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Soundscaping: Aaron Davis

Whether he’s playing jazz or classical music or composing soundtracks, Davis is a consummate pro

Aaron Davis / Photo by Candy Girling

I found Aaron Davis working on his front porch—literally. Davis has been rebuilding his porch and laying flagstone after a drunk driver took out the corner of his Toronto Annex home where he lives with his artist partner, Candida Girling, and their two sons.

Aaron Davis is an eclectic composer, arranger and keyboardist who is equally known as a founding member of the Holly Cole Trio and as a prolific composer of film music, with over one hundred film and television scores to his credit. He’s also an accomplished songwriter, has recorded two solo albums, has numerous hit song credits, and orchestrates and arranges for musicians such as Measha Brueggergosman, Natalie McMaster, Sarah Slean, Quartetto Gelato, the Iseler Singers and the Art of Time Ensemble.

Davis talks about his ability to create music as if it were a sixth sense—a gift that he was born with—claiming that he can’t remember a time when he didn’t hear music in his head. “I always had the need to play music and to think about music… It was just sort of this non-stop, insatiable thirst. That was just how I lived.”

Davis’s parents enrolled him with the Royal Conservatory of Music at the age of five. When Davis was nine, his teacher requested a meeting with his mother and father. Frustrated with his lack of discipline, she declared sanctimoniously, “I am not interested.” But Davis was interested. He decided lessons were for losers, so he taught himself to play by ear on a healthy diet of Beatles and sundry pop music.

He rebelled against his academic parents and set off to live in what he describes as a hippie commune north of Toronto. Serendipity set in when the community inherited a grand piano, where Davis would while away the evening playing mainly for himself. At a certain point he realized that he needed a framework to analyze and interpret the complexity of his keyboard icons, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock and Oscar Peterson. In 1974 he signed up for the jazz program at York University.

At York, Davis came under the tutelage of Casey Sokol (founding member with Michael Snow of the experimental musical group CCMC), Trichy Sankaran (South Indian mridangam virtuoso) and John Gittens. University proved to be a means of codifying the music Davis had been playing by ear. “The whole process of going to university to study music was like a treasure chest, of unearthing the entire set of jazz traditions, and classical music, pop, blues and rock,” he recalls. “I got some of the discipline that I had rebelled against when I was nine years old.”

During the York years, Davis travelled back and forth to Berkeley—where his mother held a teaching appointment—dabbled in botany, and mostly soaked in a myriad of new sounds to feed his growing appetite for music. In California, Davis encountered and fell in love with salsa. When he returned to Canada, Davis was offered a gig to play with Toronto’s first salsa band. He had other plans and turned the band down in favour of tree planting.

Later that year, Davis ran into band leader Matt Zimbel, who offered him the keyboard spot with a new band formed out of the ashes of the first. The band turned out to be Manteca, with whom Davis performed and wrote music from 1979 to 1991. “I started writing for Manteca and discovered I was actually good at it!” Davis credits his ability as a composer largely to his stellar training at York.

“I had always been hearing music—when you’re improvising you’re exploring,” he says. “It’s a constant stream that flows out of you, so for me writing was recognizing the good bits and recording them, so that you can remember them.” Along the way, Davis developed a bank of musical concepts. “I always have a library of ideas that I’ve had over the years that I can fall back on when I need to generate new material…Every time you come up with a good idea you record it and then leave it and come back to it and nurture it—it’s like a painter who puts down a sketch and lives with it. It might take ten years before you’re at the point where you say, ‘That’s a song’.”

The late ’80s was an intensely fertile time for Davis. He had just met Holly Cole; he was working with Molly Johnson in Blue Monday; had hooked up with bassist David Pilch; was gigging in funk and R&B bands; was continuing with Manteca; had formed his own group, the Aaron Davis Band; and was guesting with a number of other bands. Davis was a musician in demand and he was dipping his oar in the vast sea of the recording industry. At one stage, Bob Ezrin (a Canadian living in Los Angeles who produced Pink Floyd and Peter Gabriel) flew Davis out to L.A. to meet the legendary Herb Alpert. “Bob was touting me as the next potential recording star.” Alpert advised Davis to get into film music, counselling the young musician, ‘You’re jumping around to so many places.’ That’s actually considered a strength in film music. In terms of putting out an album of your own, you still have to find your identifiable voice,” he says.

Davis made a mental note on both counts and continued to pursue a career as a songwriter and recording artist. He made his first serious foray into the film music scene in 1988 when Billy Bryans, the drummer with the Parachute Club (another band with whom Davis was gigging), invited him to do the score for Office Party. “We ended up with a symbiotic thing where he was producing and doing all sorts of stuff with my cues.” Davis’s first film foray garnered him a Genie Award for best score in 1989.

Credit in hand, Davis scored a drama with the Film Centre and decided to try his luck with Hollywood. “I was younger and thought I could do anything.” Davis sent his only family L.A. connection a copy of his latest solo album, and he ended up getting called at the last minute to score a killercop slasher film that Roger Codman was producing. As it happened, Davis’s cousin’s ex-husband was the co-producer and had loved Davis’s music, syncing his album directly with the film. FedEx enabled, Davis composed and recorded the music in Toronto. He juxtaposed sensitive lyrical music with slo-mo horror. The powers that be loved the score, which received critical acclaim. Six months later, in 1991, Streets premiered in Hollywood, albeit at a porn-theatre. Davis recalls the episode as “a wonderful if somewhat creepy Hollywood experience.”

After a three-month flirtation with the Hollywood scene, Davis weighed his options and moved his young family permanently back to Toronto. Davis quit Manteca and narrowed his focus when the Holly Cole Trio soared in popularity. Due in part to the Trio’s intense touring schedule, Davis teamed up with fellow York U alumnus John Lang. Three out of every four films Davis scores are with Lang, who is based in Peterborough. Incredibly, the two share such a similar musical aesthetic and sensibility that they divvy up the cues, do their own thing, and then collaborate with feedback and constructive criticism by phone and MP3 correspondence. For Davis, the pros far outweigh the con of splitting the paycheques: “There’s always someone there who’s got your back, even at the brink of burnout. You have twice the manpower and resources to create the music; you have the insider knowledge-based feedback and support at the end of the phone line.”

It’s hard to slap a label on Davis’s music. His own tastes are eclectic, ranging from Bach, Bartok and Stravinsky to early Joni Mitchell, the Beatles and his all-time favourite piano player, Herbie Hancock. Through his father, Davis is deeply influenced by the American folk-roots tradition. Although he has clearly aligned himself in the jazz camp through his 25-year relationship with Holly Cole, Davis’s interests and talents are so multi-faceted that it may be impossible to peg him as belonging to any one style of music making. He himself does not consider himself as a jazz musician, “I’m just a musician. Jazz is one part of what I do.”

2000: Wrote soundtrack for Love Comes Down, dir. Clement Virgo

Davis prefers to establish long-term relationships with directors. For instance, he first came across Toronto-based Clement Virgo at the Canadian Film Centre. Later, Virgo asked Davis with Lang to score his features Rude (1995) and Love Come Down (2000). Both scores were nominated for Genies. “With Rude, he gave us a real idea of what he’d like. Some of it was dark world music, without any identifiable tradition—it’s not African music, it’s not R&B…it’s slightly unsettling.” Lang, who works a lot in dance music, had been working with Ahmed Hassan and had him play some didgeridoo. Davis arranged a version of the gospel tune Many Rivers to Cross.

For Love Come Down, Virgo had the budget to hire string players for the score. Davis considered himself lucky: he has a strong preference for live musicians in an age of shrinking film budgets where technology continues to make human beings redundant. “I still cling to the idea that my film-writing future is going to involve orchestra… With the 500 channels, the emphasis is more on getting something out there that’s going to work with the film.”

Davis has worked with a broad spectrum of Canadian directors including David Adkin, Tina Hahn, Simcha Jacobovici, Maureen Judge, Janice Lundman, Michael McMahon and Adrienne Mitchell. Davis scores an average of four to six films a year with the lion’s share being documentaries. “It’s a mitzvah to work on some of these docs because they’re conveying things that I believe in or that I think are very interesting, and I feel as if I’m a part of something meaningful.” Davis cites as an example the work he and Lang did with The Nature of Things episode “Climate for Change” in 1992 before global warming was huge. “Rather than going out and marching in demonstrations, I feel as if I’m somehow helping the world by working on films like that.”

2005: Wrote soundtrack for Sex Slaves, dir. Ric Bienstock

Davis and Lang scored Ric Bienstock’s Sex Slaves (2005), exposing the horrors of human trafficking and forced prostitution in Eastern Europe. Davis arranged a Ukrainian lullaby to underscore the poignancy of one woman’s story—she had broken free of the cycle and chose to re-enter prostitution in order to pay for a family member’s surgery. After the film aired, someone donated $10,000 toward the woman’s cause and the filmmakers/producers set up a fund to help the women. “Someone saw the film and gave money and I think there’s a causal relationship… [You’re] vicariously continuing your education through doing these docs.”

Davis is keen to carve out the space and time to return to the recording industry solo, although he has no regrets about his niche in film. “What I’ve found through scoring films is that some of my ideas are taking root and finding a home in the films, whereas in the songwriting biz it’s much harder to get it placed… I think in essence I’m probably more of a songwriter than anything else.” Davis’s last solo recording came out two decades ago and he claims that he has more than enough melodic material to pull together at least three separate albums.

“I’m still trying to find my way,” says Davis. “I’m not satisfied. I’m moving forward to where I can have the time and the money to do strictly my own music… [For now] I’m happy I’m getting paid to do what I love doing—which is writing and making music.”