Tom Davis - mastering jazz by playing away

Heard the one about the American musician who came over to Scotland and broadened his jazz horizons? Guitarist Tom Davis has been capturing more and more people’s attention since he arrived from Ohio in 2010 to take his Masters degree at Edinburgh University.

Having checked out the local music scene and made a few friends, on his graduation the following year Davis and his wife decided to stay, and now he’s a weel-kent face, turning up on gigs playing across the spectrum of jazz from 1920s hot jazz through Django Reinhardt-esque gypsy jazz, Oscar Peterson-style swing to jazz-funk. So well-adjusted to the Edinburgh gigging life has he become in fact that he’s also found work in a ceilidh band and recently played on a hit-and-run trip to Nigeria for the Lagos St Andrew’s Society.

“Coming to Scotland and learning about different jazz styles maybe seems a bit odd,” he says. “But jazz is no longer just American music; everybody’s got it. I’ve been really lucky because I probably never would have thought to play in the old-time style back home and although I was aware of Oscar Peterson, it wasn’t a style I was really familiar with until I got a chance to play with Brian Kellock, who’s a great musician. There’s a lot of really great players here and they’ve been very good to me, very patient, taking me along on gigs and letting me sit in.”

Davis came to the guitar by accident. He’d been playing saxophone in the school concert band in Coshocton, a small town in Ohio that has a strong Native American history, when rooting around in the basement at home one day he came across the guitar his father had played as a youth.

“He’d never played at home but he’d been into folk and country music and he owned this cherry red electric guitar with a whammy bar [the tremolo arm that alters string pitch], so it ticked a lot of boxes with an impressionable teenager,” says Davis. “He showed me a couple of chords and got me a chord dictionary and I slowly and very unmusically worked my way through that, learning every chord shape in the book.”

At college in Ohio’s state capital, Columbus, from 2002 Davis took a Liberal Arts course, played bass in a rock band and found a true mentor in Stan Smith, a local jazz educator who introduced him to his two great heroes, Jim Hall and Kenny Burrell. It took three or four years of studies with Smith and a classic piece of serendipity, however, before Davis felt able to put ‘jazz guitarist’ on his business card.

In 2006 the college band came over to Europe and played jazz festivals including the famous Montreux and Umbria events and as the students got to talking and bonding more closely, it turned out that one of his colleagues’ father owned a restaurant in Columbus and was looking to add live music to the menu. Davis had been playing saxophone in the college band but he got the gig on guitar with a bass player and as he says “while no-one was really listening” he strengthened his jazz chops and gained confidence.

For his Master degree Davis wrote a thesis that involved interviewing his hero Jim Hall, an experience that has become all the more cherishable since Hall at the beginning of last month. Hall was also a major factor in the band Davis co-led with saxophonist Martin Kershaw at Edinburgh Jazz Festival this summer and will exert an influence as Davis leads a new quartet, again with Kershaw, in one of several gigs he’s playing at the Jazz Bar in Edinburgh over the early days of January. The new band will then be put on ice as Davis and his wife, their visas having expired, return to the US on January 16.

“We’re not sure what we’re going to do or where we’ll end up – that’s a decision I guess we’re going to have to make quite soon,” says Davis. “But I’ll be back in Scotland in the summer for some festival gigs and I’ve no intention of losing the connections I’ve made since I’ve been here. I’m hoping that some of the people I’ve been playing with over here will come and visit us and play wherever we end up in the States. You can tell them we’ll have a couch for them to sleep on.”

Tom Davis Quartet appears at the Jazz Bar, Edinburgh on January 8.


From The Herald, January 1, 2014.

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