REVIEW: Steve Davis, 'Say When' (Smoke Sessions Records)
J.J. Johnson died in 2001 at 77. One of the first trombonists to embrace bebop--if not thee first--he is to every generation since the standard-bearer of what Dinah Washington once called "that big, long, sliding thing." No one, but no one, played the 'bone like Johnson. Traversing the bridge between swing and bop, he straddled both worlds yet made his mark in each. As Steve Davis notes: "He's our Bird."
So, after 20 years of somehow, some way wanting to do a J.J. tribute, Say When is Davis' realization of that goal. The 11 tracks here associated with J.J. (six of which he wrote) extend the legacy. Trombonist Davis doesn't so much as emulate the master, but rather takes the building blocks of his pioneering spark and adds his own post-bop curves.
"Lament" is textured with incessant interplay. "Shortcake" swings and "Pinnacles" happily bounces along, while the title cut speed-zips its way through meandering changes. "Kenya" (J.J.'s granddaughter) surprises with its syncopation, as does "Shutterbug," while Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love" recreates J.J.'s sterling big-band arrangement.
This time, though, it's for the small band of Eddie Henderson on trumpet, Eric Alexander on tenor sax, Harold Mabern on piano, Nat Reeves on bass and Joe Farnsworth on drums. Pianist Mabern wrote "Mr. Johnson" while in J.J.'s band. Influenced by Art Blakey (in whose Jazz Messengers a whole generation, or two, came through), it's a holy modal of complexity.
Leader Davis' swirls, bleeps, honks and stutters lend an inherent drama to his Johnson-isms. He once saw his hero at the Blue Note in New York City, thrilled to a live version of "When The Saints Go Marching In" and included it here as a righteous closer. From the time he was 16 and his dad gave him the copy of J.J.'s Concepts In Blue that changed his life (Davis covers J.J.'s cover on that album of Coltrane's "Village Blues") to his apprentice days with the likes of Freddie Hubbard, James Moody and Chick Corea, Davis has had a singular devotion to his instrument that has manifested itself in a fine career and this keeper of an album.