Mirroring The Beatles: a new jazz prodigy’s residency in Dubai

Chicago musician, David Davis talks writing songs that are true to his spirit

DUBAI , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , April 5 – 2019 :- David Davis, The US pianist and singer performing with his band members at the Qs bar at the Palazzo Versace hotel in Dubai. ( Pawan Singh / The National ) For Arts and Life. Story by Saeed
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If you watched the revealing Netflix music documentary Quincy, based on the life of legendary music producer Quincy Jones, then you'd know that no matter how forward-thinking he is, Jones retains an indomitable old-school work ethic and believes that songwriting and musicianship can only improve through practice. That outlook pervades his music venue, Q's Bar and Lounge, his first jazz bar set in Dubai's Palazzo Versace hotel.

It's a rarity in today's music scene. Where residencies have become almost a tourism ploy, with everyone from Mariah Carey and Lady Gaga, to Lionel Richie and Britney Spears, all signing on for seasons in Las Vegas, Jones approaches gigs in the same way they were used in the 1950s and 1960s – as a way to discover and build new talent.

Ever since the venue opened in 2017, Jones has personally picked up-and-coming artists to perform, with the hope that their rough edges will be smoothed out on the back of the 100-plus shows they play in Dubai. The latest beneficiary of this approach is David Davis. Since his debut show on January 22, the American soul singer, 27, has been gradually amassing his own fan base in the UAE, with his thrice-nightly slick sets of original compositions and pop and RnB classics.

"Listen, finding an opportunity like this is fantastic and unique," Davis tells The National. "And if you know your music history, you will appreciate that a lot of today's legacy acts got their start doing residencies. The best example I can give you is The Beatles, they were playing residencies in Hamburg for years and that's because their contracts kept extending. What residencies do is give you a chance to dig deeper into your craft and find out who you really are as a singer."

It's a personal and artistic quest that came to a head for Davis two years ago. At that point he was part of the US pop-music duo DNK, who were making waves in the industry due to their music being produced by RedOne, the Moroccan-Swedish producer behind Lady Gaga's hits Poker Face and Just Dance.

The music RedOne made for the band was understandably upbeat, euphoric and made for the dance floor. But while appreciating the technical virtuosity involved, Davis felt his heart wasn't in it anymore. "I spent a year with RedOne and he is really one of the nicest and coolest guys out there. I learnt how pop music functions and I was in that system," he says. "But there came a time where I felt the music wasn't really speaking to me."

This resulted in the group taking a hiatus before the eventual split. With Davis a known songwriter in his own right, having penned unused tracks for Maroon 5 and Nick Jonas, he was not short of offers to re-enter the pop music field as a solo act. Instead, though, he chose to completely remove himself from the main industry players and play to his own strengths. The end result is the solid debut album The Long and Short of It. Released last year, it is a tidy and lovingly self-produced record full of perky soul numbers and swooning balladry. And the lead single, Little Mo'Betta is simply fantastic. Powered by an assertive Mowtown groove, the song is a euphoric ode to self-confidence in the wake of heart break.

It is something Bruno Mars or ­Maroon 5 could have sung and experienced immediate chart success with. Was it a wise idea for Davis not to have given this song away? "Here is how I look at it. I am doing this all from a long-term perspective," he says. "When I made this album, I didn't want to live in a world where other people's definitions of success would make me happy. So I decided to create a body of work that would attract the appropriate partners and the fans who have followed me since my time with the group."  

The Hamburg years in Dubai

And that vision is bearing fruit: unbeknownst to him, a member of Quincy Jones's production company was in the audience of a Los Angeles gig Davis played last year. The offer to play in Dubai came not long after that. And now with Davis in the "Hamburg" phase of his burgeoning solo career, he is welcoming all the challenges that are coming his way. "I am in this to create a legacy and bodies of work," he says.

"If that happens soon and people appreciate it on a Bruno Mars level, then that's great. If it takes longer, that is fine, too. I will still continue to write songs that I find true to me."

David Davis performs at Q’s Bar and Lounge at Palazzo Versace Dubai, Tuesdays to Saturdays, until May 2. Doors are open from 7pm. For reservations, call 04 556 8888 or email qs@palazzoversace.ae