One of the most meaningful moments in the remarkable trombonist Steve Davis’ life occurred when he first met his idol, J.J. Johnson. It was the morning after the immortal trombonist heard Davis play for the first time. “I walked in the theater and I heard this tremendous, warm sound and clean, clear articulation and sophisticated harmonic ideas. Yeah, Stevie, you’re right on track, baby. Keep it up. You sound beautiful, baby.” In recalling it, Davis says, “It was like getting my passport stamped. It’s just meant the world to me.”
Davis, now beloved and highly influential in his own right, has always viewed J.J. not just as the inspiration for every modern jazz trombonist, but as the model upon which his personal artistic aspirations are built.
“J.J. Johnson is the Charlie Parker of the trombone,” says Davis. “He’s our Bird. He changed the game for the instrument. He’s been a colossal influence on my playing, on my writing, and on my overall approach to the music.” Now, Davis is ready to offer a compelling tribute to the NEA Jazz Master with his new release on Smoke Sessions Records, Say When.
To pay proper tribute to a legend, an artist – even one as extraordinary as Davis – must do more than pay homage, but must extend that storied legacy, demonstrating its timelessness by offering a musical vision that is immediate and of the present. Davis and his brilliant team of collaborators–trumpeter Eddie Henderson, tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, and the sterling rhythm section of Harold Mabern, Nat Reeves and Joe Farnsworth–deliver that substance powerfully and with clear affinity and devotion. With many years of performing together in various contexts and combinations, these six outstanding musicians possess a synergy that is further unified by the radiant spirit of J.J. reflected in the repertoire, all of which is associated with J.J.’s legacy.
Davis is long renowned for his rich sound of sumptuous lyricism, intonation and an impeccable sense of swing – all of which holds true for Henderson and Alexander. Driven and buoyed by the stunning interplay of the rhythm section, powered by Mabern’s riveting piano, centered by Reeves’ resonance and rolling on Farnsworth’s sparkling inventiveness, the sextet shines on six Johnson originals and five more pieces connected with J.J. – including one unexpected surprise.
Among the originals is a quartet rendition of J.J.’s iconic and best-known piece, the exquisite “Lament,” ideally suited to Steve’s captivating warmth and emotive tenderness. With plenty of textured layers, exhilarating call-and-response and subtly placed riffing, the ensemble conveys big band energy without losing the intimacy of the smaller group. This is particularly effective on two items that J.J. did with a big band, the gently swinging “Shortcake” and the sizzling up-tempo title cut, “Say When.” “Pinnacles” opens the album in a bouncy fashion, and JJ.’s dedication to his granddaughter, “Kenya” is a soulful syncopated groover. The punchy “Shutterbug” takes syncopation into a “Milestones” feel with its staccato head and bluesy drive, and while Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?” is certainly not a J.J. original, but his marvelous arrangement certainly makes it his own, delivered here with that big small band sound.
Mabern’s dedication, “Mr. Johnson” was written when he played with J.J. and contains a modal Blakey’s Messengers fire of concentrated intensity. For Davis’ 16th birthday, his father gave him Concepts in Blue, which featured J.J.’s take on John Coltrane’s “Village Blues,” served up here on tantalizingly suspended rhythms. An additional ballad associated with J.J., “There Will Never Be Another You” is another quartet feature for Davis’ poignant expressiveness; and that aforementioned surprise is a rousing version of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” An unabashedly modern, ostinato-driven and tension-filled smoker, this was inspired by a version of this that Davis heard J.J. perform live at the Blue Note, and closes the album with Davis in bucket-muted fervor.
Testimonials to Steve’s luminous talent are filled with superlatives from virtually everyone with whom he’s played. Freddie Hubbard (“one of the greatest trombone players in the world”), James Moody (“his solos never cease to amaze me’) and Chick Corea (“some of the melodic improvisations ever heard in jazz”), are just three of a veritable who’s who of jazz giants – Art Blakey, Jackie McLean, Horace Silver, Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath, Ron Carter, Hank Jones and so many others – who shared those opinions. With well over a dozen albums under his own leadership, Davis’ first album for Smoke Sessions Records fulfills a long time dream and is another giant step forward for this exceptional artist.
“I’ve wanted to do this tribute to J.J. Johnson for 20 years but I never felt quite ready,” explains Davis. “Something kept telling me, ‘Just wait. Just wait.’ Then, a year and a half ago, we did the J.J. weekend at Smoke with this sextet and I finally realized it was time. J.J.’s music needs to be played. People need to hear this music. It’s just that good.”
The great man would be proud.