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Sunday, December 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 27.0° F  Overcast
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Richard Davis and Willie Pickens christen Shannon Hall at Isthmus Jazz Festival 2014
The superstar bassist and pianist put an unforgettable spin on standards for a capacity crowd
Davis turned Horace Silver's 'Strange Vibes' into a spooky and surreal listening experience.
Credit:Austin Jeffries

Ralph Russo, cultural arts director of the Wisconsin Union Theater, warned the near-capacity crowd Saturday night that there are "lots of touchups to finalize" in the renovated auditorium space now known as Shannon Hall. But iconic bassist and UW music professor Richard Davis, brilliantly paired with Chicago piano man Willie Pickens, quickly made the place feel like home during the headlining performance of the 2014 Isthmus Jazz Festival.

The duo's lively christening of the theater's primary performance space, which originally opened in 1939, capped two days of free performances at the Memorial Union.

Davis, 84, and Pickens, 80, slowly took the stage from opposite sides -- piano at stage right and bass at center stage -- and proceeded to reinterpret a variety of jazz standards, beginning with saxophonist Charlie Parker's "Crazeology." Each man capitalized on his signature style: Pickens' spry fingers and dramatic delivery complementing Davis' melodic versatility, as the bassist alternated between plucking and bowing.

Next up was Kenny Dorham's "Blue Bossa," which revealed the wondrous intricacies of Davis' playing, followed by "Strange Vibes," a spooky hard-bop piece composed by pianist Horace Silver, who had died four days earlier. Davis and Pickens improvised to create a level of darkness not found in the original version, with Davis' stuttering bow turning the surreal listening experience into a highlight of the 80-minute performance.

Davis has worked with the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis, while Milwaukee-born Pickens has collaborated with Eddie Harris, Elvin Jones and Sammy Davis Jr. Each jazzman generously afforded the other a solo piece. Pickens opted for John Coltrane's "Giant Steps," while Davis performed George Gershwin's "Summertime," reinventing it as an avant-garde masterpiece, his circular bowing adding percussive elements.

Renditions of the 1942 standard "Things Ain't What They Used to Be," composed by Duke Ellington's son, Mercer, and Billy Strayhorn's "Take the 'A' Train" -- which Duke Ellington turned into one of his own signature tunes -- led to tentative clapping along before giving way to uproarious applause and standing ovations.

Shannon Hall, named after donors Michael and Mary Sue Shannon, proved the near-perfect venue for this performance, with almost all of the 1,165 new mocha-colored and wider-than-before seats filled. The "touch-ups" Russo mentioned must be mostly behind the scenes, though the house lights do not yet dim properly.

Prior to the headlining performance, Isthmus publisher Vincent O’Hern presented the 2014 Jazz Personality of the Year award to another local bassist, Nick Moran, who has been an integral part of Madison jazz for more than two decades and is program coordinator of the Greater Madison Jazz Consortium, a nonprofit organization seeking to create a more vibrant and sustainable local jazz scene.

"It's really cool to receive this award before a Richard Davis show," Moran told the crowd.

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