Step on Some Toes — the Richard Davis—Mel Lewis Rhythm Section

This excellent article by Vinnie Sperrazza gave me food for thought. Sperrazza dissects the dynamic between Richard Davis and Mel Lewis in the early carnation of the Thad Jones—Mel Lewis Orchestra. I sometimes get tasked with playing the TJ-ML classics with the WDR Big Band, and it throws me into an introspective conundrum about how to approach the music. I want to play like myself, above all other considerations, but the legacy of the TJ-ML bassists looms large: from the wild unabandoned explorations of Richard Davis; to George Mraz and his virtuosity; Rufus Reid and his creatively personal sound; and Dennis Irwin (bassist with the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra and later the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra)—the consummate down-the-middle swinger with a huge acoustic sound and bebop sensibilities.

            Guitarist Sam Herman is seldom mentioned as an essential part of the Thad Jones—Mel Lewis rhythm section on the early recordings from the Village Vanguard [Live at the Village Vanguard, Solid State, 1967]. A solid rhythm guitar player in the style of Freddie Green, Herman was a favorite of Quincy Jones. He made the transition from 4/4 rhythm guitar player in big bands to a jack-of-all-trades studio player in the ‘60s. Herman gave the Thad Jones—Mel Lewis band a connection to the swing big bands of Basie and Quincy Jones, allowing Richard Davis to stretch out while still having the solid, 4/4 rhythm guitar underpinning the band. On the first Vanguard recordings, Herman can be felt and heard as a perpetual groove in the rhythm section—hard to hear, but he’s there. With Herman’s grounding—along with Mel’s impeccable support—Davis’s lines and flights of fancy could take off, creating the danger and excitement associated with this group.

            I’ve sometimes heard from bandleaders over the years that I should “play like Richard Davis” on a particular chart. I assume that they mean they want the band to swing madly, and for the bass to play a dominant role in the rhythm section—I don’t know if they really want the “danger and excitement” in the style of Davis from the Solid-State recordings—maybe they do, and I’m not making the leap. 

            When I think of “playing like Richard Davis,” I go for my own sound, but allow myself the liberty to step on some toes and go over the line. The best jazz is created on the edge of the comfort zone, and we never know where the edge is until we slip off and grapple to get back to safety.

Richard Davis recorded with practically everyone on the New York jazz scene of the ’60s and ’70s: Eric Dolphy, Elvin Jones, Thad Jones, Gil Evans, Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson. The rhythm section team of drummer Mel Lewis and Davis were at the top of their game at the time, playing every Monday night at the fabled Village Vanguard with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. “Mel Lewis is one of my favorite drummers of all time,” Davis told me in an interview [Bass Player Magazine, 2014], “We were made for each other.”

            The pair supplemented their creative music projects with a heavy rotation of studio work, playing commercial jingles and backing up pop, rock and folk acts. “I was in the studios every day, doing jingles, recording sessions, broadcasts—you name it,” says Davis. 

Producer Peter Matz hired Davis and Lewis for all kinds of projects, including the Streisand albums from the ‘60s. Mel and Davis continued to work several times a week as a rhythm section on jazz and commercial recording dates. During 1965, the duo could be heard on everything from Schaefer beer commercials, to a pop record, to a singing puppet sketch on a network television show.

            In his biography, Lewis recalls the mix of styles that were covered by the studio musicians of the day. Said Lewis, “Richard and I have spent days together, where we start with a Dixieland jingle on Tiger Rag, go on to a Jimmy Dean country-and-western date, and wind up playing something really far out—from one extreme to the other.” [The View from The Back Of The Band, Chris Smith, University of North Texas Press, 2014]

            I’ve compiled an overview of several videos featuring Richard Davis, plus several of his successors with the Thad Jones—Mel Lewis Orchestra. I’d also like to mention the current incarnation of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra with the great rhythm section carrying on in tradition of these great bands: John Riley (drums), David Wong (bass), Adam Birnbaum (piano).

            Enjoy the videos, which document the history of the Thad Jones—Mel Lewis Orchestra. Pay special attention to the bass players and how they relate to the written parts, improvised parts, and especially Mel and the rest of the ensemble.

Thad Jones — Mel Lewis, 1968

Here’s the band in Europe, a year after their auspicious debut albums from the Village Vanguard. There’s no guitarist in the rhythm section here, but the band is comfortable, and Davis, Lewis, and Hanna have found a magical balance of swing and cutting-edge rhythm section techniques.

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Thad Jones - Mel Lewis Orchestra (April 22, 1968) - Jazz Casual
Thad Jones & Mel Lewis Big Band 1970

You can hear Davis’s intro to “Willow Weep for Me” here:

Thad Jones & Mel Lewis Big Band 1970

Thad Jones — Mel Lewis, 1974

Here’s the band with the young George Mraz on bass.

Thad Jones Mel Lewis Big Band In Norway 1974

Thad Jones — Mel Lewis, 1976

With the great Bob Bowman on bass.

Thad Jones - Mel Lewis Orchestra Domile, München July 8, 1976

Thad Jones — Mel Lewis, 1978 “Fingers,” with Rufus Reid on bass.

Here’s Rufus stirring things up during Harold Danko’s piano solo:

Here’s the band playing the classic Samba-esque composition “My Centennial,” featuring Rufus Reid’s trademark loping half-notes.

Pepper Adams, Baritone Sax "My Centennial" Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra (Live, Denmark, Aug. 1977)

Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, 1985

Here’s a great incarnation of the band after Thad left. Dennis Irwin anchored the bottom for many years, providing an unwavering cornerstone for Mel, the ensemble, and the deep bench of incredible soloists.

The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, 2023 (David Wong on bass)

No discussion of the Thad Jones—Mel Lewis Orchestra would be complete without featuring the current Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. The band remains at the pinnacle of contemporary large ensemble music. This video features the current rhythm section of David Wong (bass), John Riley (drums), and Adam Birnbaum (piano).

The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra live in Aarhus Concert hall DK, march 2023 - 1