Avant-garde jazz pianist Dave Franks’ humor can sometimes be as surreal as the paintings of Salvador Dali, whose paintings served as the inspiration behind the song "Salvador Dali in a State of Grace." Frank will joke about where Dali might be now or about playing a private concert for Picasso. He talks about his own music using descriptive metaphors.
"Salvador Dali was one of the proponents of the surreal avant-garde painting movement, taking traditional images and reinventing them. It wasn’t only in his art, it was in his persona. He was such a flashy and whacky guy, that I have found it interesting to imagine where he went to after he died, because (laughing he says) where he was when he was here was pretty far out. I wondered where Dali went after he died, because he must have gone to some extremely far out place or maybe he created a new one," says Frank.
Referring to Dali as a whacky guy, Frank says, "He was an avant-garde (painter). In the 20th century, you can see movement toward the avant-garde in all art forms. We can see it in guys like Salvador Dali and Jackson Pollack. In music, we can see it (in the compositions) of Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman. You see very modern dance compared to ballet. In the 20th century, art forms tended to go from works with more classical emphasis to forms that were more avant-garde. "Salvador Dali in a State of Grace" is very atonal, and it is supposed to give you a surreal feel. That is done by scrapping harmony altogether. (It is) creating tones that don’t suggest traditional harmony."
"That piece ("Salvador Dali in a State Of Grace") starts with a very short composed theme, and then leaves traditional harmony completely. I had fun with that piece (because I did) not use piano voicings. When you are studying jazz on the piano, so much of the emphasis is placed on learning specific voicings. There are so many, and you need to know how to use them. In this piece, I tried not to use any voicings that have been played. I wasn’t thinking this was a C chord or G chord, I just put the chords together one note at a time, until I got music that sounded like a place that Dali might be at today," says Frank.
Frank is arguably one of the planet’s better composers for piano music, and a superbly talented soloist. The creativity and imagination behind his compositions for his current album Ballads & Burners only adds substance to the accolades he has received over the years from fans, critics and fellow musicians such as Dave Douglas. Douglas once observed, "Dave’s music sounds like jazz coming from an alternate universe."
Pat Martino commented, "I was deeply moved by the power of the piano. Dave Frank is a monster," and Charlie Banacos observed, "Dave is going to make everyone practice! He plays circles around most of the guys out there."
Six years passed between the original conception for Ballads and Burners in the year 2000 and its release in 2006. "A lot of the time lag had to do with the nature of the record business at that time. That period was the most intense change in the music business and there was no clear sense for how music was going to be distributed, whether it was going to be through the internet or hardcopy. It was a real time of flux in the music business and I just wanted to wait for the right time and place, because I put a good part of my life into that record," says Frank.
As the album’s title suggests, the songs are comprised primarily from two groups, those that are considered ballads and others that are referred to as burners. Frank describes each type, "The ballad sets a calm mood and explores a lot of harmonies. It is very evocative, sensitive and harmonically rich. One of the most important things about ballads is the concept of using space. Many times with ballads, the notes are less important than the space that surrounds them. The music is just a way to amplify the silence that comes after it. If you hear silence with nothing, you won’t notice it, but if you hear slow music and then hear silence between the chords then you will notice that silence much differently. That is the beautiful part of ballad playing. Burners refer to the fastest possible tempo that you can play. When I play rhythms, I usually play left hand walking bass."
The second track "Rousseau’s World" is one of the ballads that Frank included on this highly imaginative CD. The charts were inspired by Henri Rousseau’s oil painting The Sleeping Gypsy (circa 1897). The painting depicts just as it suggests, a gypsy sleeping on the ground with a lion hover over him.
Frank comments on what captured his imagination about the painting, "I think that it is the contrast between the sleeping gypsy and the lion. The lion had kind of a hungry look on his face. The lion is looking at him and going hmmm. You don’t know if he is looking at him to protect him or as his (next) dinner. The background of the painting is very moody and sparse, so that provided a very nice contrast between the (subjects in the) foreground and a spacey background."
The composer/pianist describes the transformation process for interpreting the painting through his music, "The first thing that you want to consider when you try to adapt one art form to another is the mood that you are trying to recreate through a different medium. The gypsy was in repose and there was a very calm mood to the painting. There was moonlight and an evocative, calm and sensual quality to the painting. The harmonic sequence is a kind of harmonic movement called cyclic movement. What that means in musical terms is instead of the chords moving in fourths, which is a common jazz movement; the chord movement went in thirds and seconds. I am referring to the root note or bottom note. Instead of going D to G to C, to develop a more abstract sense in the music the chords will go from D to F to A flat or from D to F and down a second to E flat, then up a third to G flat. The different harmonic mode is what we call rooted left. You aren’t going to that root place that you would expect so quickly and that makes the music float more. It gives it more of a modern abstract sense. It is really the harmonic movement of the chords in that particular piece that was my way of trying to recreate the mood of the piece."
Other songs on Ballads and Burners that were inspired by paintings include, "Shades of Renoir," a copy of which hung in Frank’s childhood home, "Portrait of Manet" viewed in a Boston fine arts museum and "Afternoon in Nahant".
"The Mechanization of America" is a song that cannot adequately be described, but was the piece that most caught my listening ear the first time I heard the CD. Frank used a left hand boogie pattern with a twist to create a rhythm suggestive of big machines hammering away at buildings and construction projects. Frank’s right hand plays a motif that draws images of hammers against steel beams.
Today, Frank operates the Dave Frank School Of Jazz in Manhattan, New York. Prior to that, he taught for seventeen years at Boston’s famed, Berklee College of Music. "Being a teacher has made me a better musician. Music is an infinite subject and there are infinite ways of looking at it. Sometimes a student will come in, look at something as simple as a scale in a way that I have never considered it. I call 911 immediately when that happens," he deadpans.
"The thing that is just so fascinating to me, and I have been doing nothing but playing the piano since I was four years old, is how absorbing this subject of jazz piano can be over the period of a lifetime. It is so absorbing on every level of the psyche. Your brain is working, your body is working, your fingers are working and your deepest emotions are implied. To be able to have all of these things working together at the same time and develop music is such an extraordinary accomplishment. When you think of the great players who have given us so much great music over the past one hundred years, and the accomplishment of these people, it is just amazing," says Frank.