Tone Paintings

Craig Davis
Release Date: 07/29/2022

Pittsburgh pianist Craig Davis pays tribute to fellow Steel City native and bebop pioneer Michael “Dodo” Marmarosa on stunning new album.

Out July 29 via MCG Jazz, Tone Paintings: The Music of Dodo Marmarosa features bassist John Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton


To observers of the jazz scene during the late 1940s, Michael “Dodo” Marmarosa would have seemed a safe bet to join the pantheon of bebop pianists alongside the likes of Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. He had worked in bands led by most of the major swing-era bandleaders, including Tommy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, and Artie Shaw; he recorded with Charlie Parker on Bird’s seminal Dial Records sides; and worked with legendary musicians including Lester Young, Barney Kessel, Lionel Hampton, Slim Gaillard, and Mel Tormé.

But by the end of the decade Marmarosa’s star had already begun to fade. He returned to his native Pittsburgh for health reasons and became a near recluse for much of the rest of his life. Aside from a brief comeback attempt in the early 60s and sporadic performances in his hometown, Marmarosa largely retired from music and was relegated to a footnote in jazz history by the time of his death in 2002.

Pianist Craig Davis is on a mission to raise Dodo’s profile in the jazz consciousness. Part of that stems from hometown pride; a fellow native of Pittsburgh, Davis has spent most of his career as an active and in-demand member of the Steel City jazz scene. He also recognizes parallels to his own approach to the piano in Marmarosa’s, as both men blend classical influences with a taste for progressive jazz and a spirited lyricism.

On his new album, Tone Paintings: The Music of Dodo Marmarosa, Davis offers gorgeous new interpretations of ten classic Marmarosa tunes as well as a new song penned in dedication to Dodo. Out July 29, 2022 via Pittsburgh’s own MCG Jazz label, the album features the stellar rhythm section of bassist John Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton.

MCG Jazz is an ideal home for Tone Paintings, not only for the Pittsburgh ties but for even stronger connections that bind the two pianists with the label and its parent organization, Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild. Early in his own career, Davis recorded with one of his mentors, drummer Roger Humphries, for MCG Jazz’s 1996 debut release, A New Home: Recorded Live at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild.

Marmarosa made a rare emergence from his self-imposed exile to attend a concert at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild by Brazilian pianist Eliane Elias near the end of his life, which proved to be a memorable encounter for the venue.

Tone Paintings is a project more than a decade in the making. After earning his Masters degree from Manhattan School of Music in 2010, Davis decided to make his New York City debut at The Kitano with a concert dubbed the Pittsburgh Piano Project. He assembled a program of music by the many notable pianists with roots in the city, including Mary Lou Williams, Erroll Garner, Ahmad Jamal, Billy Strayhorn, Earl “Fatha” Hines – and Dodo Marmarosa, whose music he discovered through his research for the project.

“Dodo’s story really resonated with me because he was such an enigmatic figure,” Davis explains. “He never really got the recognition he deserved beyond having a flurry of fame in the forties. I thought maybe I could help bring his music to light.”

Marmarosa’s music never having been published, Davis set to work transcribing his compositions from recordings. Along the way he discovered that the parallels between the two pianists ran deeper than the merely autobiographical.

“We share similar stylistic interests,” Davis says. “I love bebop, and of course he was a bebop innovator, and we’re both classically trained and bring those influences to our music. He also tried to push the art form forward a little bit and not just kind of settle on what was popular. Dorsey didn’t like him because he was too progressive, but Artie Shaw loved it. So here’s this guy that was boppin’ with Bird and he was pushing the envelope at the same time. That may also have contributed to his lack of notoriety, but I respect the fact that he really cared about continuing to push boundaries within himself and the people he played with.”

In order to give Marmarosa the long overdue respect that he deserved, Davis sought out two of the finest musicians in modern jazz in order to elevate this music even further. John Clayton is one half of the legendary Clayton Brothers with his late brother, saxophonist Jeff; and he has performed and recorded with Monty Alexander, Milt Jackson, Diana Krall, Count Basie, Natalie Cole, Paul McCartney and Etta James, along with countless others. He co-founded the acclaimed Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra with his partner on this recording, drummer Jeff Hamilton, who has also served memorable stints with Alexander and Krall.

Both also played extensively with Pittsburgher and bass icon Ray Brown, who worked and recorded with Dodo Marmarosa, including on the pianist’s debut recording session as a leader in 1946.

Davis first crossed paths with Hamilton during the pianist’s undergraduate studies at Indiana University Bloomington, where Davis led a master class for students of the legendary educator Dr. David Baker. “I played Bird’s ‘Au Privave’ with Jeff,” Davis recalls, “and it felt like he lifted me up onto a cloud. The pocket was so deep that I could play in the crevices and the edges and it didn’t matter because I would still be enveloped into the massive pocket that he created. That was the impetus for calling him and John for this recording, because I just remembered how much I enjoyed that experience.”

That deep pocket is evident throughout Tone Paintings. The album opens with Davis solo, elegantly strolling through the melody of “Mellow Mood,” which Marmarosa wrote at just 14 years old and became his debut single. Clayton and Hamilton join in after a minute with a buoyant swing feel. “Dodo’s Bounce” sets off at a brisk pace, while “Dodo’s Blues” digs deep into a earthy, gutsy blues feel with Clayton conjuring a bass sound as wide and strong as the trunk of a redwood.

Hamilton’s opening ricochets and chattering cymbals set the stage for the propulsive “Escape,” while the exquisite “Opus No. 5” evidences the grace and subtlety of Marmarosa’s classical leanings. “Compadoo” is Bird-style bop at a leisurely gambol, while “Dary Departs” shows off a light, Ellingtonian touch with a memorable, wistful melody. Davis goes it alone for the more abstract “Tone Paintings I,” one of the most forward-looking pieces on the album, perhaps pointing to the reason Dodo was so highly regarded by even latter-day visionaries like Cecil Taylor. “Battle of the Balcony Jive” is a witty and soulful swinger, and “Dodo’s Lament” ends the album on a tender note, highlighted by Hamilton’s caressing brushwork.

Davis’ own “A Ditty for Dodo” fits in perfectly with Marmarosa’s compositions, sharing the late pianist’s gifts for entrancing melody and intricate architecture. “I just wanted to play something pretty for Dodo,” Davis insists.