STEVE DAVIS QUARTET, featuring LARRY WILLIS:
"Steve Davis is one of my favorite trombone players of all time. I like his sound, I like the way he writes. He is a very special musician," according to Jackie McLean. Steve and Larry Willis, two of Jackie's greatest protégés, front this smoking group. Davis cut his eyeteeth in the Jazz Messengers, then played with McClean until his recent passing. "Alone Together" may just be the most soulful trombone ballad I've ever recorded. In contrast, the Quartet's "Surrey with The Fringe On Top" is certainly the most fun cooker I've heard in the studio in a decade. It doesn't hurt that bassist Nat Reeves and drummer Eric McPherson, Steve's bandmates in Jackie's group, played their butts off for this session. Nor does it hurt that this is my best quartet sound since our Norris Turney CD. (#10832)
IF YOU ENJOYED ALONE TOGETHER, BE SURE TO CHECK OUT
The new CD by the Steve Davis Quartet, Alone Together, sets a happy tone. With Davis on trombone, Larry Willis on piano, Nat Reeves on bass, and Eric McPherson on drums, the band manages to evoke a wonderful mood. The feeling is one of stepping out on the town, enjoying yourself after having stayed in for far too long. Even through the sadder numbers, the ensemble creates that feeling of joy coming after a long period of sorrow.
The first track, Milestones, starts with Larry Willis' piano announcing the good news in an upbeat tone. Reeves picks up the pace of the song and McPherson carries it on a strong walking bass line. Davis does here what he does phenomenally through the whole album: play in a controlled, even subtle manner, reaching to evoke emotion instead of merely blasting out notes.
The album continues with My Foolish Heart, a song that has Davis using his trombone as a tool for dialogue. Davis plays slowly and softly; making sure each phrasing carries as much meaning as words could evoke. It is refreshing to hear this kind of restraint and purposefulness in playing. The band here beautifully mimics Davis' rises and falls, framing his wonderful playing.
Surrey With The Fringe On Top, has Davis playing right into the dominant mood of the record. Even in this more energetic song, almost no brassy sound emerges from Davis' instrument. McPherson takes command of the song's tempo and keeps the mood light.
The title track, Alone Together, creates a feeling of excitement. Willis and McPherson play jubilantly, framing Davis' more cool tone. Davis serves as te calculated seductive voice to contrast the contained frenzy of the rest of the band. The quartet seems to really enjoy this song, achieving a playfully ironic mood.
Next up is the somber, The Day You Said Goodbye. This track features Davis' best work on the album. His playing here is lyrical, attempting to elevate te emotions of the song to a higher level. Were the composition slightly less conventional, the song would be near perfect. As is, it is still fantastic.
United features rambunctious playing by McPherson and great bass work by Reeves. Willis and Davis let loose in a way they don't on the rest of the album, and the result is pleasurable and refreshing.
Next is We'll Be Together Again, a varied song that features Davis playing with several different moods and tempos. In this more complex song, it is essential that the entire ensemble function, and they do. McPherson and Reeves steer the song through each shift it makes, and Willis' light piano pays well against Davis.
On Ummg, Reeves gets to start front and center and strut his stuff. His urbane, smart bass creates the feel for this sly track. The song is the closest that the CD comes at any point to lite jazz, but the tight quartet seers clear of the pitfalls of that sound.
The final track, Short Cake, is a boisterous closing number. Willis' playing winds all around the song, offering perhaps his best soloing on the album. The rhythm section is subdued except when called upon, allowing Davis and Willis' to bring this fine record to a close in a fun way. Alone Together is an album worth a listen for Davis' great playing alone, but the entire ensemble makes this a CD definitely worth checking out.
Track List: Milestones, My Foolish Heart, Surrey With The Fringe On Top, Alone Together, The Day You Said Goodbye, United, We'll Be Together Again, Umg, Short Cake
- Ethan Krow
All About Jazz:
Trombonist Steve Davis has been a veteran of the New York scene for many years. Hailing from Binghamton, New York, he quickly established a presence as one of the best trombonists in the area as a teenager. Upon his arrival in New York City in the mid-1980s, Davis’ talents were noticed by such luminaries as drummer Art Blakey and saxophonist Jackie McLean. Davis’ quartet release on Mapleshade, Alone Together , is a tip of the hat to his former boss—a wonderful quartet featuring pianist Larry Willis, bassist Nat Reeves and drummer Eric McPherson, all McLean alumni.
The fact that all these men are veterans of McLean’s combo gives this session the feeling of a working band, and everyone plays at a high level. Davis and Willis have a great rapport together, with Willis’ voicings adding depth to Davis’ lines. Larry Willis may perhaps be best known as the pianist in trumpeter Woody Shaw’s classic group, and as one of the most sensitive and nuanced disciples of Herbie Hancock.
Willis begins the quartet’s take on “Milestones” with a lovely introduction before Davis enters with the familiar Miles Davis (by way of John Lewis) melody. The rhythmic feel throughout the piece is refreshingly buoyant as McPherson molds and shapes the time at the bridge, a la a young Tony Williams, allowing for strong statements from Willis and Davis. Willis also creates rhythmic interest behind the trombone solo by often going against the time for tension and release.
The next cut, the classic standard “My Foolish Heart,” is taken as a duet. Willis’ warm chords frame Davis’ dark, burnished tone as he stays close to the melody. The title track is taken with a quasi-Latin/boogaloo eighth note feel. Davis bleeds soul out of his horn with Curtis Fuller-like intensity, while McPherson provides strong commentary on the skins throughout. Fuller's influence is further felt on “United,” taken from Art Blakey's book. Davis provides slashing phrasing reminiscent of the elder trombonist on classic Blakey albums such as Free For All (Blue Note, 1964), as McPherson keeps a strong swinging pulse on this fairly straightforward Wayne Shorter composition.
As fine as the music is, the recording quality of this release, which is superb, deserves to be mentioned. The sound is dynamic and very much like a session at Rudy Van Gelder’s original Hackensack living room studio combined with the intimacy of the many studio dates on Pablo. The recording is direct to two-track analog tape and minimally miked, capturing the nuances of Willis’ piano, the woodiness of the bass, and all of the air control flowing through the trombone. Free of compression and other tweaks, this is how every new acoustic jazz album should sound. Overall, Steve Davis and his quartet have made an excellent album that is creative and soulful, sure to delight fans of the hard bop tradition.
There are instruments that were never meant to solo, like the string bass and the tuba. But in jazz, an art form based on challenging assumptions and disrupting expectations, they are used as solo vehicles. It is the very inarticulateness of the bass saxophone that makes it so much fun when someone like James Carter causes it to sing. Jazz is all about degree-of-difficulty.
The trombone is not nearly as improbable a solo device as the tuba, but there are reasons why the trombone is a minority instrument. A great trombone solo is to a great trumpet solo as a dancing bear is to Baryshnikov.
Steve Davis has been one of the first-call trombonists in jazz for 15 years, and has made ten albums as a leader. But he has never made one with just his horn and a rhythm section until now. [Alone Together] is a diverse, comprehensive, in-depth 69-minute trombone recital. If that description sounds academic, throw it out. [Alone Together] is a warm, witty, freewheeling celebration of the trombone’s inherent obfuscations.
“My Foolish Heart” is the most poignant of jazz ballads. (Bill Evans’ existential version is the paradigm.) Davis works his way carefully along the melody, tracing it in a rough, thick line, and gives the song a new vulnerability and sadness. The title track is the album’s centerpiece. Davis slaps Arthur Schwartz’ famous theme around over pianist Larry Willis’ single block chord jab and drummer Eric McPherson’s deadpan backbeat. Then both Davis and Willis expound upon the song for nine minutes, Willis building and ascending and spilling over and Davis punching dark trombone details all around “Alone Together,” always tying back to it. “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” is a blaring, elaborate, bouncing ten-minute ride. Irving Berlin’s “We’ll Be Together Again,” normally a ballad, is overtaken by this session’s upbeat energy and becomes another exhilarating, blustering ceremony.
This recording is one of the finest sonic achievements of Mapleshade founder/engineer Pierre Sprey. He renders the believable physical presence of four musicians in a lifelike acoustical space.
[Alone Together] is just the thing for your occasional trombone cravings, for those slightly perverse moments when Baryshnikov seems too fancy, and a dancing bear seems just right.
All Music Guide:
Trombonist Steve Davis got his start playing with Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers, then spent years in Jackie McLean's band until the pianist's death in 2006. On this, his tenth recording as a leader, he's rejoined by his former colleagues in the McLean band, drummer Eric McPherson and bassist Nat Reeves, along with pianist Larry Willis for a solid set of familiar standards plus one original composition. He shows his range without showing it off too self-consciously: his take on "Milestones" is sharp and jittery, while his rendition of "My Foolish Heart" is suffused with all the sweetness and heartbreak you could hope for. When the band turns to "Surrey with the Fringe on Top," you realize (perhaps for the first time) what a splendid vehicle that song is for the trombone -- a happy and sprightly number, but one with lots of room for legato phrasing. Davis and the crew swing gently but firmly on an infrequently recorded Billy Strayhorn number called "Upper Manhattan Medical Group," and close the proceedings with an inevitable (and nicely chosen) J.J. Johnson piece, "Short Cake." Altogether, this is a rich and very satisfying album by a master of his instrument and of small-group dynamics.
Davis has been compared to trombonists such as J.J. Johnson, Slide Hampton, Carl Fontana and Curtis Fuller, but he’s really his own man, with a distinctive, rich sound, a relaxed style with just enough fire, and enough technique to meet any challenge. For his 10th CD as a leader, Davis is joined by pianist Larry Willis, bassist Nat Reeves and drummer Eric McPherson—like Davis, all former Jackie McLean sidemen.
Davis excels in his stop-and-start exposition of “Milestones,” on which Willis contributes a quick-fingered solo replete with interesting ideas. For “My Foolish Heart,” the trombonist deepens his tone in a heartfelt treatment that is solely his, savoring the melody with little embellishment. “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” includes a spirited and imaginative Davis solo, and Willis also sparkles in his varied, ever-building solo. McPherson tastefully improvises here as well. Davis is forceful and inspired on “Alone Together,” and Willis delivers a solo typically full of unpredictable twists and turns of phrase. “We’ll Be Together Again” receives a graceful and tender interpretation.
“The Day You Said Goodbye” is an attractive Willis ballad that Davis essays with a luxuriously pure timbre that enhances the effectiveness of both his reflective solo and reading of the theme. Davis exhibits his confident dexterity on Wayne Shorter’s “United,” galloping through the changes, while Willis’ exciting solo is propelled by his solid left-hand accents. McPherson’s unrushed solo is highlighted by his subtle stick work. Willis impresses again on Strayhorn’s “Upper Manhattan Medical Group” with his ringing tones and deft phrasing, and Davis is absorbing with his pleasing and logical thematic variations. J.J. Johnson’s “Short Cake,” with its clever melody, moves Willis to perhaps his best and most exuberant improvisation of the date. Davis responds in kind with both passion and inventiveness.