Seth Colter Walls of The New York Times speaks to Pulitzer-winning artist Anthony Davis and reflects on his experience attending a Roulette performance of improvisations of Davis’s Pulitzer award-winning opera, The Central Park Five. The article contains a recording of the performance, which he describes: “it is a joy to hear in this performance at Roulette how blissfully unencumbered Davis sounds when readapting his own music.”
On May 4, when the composer and pianist Anthony Davis won a Pulitzer Prize for his opera “The Central Park Five,” I rejoiced, as a fan of his work. (The award should augur well for new productions, after lockdowns are lifted.) I also recalled a 2018 concert presented by the Interpretations series at Roulette in Brooklyn. Toward the end of that show, a quartet led by Davis improvised on material from his opera; speaking from the piano, Davis described the enduring influence of Charles Mingus, an artist whose presence could be keenly felt during what followed.
Earlier this month, I spoke with Davis on the phone. “I develop a lot of musical material, doing things for my small ensembles, or piano music,” he said. “I might incorporate it into an opera,” he added, saying that the reverse is true, as well: “I think it’s a philosophical thing for me. Sometimes musical themes have their own identity that travels from piece to piece. In a way they’re signifiers for the connection of the music to the past.”
That approach doesn’t just connect Davis’s operas to his other writing. It also connects “The Central Park Five” to Duke Ellington (particularly when the word “Harlem” enters the libretto). Before the Central Park Five are arrested, there is also a boisterous passage that skates close to Parliament’s “Give Up the Funk.” One aspect of the opera’s genius resides in the way Davis gradually curtails this initial breadth of musical reference, as liberty is curtailed for his characters. Though, outside the context of that narrative, it is a joy to hear in this performance at Roulette how blissfully unencumbered Davis sounds when readapting his own music.