Friday, August 8, 2014

Steve Davis: Moment to Moment [From the Archives]

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Davis is an adept, declarative player, always indebted to his work with Jackie McLean and Art Blakey, a hard-bop grounding which gives his playing unarguable strength and articulacy. He doesn't overplay, but he's generous with his lines and he gets a sound which often has a shouting intensity while keeping well clear of obvious expressionism. That makes his albums conventional but full and satisfying.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“I predict that Steve Davis will be one of the true masters of the slide trombone.”
- Curtis Fuller, Jazz trombonist

“Steve Davis is one of the most talented young students that I have ever had. His love for the tradition of this music is very deep. … I like his sound, I like the way he writes. His music is very special.”
- Jackie McLean, Jazz alto saxophonist

One moment he’s talking about his frequent collaborators such as trumpeter Jim Rotondi, or tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander or guitarist Peter Bernstein or pianist David Hazeltine or drummer Joe Farnsworth.

The next moment he’s relating what he saying about them to himself, his trombone playing and his compositions.

One moment he talks with reverence about Jazz masters such as Jackie McLean, Art Blakey and J.J. Johnson.

The next moment he’s describing what he’s learned from each of them.

One moment he ‘s talking knowledgeably and appreciatively about the Great American songbook and the Jazz Standards repertoire.

The next moment he’s writing his own compositions and has become one of the most prolific composers of original music on today’s Jazz scene.

Make no mistake, however, Steve Davis’ involvement with Jazz has been anything but momentary.

Steve has a whole bunch of recordings out under his own name on Gerry Teekens’ Criss Cross label, where he also appears as a member of the Art Blakey sextet-inspired group One for All, and as a guest artist on some of the label’s CDs headed-up by the “frequent collaborators” listed in the opening paragraph.

Here’s some information by Gerry Teekens about the early years of Steve’s career.

Back in the late 60's, the alto saxophonist Jackie McLean left New York and began teaching at the University of Hartford's Hartt School of Music, instituting a Jazz program and with his wife Dollie, founding a community arts center called the Artists Collective that has been a positive force in the lives of many. McLean and his Bebop brothers in other programs around the world planted the seeds of a musical revolution and thanks to their efforts, a number of remarkably talented young creators have emerged onto the Jazz scene lately, including prized pupil Steve Davis.

Steve Davis was born in WorcesterMassachusetts on April 14, 1967, but spent his formative years in BinghamtonNew York, where his family still resides. Steve's father, a journalist who writes a column for the local newspaper, was a serious blues and Jazz fan. The family collection included a number of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers recordings that featured Curtis Fuller on trombone but it wasn't until Steve was fourteen "that I really started to pay attention to the music, especially Curtis. That's when I decided I wanted to play Jazz." He started on trumpet, an instrument played by his father's father, whom Steve calls his "grandsir," but later switched to trombone.

Aware of Jackie McLean from his dad's collection, Steve auditioned for McLean at the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford. "Just meeting Jackie, he was Professor McLean to me back then," Davis laughs, "was such a great experience. That was back in '85 and coming to Hartt and just being around Jackie completely changed my whole perception of the music. Jackie brought in a lot of people and I got a chance to meet some great musicians." At the 880 Club, a weekly all-star night gave Steve the chance to sit in with trumpeter Eddie Henderson and late baritone saxist Pepper Adams. "Hartford was a great place to cut your teeth," Steve believes. At the same time, Steve started working gigs with the pianist and bassist from McLean's group, Hotep Idris Galeta and Nat Reeves, which also proved to be a pivotal experience.

After he graduated in '89, "Jackie recommended me to Art Blakey because I was heading to New York. I got to go down and sit in with the band and then Art called me a few months later in December. I was the last guy to ever join the Messengers." Davis spent the better part of a year with the Messengers before Blakey's passing. "I remember being very blown away at the prospect of being there. I did focus on the music and I realized that Art Blakey was a human being like anyone else, but it took me some time. He had such an awesome stature and of course you couldn't help but idolize him."

As Damon Smith points out in his insert notes to Steve’s second Criss Cross CD – Dig Deep [1136]:

“Steve Davis has the rare distinction of having worked with two of the most influential bands in modern jazz history, Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and the Jackie McLean Sextet. The impact of these experiences on his life and music has been significant. Of the many lessons that these leaders imparted on their talented trombone player, one of the most important was their emphasis on group chemistry. Both Blakey and McLean put a premium on interaction and communication. Not merely recording session anomalies, their bands actually worked together and developed as units. This was an approach for which Steve had a natural affinity and he has continually sought a similar level of rapport in his own groups. It is in this spirit and with these goals in mind that Steve approached the recording session for Dig Deep.” [underlining is mine]

Not surprisingly, the guys that Steve Davis chose to join him on this sessions are those he had been working with in the musical cooperative – One for All – which is till a working band today and also has a number of recordings outstanding available on the Criss Cross label.

Group chemistry – when it happens [not always a guarantee] – is not necessarily the product of longevity, although it helps.

Leaving one’s ego on at the front door, listening to what others in the group are playing and having character traits such as a willingness to cooperate and to be unselfish are very important for the formation of a Jazz band’s “group chemistry.”

But another principal factor that enables group chemistry is the nature of how the composing and arranging are put together and here Steve Davis has the touch of the old masters such as Tadd Dameron, Benny Golson, and Gigi Gryce.

They, along with Horace Silver, Hank Mobley and Sonny Clark, arranged Jazz originals and standards from the Great American Songbook in such a way as to blend the instrumental voicings while leaving plenty of room for the soloists to “stretch out.”

They intersperse riffs and counter melodies that nudge the music and the soloists along and create a group impression, a kind of a musical collective personality, if you will.

Group chemistry is something that seems to happen around Steve Davis’ music, no doubt, in large part due to his skills and talents in bringing it about.

Part of it, too, is because of his orientation. He’s not interested in just playing the trombone as a trombone, but wants to play like other instruments on it.

As Ted Panken relates in the insert notes to Steve’s third Criss Cross CD – Crossfire [#1152]:

Davis began to blend the harmonic acuity and rhythmic punch of J J. Johnson and Curtis Fuller with the big sound approach of the pre-J.J. big band trombonists. "I was captivated by Miles and Wallace Roney at the time," Davis comments, "and wanted to be that on the trombone. Not obvious, but more subtle, mysterious, abstract, less vibrato. I started to listen to how Curtis Fuller brought a warmth to that approach. To me Curtis phrases like a saxophone, taking it another step beyond J.J., translating Coltrane to the brass. His velocity and authority when he played next to Freddie Hubbard and Wayne Shorter in the Messengers was astounding, and he transcended whatever limitations the horn might present. …

After a while you get the confidence and intuition to create, to play off what everyone else is playing, instigate a purer, group musical approach as opposed to running some stuff you’ve been working on.”

Steve Davis listens – to everybody – and because he does, he is able to bring things together.

As he related to Ted Panken in 2004 in the insert notes to Meant To Be [Criss Cross #1248]:

"I love chord progressions and harmonic movement," Davis continues. "The melodies come from the changes …. What kind of language are you playing through these chords? It seems to be less of a priority to a lot of improvisers now to really sing a song in your solo. It doesn't mean being corny, laying on some buttery melodies. I'm talking about turning a phrase, playing something poetic. At the same time, that's not my whole concept. I love rhythm, some back-and-forth with the drums or the piano. …”

"As you hear more, you understand more, and it's got to come out of your instrument," he concludes. "I happen to be holding a trombone every day of my life—and the days I don't, shame on me. But, you can't forget that you are the musician you are without the horn in your hands. You've got to get that music out, and there comes a point when you're playing beyond your instrument in order to fully achieve that expression.

I mean no disrespect to the legacy of the trombone, but I don't necessarily think as a trombonist. I don't think first and foremost of what J.J. or Slide or Curtis Fuller would play. These are heroes of mine. Curtis and Slide are good friends. But you have to play you.

Over the years, I've been fortunate to be next to Jackie McLean and Chick [Corea, pianist] and Freddie [Hubbard, trumpeter], and peers like saxophonists Eric Alexander and Jimmy Greene—so many great musicians. You want to connect with the guys you're playing with, connect with the rhythm section, speak their language. …”

Because of his sensitive awareness to the fact that making good Jazz is a collaborative effort, Steve Davis has been a unifying force ever since his appearance on the Jazz scene.

He just has a centripetal orientation – he pulls things together. When it came time to record his 2005 Update Criss Cross CD [#1282], the musicians that he works with most regularly were on the road.

So he brought together musicians whom he had long admired – Roy Hargrove on trumpet, Peter Bernstein on guitar and Anthony Wonsey on piano – combined them when bassist Nat Reeves and Joe Farnsworth, both of whom he regularly works with, a produced a marvelously blended and balanced recording.

Coming full circle with our beginning statements about him, one of the tunes Steve recorded on this disc is the following quartet version of Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s Moment to Moment which you can sample as the audio track to the following video tribute to Steve. [Please click on the “X” to close out of the ads when they appear on the video.]

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