Mark Davidson did a bit of everything during his outdoor concert Sunday at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center. The pianist-composer-arranger presented jazz, blues, New Age, country and bluegrass during two hours of music. And surprisingly, it all went together as naturally as a pickup truck and a country road.
Davidson’s infrequent performances give glimpses into his personality while reflecting his wide tastes and an unbridled sense of composition. This program, which featured two guest violinists and a saucy vocalist along with the core group of Davidson, guitarist Ron Eschete, bassist Andy Simpkins and drummer Ray Brinker, was an eclectic, good-natured gathering, though certain numbers were occasionally too ambitious for their own good.
Davidson likes to keep the listener and his fellow musicians on their toes, and he accomplishes this by putting in bunches of rhythmic and harmonic twists. “Bluesette,” a simple, dance-styled number, opened with Davidson’s classically astute lines giving way to a solid pulse for his own solo and a hard-driving beat for Eschete’s. The guitarist’s dramatic solo on “Music of the Night” suddenly disappeared in an abrupt close.
At times, all these changes stood in the way of the musical flow, interrupting melodic progressions with needless turns. They seemed all the more a hindrance to the rhythm section, which often hit the changes with hesitancy rather than confidence.
On the other hand, one couldn’t help but be drawn into the tunes as they unfolded, especially the familiar ones like “Summertime,” to see where Davidson would take them. And with the constant shuffling of guests and musical styles, there was plenty of song-to-song variety to sustain interest.
Violinist Larry Murphy spiced “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” with sliding cries and whimpers and a bit of country twang. He was joined by student violinist Kristen Autry for a showdown on “Orange Blossom Special,” with Eschete adding country-fried rhythm accompaniment. Autry later joined the rhythm section to play Lennon-McCartney’s “Michelle,” which she gave a reserved, moody reading filled with blues touches.
Vocalist Camilla Ming made a striking impression singing “The Very Thought of You,” a hard-swinging “Summertime” and a reflective “Smile.” Her innocent, girl-next-door tones and direct rhythmic treatments gave her numbers a youthful, genuine feel. After Davidson sang the words to his own song, “A Rainbow Shines,” Ming followed in a way that made the complicated lyric develop as naturally as conversation.
Davidson’s band members deserve credit for the doggedness of their play. Given the number of alterations written into such familiar numbers as “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” and “Exactly Like You,” the group did well to stick together.
Eschete and Simpkins, both rhythm-minded players, gave the group a pulse-heavy sound that Davidson underscored with his left hand. Drummer Brinker supplied admirable color and to-the-beat play but seemed at a loss in making more challenging numbers swing.
Davidson’s own compositions, here represented by tunes so new they didn’t yet have names, took on New Age characteristics with their lush harmonics and ballad-like melodies. Both a waltz and a piece dubbed “New 4/4" moved through a number of mood and rhythm changes, just what you’d expect from a guy who can turn a number like “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” inside out.