in both ears.
It was a crisis, you could call it, he says. I pulled out of school, and I spent a lot of time in the woods thinking about things. He switched to a forestry program at UMass on little more than a whim. By the time he worked his way back to music, overcoming the tinnitus through habituation and specialized earplugs for performance, he had become attuned to nature's soundtrack.
A lot of sounds in nature are high-pitched and very fast, he says. But music has evolved to accommodate the sound of the human voice, which is much lower. I like experimenting with adjusting to different kinds of sounds. But I've not only driven toward that. I feel perfectly comfortable playing a walking bass line as well.
Davis is now working with sounds from the Monteverde region in Costa Rica; for the moment, he's using field recordings from other researchers but plans on soon harvesting his own. He knows the area well from having done his ecology thesis there, on the social history of the community's relationship to the local protected nature area.
Now, reaffirming the relationship between people and nature is at the heart of his music practice.
There's a certain aspect of being present in the world that's harder to do today, he says. We're not encouraged to be present to the sounds and sights around us. Not just in the wilderness - even just walking down Commonwealth Avenue - you can catch a rhythm of things, and hear things that are unique.
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Upright bass and various electric basses. 7-string nylon string guitar.