Davey Williams comes to AVA with free-improv guitar playing and humor
For four decades, the Birmingham, Ala. guitarist Davey Williams has taken the blues into radical and wild territories, so that it’s unrecognizable as blues anymore. Alongside Henry Kaiser and Eugene Chadbourne, Williams is considered to be one of the “three founding fathers of American free improvisational guitar”—which is improvised playing that avoids any particular genre—and is the subject of an in-production documentary film entitled “Convulsive Blues”, which takes its name from the unique style that Williams invented.
Williams began his tutelage as a 19-year-old with the blues master Johnny Shines—who learned from and toured with Robert Johnson—and in the ’70s, he began to explore the free-improv world with violinist/violist LaDonna Smith; the two were co-founders of Trans Museq—both a performing group and record label—and the journal the improvisor.
Williams made a splash in the downtown NYC avant-jazz scene in the ’80s as a member of the band Curlew and was an early collaborator with composer, saxophonist and MacArthur grant recipient John Zorn.
With an appropriately playful attitude, Williams penned the book “Solo Gig: Essential Curiosities in Musical Free Improvisation”, an insightful and humorous collection of essays, which appeared in an early form in Zorn’s Arcana book series.
Williams answered questions for The Pulse via email in advance of his performance and book reading at AVA on July 25.
The Pulse: Playing free improv involves not falling back on habits. What do you do to avoid habits?
Davey Williams: Actually it’s more like the habits fall back on me. Don’t recognize them until I’m already repeating myself in some way. In varying degrees, I catch myself red-handed approximately every two minutes. Habits ride on “feel-good” moments and recur kind of unconsciously, and so are an inherent challenge to “clear transmission” and in-the-moment interactions.
In any case it’s mostly about paying attention to the playing, trying to be aware of deja-vu-type patterns, scanning for the revelatory anomaly, not getting too settled into any sonic area. Remaining leery of “favorites.”
One thing that seems to help me avoid habits is trying to play types of music that I don’t really know much about playing. Jazz standards chord charts, R&B hits, etc. make the fingers have to move out of the familiar. However, in doing this it’s important to not try to actually get “good” at playing jazz standards, of course. Not reading music is a big help here. Anyway, when it comes to misusing swing, say, you’ve got to stay on your toes.
TP: What is your favorite device you’ve used in your guitar playing?
DW: The best device I ever used was the motorized baseball glove, which I wore (unmotorized) in Little League, and which was a far better musician than me.
TP: In your essay “An Unlikely Crisis” you mention how free improv is working its way into formal music study. What are your thoughts on this?
DW: On the one hand, free improvisation as a method of composing is rightly (finally) beginning to be taken seriously as a formal music study subject, and not just in situations where experienced improvisers get teaching jobs.
The way it could become detrimentally codified would be when it is being taught by people who haven’t actually “gotten it.” When the inherent eccentricity of free improvising is not internalized as [a] vital component, when the most “famous” improvisers are regarded as legitimate and improvisation as a “folk music” is marginalized as a “non-professional” endeavor.
Ideally, free improvisation perhaps should be a requisite course for degrees in sociology, psychology, political science, etc., since it involves all these areas, as well as sound production. And hey, come to think of it, maybe it could also get tied into athletic scholarships or something. Quantum research, veterinary certification.
TP: I feel like sometimes a sense of humor pervades your music. What are your thoughts on conveying humor in music?
DW: I don’t know about conveying it, but humor is the great unifier. Laughing together is one of the only times when people are in complete intellectual agreement, with a shared experience of something communally funny.
However, humor has a mind of its own. Unlike comedy (jokes, routines, etc.) humor “self-occurs,” so to speak. If I try to have anything to do with its occurrence, embarrassment follows. For me at least, consciously trying to “make funny” is very dangerous territory. Humor is a wild animal; try to rope it in and instead of deer in the backyard you wind up with a bear going though your refrigerator.
Even worse scenario: sock drawer.
AVA and the Shaking Ray Levi Society present: Davey Williams with Evan Lipson and Bob Stagner
July 25, 7:30 p.m., $10
($8 for ages 25 and under)
30 Frazier Ave.