Davenport native Steinway International artist back in QC for first concert in six years

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BK Davis, left, with artist Cecile Houel and the portrait she recently painted of him, at Hotel Blackhawk, Oct. 1, 2021 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

The next concert in the Polyrhythms Third Sunday Jazz Series at Davenport’s Redstone Room will be a veritable United Nations of peace, love, music, art and harmony.

The internationally renowned pianist, singer and composer Byron “BK” Davis will perform 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 17, at the Redstone (129 Main St., Davenport), with guitarist Rick Kislia, saxophonist David Sharp, bassist Brent-Anthony Johnson, keyboardist Kellen Myers, percussionist Wes Julian and guest vocalist Natalja Sticco.

A jovial, big-hearted, 62-year-old Davenport native (and Steinway International Artist), Davis is excited to return to the Redstone Room, where he hasn’t played for six years. “I’m really looking forward to it,” he said. “We’ve got a variety of styles – international styles. When I did concerts in Egypt and Japan and Canada, I had the opportunity to see shows of different styles, and it’s really interesting to see how the international community appreciates art.”

Davis has incorporated many of his world travels in music into his songs, reflecting that variety of cultures and languages. One song is done half in Spanish and half in English. Another, about dancing, is very Middle Eastern and has a verse in Arabic.

The Sunday program will feature 14 compositions from his catalog, many with an Afro-Hispanic flavor, and some songs reflect rumbas and bossa nova. Davis will duet with Natalja Sticco on his “Let Me Comfort You,” with verses in English and Russian. Connected through his guitar colleague Greg Smith, she did the duet first at an April Joy Avenue Media “JAM Session,” streamed online.

Davis did the first verse in his language and she did the same one in her language, and they came together at the end to sing in English.

“I really love the international touch,” Davis (who’s also lived in the Central American country of Belize) said recently. “I think it’s just mesmerizing, because you see this young opera singer. She’s well-known in the opera field, and she’s singing one of my compositions – no one’s expecting to hear Russian. She just did a superb job.”

“It’s got its own appeal,” he said. “I have an eclectic taste for music, but for linguistics also, because when you hear her singing, it sounds like Russian and she is so expressive in everything – her singing and delivery.”

Sticco — a Latvian-born soprano who’s lived with her husband in Boston, Mass., since 2018 — sang over seven seasons (2009-2017), with the Latvian National Opera & Ballet Chorus and appeared in opera houses across Europe.

“I guess the idea of an opera singer performing a jazz song in the Russian language is about as unique as you can get,” Sticco said Monday by e-mail. “I’d worked on another jazz piece with Greg, a cover of ‘Cry Me a River,’ and had been interested in exploring jazz as a vocal genre, so this collaboration was a great learning experience for me.

Opera singer Natalja Sticco will be a guest vocalist at the Oct. 17 concert at the Redstone Room.

“From our first discussion on the phone, I could just feel BK’s warmth and kindness emitting; and the power of his authenticity as a person and artist shines through even more powerfully in person,” she said. “He sent me the song, which I recorded in Russian in my home studio, sent it back and he loved the result. Then it was only a matter of the vocal arrangement as a duet when we got together right before performing it for the first time.

“BK and all the musicians he had on that performance were so generous and welcoming,” Sticco said. “It was an absolute pleasure to work with them, and a personally rewarding experience in terms of what I learned about jazz. The opera and classical music worlds in general are much more regimented and strict in terms of the latitude you have as an individual artist to play with a lyric.

“The artistry of opera is in your ability as a singer to maintain the heritage and intention of the composer or librettist’s intent,” she said. “It’s truly the only art form where the audience is experiencing a piece of musical history as it would have been performed originally 100 or more years ago.

“With BK, I’m learning about the fluidity of jazz performance in so much as you’re bringing what you feel about the piece today, or even in the moment, and bringing the audience on that journey with you,” Sticco added.

“I’m thrilled to be returning to Davenport, and excited about performing again with BK,” she said. “Overall, I’m grateful for BK’s encouragement, mentorship and these opportunities to explore music I otherwise would probably not have had in the same way.”

Drawn to music, art and Burlington

Davis – who has been a Steinway International Artist since 2012, the first such African-American artist in Iowa – lives in Burlington, Iowa (after many years in Gulfport Beach, Fla.). He spent much of the past 18 months writing new music, which he’s performing in what he calls an “Invisible Secret Concert Series,” which debuted in November 2020 and included the April 10, 2021 JAM Session.

A 62-year-old Davenport native, Davis recorded a session at Bettendorf’s Joy Avenue Media in April.

“The pandemic has given me a wonderful opportunity write music, to compose, to arrange,” Davis said this past spring. “I’ve got a ton of music I’ve written.”

“For all of us experiencing coronavirus worldwide, we need something to hold on to, give us direction in a time that is directionless,” he said. “We need comfort — all of us do. We need to know that’s gonna be OK. We need inspiration. That’s what the Invisible Secret Concert Series is about — positivity, a positive message.

“It’s about concentration. When the world is spinning, revolving so fast around us, we can’t seem to get our balance,” Davis said. “We need to concentrate and we need something fixed, that will anchor us.”

Davis had done concerts in Burlington, and fell in love with the riverfront community.

“I’m drawn to Burlington – it’s like something has drawn me there, like a magnet,” he said. “This area really strikes a chord with me. I was born and educated here in Davenport…I absolutely love Burlington. It’s a good base.”

Another international artist has made Burlington home — Cecile Houel, who met Davis a couple years ago and recently painted his portrait, to be prominently displayed at the Redstone concert. It will be available for sale, and Davis would love to see it end up in an African-American museum.

Davis with his Houel portrait, at Bix Bistro in Hotel Blackhawk, Davenport (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“We’ve got many musical surprises that pop up,” he said of the varied program. “The message I’m trying to convey in this concert is that we can enjoy an international smorgasbord of music, melody and language – right here in Iowa. Also exciting for me is this beautiful portrait that Cecile has put together. I’m tickled red.”

“Art is one thing that’s universal – it’s one thing that can re-unite us,” Houel said recently. “There’s nothing that makes me happier than seeing people gathering together.”

“Gathering for one purpose that’s positive,” she said. “The purpose of my collection is not the art itself, but what they represent. It allows me to gather people, and talk and reflect on what is peace for us. What can we do everyday to make a better world? I don’t have TV; I refuse to look at the news. I refuse to be caught up; in the everyday drama.”

Cecile Houel — who is on a quest to paint portraits of all Nobel Peace Prize laureates — splits her time between Burlington, Iowa, and Paris, France.

Convinced that art can contribute to world peace, the 57-year-old French woman started the “Nobel Peace Prize Collection: Peace Starts Within” in 2014, to celebrate all of the Nobel Peace laureates of the prestigious Nobel Foundation since 1901.

Dividing her time between Iowa and France, Houel paints personalized, large portraits of the famous laureates to honor their will and dedication to make a better world with strength, courage, and creativity.

Each figure, internationally acclaimed, or subject to controversy, brought their light and contributed to humanity’s evolution. Last year, Houel exhibited six female Nobel Peace Prize winners at the Quad City Arts gallery and Quad Cities International Airport.

Another 10 paintings from “Nobel Peace Prize Collection: Peace Starts Within” were on view at Bettendorf’s Beréskin Gallery from Aug. 28 to Oct. 28, 2020. Houel has shown some of the portraits at a studio in Fort Madison and the Burlington Art Center (she lives in Burlington). She’s worked out of an art studio in Burlington for over six months.

Cecile Houel’s portrait of former President Barack Obama, who won the Nobel in 2009.

She met her now ex-husband, an artist from Burlington, who came to Giverny, France for a big pastel show, and they married in France. Houel moved to Iowa in 2008 and spends three months of the year in Paris, where her three kids and one grandchild live.

Houel is working on other portrait commissions, and has finished 21 of her Nobel portraits so far. “It’s a lifetime project,” she said, noting she’s also working with writers on a book about the Nobel Peace Prize, and potentially a documentary. “It’s exciting.”

First in-person concert in over two years

The last time Davis performed in person for people was this past April for the “Piano Celebration” at Davenport’s NorthPark Mall, for Ronald McDonald House. His last formal in-person concert was with the Southeast Iowa Symphony Orchestra in Ottumwa in September 2019.

BK plays more than a dozen instruments, including piano, guitar, organ and drums in idioms spanning jazz, R&B, gospel, soul, and pop. He’s written theme music and jingles for the Boy Scouts of America and an Indianapolis 500 race, and has directed choirs throughout the Midwest and West Coast.

Davis has played or toured with B.B. King, Billy Preston, and the late soul legend, Johnnie Taylor. He co-wrote original music with rock and roll legend Little Richard, as well as McFadden and Whitehead.

Davis was named the first African-American Steinway International Artist in Iowa, in 2012.

Being a Steinway International Artist – among the likes of Billy Joel, Elton John, Diana Krall and Lang Lang – is a true honor, meaning more than he just plays on the preeminent Steinway brand of pianos, Davis said.

“You have to have performed and/or recorded on Steinways globally. Another is, you have to have a large body of work,” he said of original compositions. “You’re vetted worldwide.”

“Prior to 2012, honestly, I was booked quite heavily, was booked all the time, and would actively go out and either look for bookings or sign with a production company,” Davis said. “Once I became a Steinway International Artist, the first African-American artist from Iowa — what that did for me, I never really had to look for a gig again. That is the honest-to-God truth. I have played Steinway concert halls all over the country.”

After Sunday’s Redstone Room show, at 8 p.m., there will be a workshop/jam session at The Spot, 1611 2nd Ave, Rock Island. Admission to the Redstone concert is $15, and more information and reservations are available by calling 309-373-0790 or visiting www.polyrhythms.org.

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