CD REVIEW: Steve Davis – Say When

Steve Davis – Say When
(Smoke SSR-1505. CD Review by Peter Vacher)

Trombonist Steve Davis stands tall on today’s New York jazz scene: a first-choice sideman for important projects, as adept in small group play as he is in big band situations. He has a c.v. second to none yet is happy to cite fellow-trombonist J.J. Johnson as a key influence on his playing, writing and ‘on my overall approach to the music’. Clearly still in awe, his sextet having performed a J.J. programme some time back, Davis has now chosen to record these interpretations of Johnson’s music, with six of the eleven pieces on the album composed by the great man. For this mighty purpose, he has assembled a stellar cast, all regular companions, including Eddie Henderson, trumpet, the great Eric Alexander, tenor, pianist and mentor Harold Mabern, bassist Nat Reeves and the excellent Joe Farnsworth on drums.

Opening with the clarion-like Pinnacles, each man deployed in turn, it’s Davis’s rich, buttery tone that strikes you first, this allied to an ease in execution and a sense of collective energy that are both engrossing and deeply satisfying. This has the authentic New York feel. The veteran Mabern is impressive on What Is This Thing Called Love, running quickly before Farnsworth’s drum interjections as the band leads into that familiar tune and Davis solos in fast-moving fashion, Henderson flying in, the tone slightly pinched, the lines complex before Alexander takes over, sober -sounding, nothing over-stated or excessive. The vibrancy of the out-chorus is especially noteworthy, the whole arrangement lifted from a Johnson recording and performed with commendable zest.

Shortcake is calmer and quite lovely, Davis taking the melody, with Henderson muted on the bridge and soloing exquisitely. Mabern’s Mr Johnson is more animated but it is Lament, a Johnson classic, that best calls on Davis’ melodic command. There’s a Coltrane blues, also deployed by J.J. on record, and finally and perhaps surprisingly, When the Saints to finish, this having been overheard by Davis when he saw Johnson play it live. There isn’t a dud moment here. It’s perhaps facile to describe this as post-bop, better to call it contemporary jazz, with no modish overtones, just adroit musicianship, boundless creativity and well-shaped, swinging outcomes. Mr Johnson would have approved.

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