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How One Man Is Turning the History Of New York Into Music

A hush settles on the room. The paneled wood floor, partially covered by a thick, maroon oriental rug, which will gently muffle the deep bass beat of the drums and the swelling vibrations from 11 other instruments, barely utters a creak. People stop shifting in their over-sized leather armchairs. A recording begins to play.

“I remember, growing up, many of the kids in my South Bronx neighborhood wouldn’t venture into Manhattan,” begins the clear, kindly voice of an unnamed elderly woman. “Black kids wouldn’t come to Manhattan. If you were looking for a seat to go to the Bronx and you were on the train, you knew all the white people would be off at 96th street — so you stood in front of white people [who’d soon be] getting off the train.” She laughs. “It was a whole other era.”

Cue the guitar.

So began the first installment of New York City guitarist Matt Davis’s latest project, “City of New York, 2013.” For this year-long musical series, Davis, 34, visits a different community in the city each month, interviews locals from that community, and composes music for his 12-piece jazz band, Matt Davis’ Aerial Photograph, based on those conversations. For last month’s installment, which debuted at a cozy new performance space on the Lower East Side, Davis visited senior citizens at the Carter Burden Center and the Lenox Hill house in Manhattan. The result was a group of three tunes called “Elder City,” a thoughtful, enveloping suite punctuated by gorgeous trumpet and saxophone solos, poignant strings, and a soft, mellow bass.

Matt Davis 

“Through this project, I have the opportunity to present the simple stories of individuals and communities that may not otherwise get told,” says Davis, who undertook a similar project in Philadelphia in 2008. “It’s important to me that all of the 12 communities I profile throughout the year are ones in which anyone — regardless of race, economic status or education — can belong. Anyone can potentially struggle with addiction, find themselves homeless at some point in their life, be a community builder, a child, a senior citizen, and so on. In telling the stories of these 12 groups, I hope to compose music that speaks to issues and subjects to which everyone can relate.”

“Generational,” the tune that resulted from the interview with the South Bronx native, is particularly catchy, underpinned by the gentle, repeated plucking of a solitary guitar. Davis says this was part of the plan.

“Some people I spoke with had kept a steady and regular day-to-day routine for decades. I felt a strong sense of calmness and peace from these people, and started thinking about the idea of a routine within music,” he says. “In an abstract way, I think the guitar riff in ‘Generational’ is an expression of this: a settling and predictable repetition that stays very consistent over time.”

It’s going to be a busy year for Davis, who this month is interviewing recovering drug and alcohol addicts, then immigrants, children, veterans, religious believers, homeless individuals, the incarcerated, community volunteers, teachers, and artists. He’s still looking for the 12th and final community to profile. And while he says he enjoys every community into which he delves, Davis is particularly excited about talking to children in April.

 Matt Davis' Aerial Photograph

“Kids can be such a riot! Sometimes they can have the most thought-provoking, funny, and painfully honest observations about life,” he says. “I plan on rearranging and re-interpreting children’s songs for the group that month.”

You can listen to the next chapter of “City of New York, 2013” (music based on Davis’s conversations with recovering addicts) on March 4 at 9:00 p.m. at the Tea Lounge in Park Slope, Brooklyn. In the spirit of community, why not support local artists and this incredible project — all while enjoying some great live jazz?

You can also check out some of his tracks here

Trailer for "City of New York, 2013":

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