John Daversa’s resume is a mile long for his trumpet playing alone. But even if he were never to pick up the instrument again, his eclectic and witty compositions would still make him an aggressively original voice. For over 15 years, Daversa was a mainstay of the L.A. jazz scene, leading his Progressive Big Band and small group, teaching at area colleges, and playing on film soundtracks and with pop artists ranging from Fiona Apple to Michael Bublé (you might also recognize his playing from the Key and Peele sketch “Jazz Duel”). His Big Band had a regular gig at The Baked Potato in Studio City, where Chris Barton of the LA Times praised Daversa’s “adventurous, colorful approach.”
Daversa recently took a position at the University of Miami, where he now heads the Studio Music and Jazz program. But even though his academic duties have ramped up, the trumpeter/composer has embarked on one of his most ambitious projects to date: a PledgeMusic campaign for his newest album, Kaleidoscope Eyes, which will feature Beatles songs arranged for the Daversa Big Band.
This Saturday, December 6th, 2014, Daversa will be bringing several of these freshly arranged Beatles tunes to the Gallery, but he won’t be bringing the band, which is still based in L.A. Instead, he’ll be bringing a new iteration of the ensemble, which features a who’s who of East Coast veterans, including Donny McCaslin, David Binney, and Brian Lynch. When we caught up with him, the trumpeter had just returned to Miami from Tokyo, where he’d been performing with the Bob Mintzer Big Band.
The Jazz Gallery: How does it feel to be in Miami after so many years in L.A.?
John Daversa: I love Miami. I really feel healthy here, and the school is just an incredible place to work. The students are at such a high level and the faculty is very special, and there are all kinds of great events going on there every day. I feel like I’m still in L.A., to be honest; I’m there at least once a month performing.
That’s always the hardest part: being removed from your friends. You know, you grow up with those people. The musicians I miss terribly, but I’m able to see them and make music often enough. I probably see them about as much as I did when I lived there.
TJG: Where are you performing most often with your own bands?
JD: I’m traveling all over the place now—more than I had ever before. With my own groups, the big band is nearly impossible to travel with because of the expense, so I’ve been playing with that band about once a month in L.A. because we’re preparing for our new record.
But that’s also given me the opportunity to compose a big band in New York with a whole different family of friends, which I’m really enjoying. So we’ve been doing that for about a year in New York now. And then my small band travels; we’ve been touring around a little bit.
TJG: How did you go about picking the material for your new Beatles record?
JD: Honestly, I felt like I could make 30 albums’ worth of material. I started out just picking ones that stuck out to me, that spoke to me, and I tried to have a plan about it. But then, as I was finishing one, I would start hearing the next one as if it was already written, so I really just went from one song to the next.
I was sitting on an airplane at one point, and I was thinking, “What’s the next one I want to do?” and this guy was sitting in front of me on the aisle catty-corner to me. He was watching some shoot-’em-up movie, and then I saw him switch to iTunes and I thought, “That’s interesting. You know what? Okay, if this guy happens to go to his iTunes library, if he happens to choose a Beatles tune, then I’m going to take it as a sign that that’s what it’s going to be.” And, lo and behold, that’s exactly what happened.
He switched to iTunes and then went through and chose “Here Comes the Sun,” listened to about 20 seconds of it, and then got out of it and went back to his movie. So I took that as a sign to do that one.
TJG: What was your process for arranging the songs?
JD: Over the summer I really had a chance to go in deeply. I listened to all those tunes with headphones on really loud a lot of times. I’d just get up really early in the morning and start listening to them and do research. I’d watch so many YouTube videos of interviews with the guys talking about music and the history of the group.
I had so much fun just researching how all those songs were written, the why and how. You listen to the stuff hardcore for a while and then not listen to it for a while, and then you start hearing the music through your own lens, through your own filter. Once I’d left the Beatles recordings, then I let it just sift through my own filter.
Most professional musicians are the same way; there’s just no time to really try things out on the piano. Most of the stuff’s written when you’re walking around from one place to the next. It all came together very organically and honestly. I’d sing stuff into my phone and then try and work it out on the piano after.
TJG: Are you influenced much by other non-jazz music besides the Fab Four?
JD: My mom was so wonderful: when I was a kid she was playing all kinds of music in the house. She loved Aretha Franklin, and she’s a classical piano player, so she was always playing Chopin and Rachmaninoff and Beethoven, but she loved all the Motown stuff, Smokey Robinson, and I grew up with Songs in the Key of Life and Willie Nelson, all of that. I love pop music. The Police, all of that. I think those are probably my most heavy influences—even more than jazz, although that quite clearly is another love of mine—though they’re all somehow equal.
There are certain elements of my music that are more rock and punk, and I’ve got rap elements happening and certainly orchestral elements. When I did my undergraduate degree, I did it in classical composition because I knew I would get the jazz stuff just because I loved it so much. It’s just vocabulary terms; it still comes down through your head and becomes the accumulation of the music that you like through your own personality.
TJG: The trumpet is a very physical instrument. How do you keep your chops up with all the touring, teaching, and composing you do?
JD: That’s just the life-long struggle, having the time to even practice. Wouldn’t that be something? And now having a family, too—that’s the other thing. Rest is as important as everything else. I think you learn how to play on minimal muscles; you learn what your capabilities are. You just have to figure out different ways of pacing yourself. I believe in my own musicianship, that I can say what I have to say with minimal volume and range.
Honestly, I’ve made the choice that having the time to write, and having the time to teach, and having the time to travel, and having time for my family is all very important to me—and I’m at peace with it.
TJG: Is teaching a large part of that equation?
JD: Yeah, it is. Teaching teaches me. Ironically, I left L.A. in 2000 because I was doing too much teaching; I was out of balance. I left and did this show in Europe for about three years. Honestly, after about two weeks of being on the show, the first thing that I missed was teaching. I missed the exchange of ideas, I missed hearing all the music that people are bringing to me that they want to play, things I would not normally be exposed to.
And there’s also just this feeling that I’m really addicted to, which is being of service. I like being able to help people find their own voices, and being some source of inspiration. I think that’s part of why I’m in this world.
But it’s funny: I’m a terrible teacher if I’m not out performing. I feel uninspired. If I don’t have that part of me being nurtured, I kind of wither out. And if I was only performing, I think I would really miss the relationships and the exchanges with students. It’s a balance of sorts.
The John Daversa Big Band performs this Saturday, December 6th, 2014, at The Jazz Gallery. The band features Daversa on trumpet and EVI; David Binney, Josiah Boornazian, Donny McCaslin, Ben Wendel, and Frank Basile on saxophones; Brian Pareschi, Marvin Stamm, Louise Baranger, and Brian Lynch on trumpets; Keith O’Quinn, Charlie Morillas, Nick Grinder, and Max Seigel on trombones; Justin Morell on guitar; Jerry Watts on bass; and Kenny Wollesen on drums. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m., $22 general admission ($12 for Members). Purchase tickets here.