Jesse Davis: The Setup (2003)
This is the real thing: an authentic, unpretentious set of bebop, ballads and blues played with the profound feeling and burning intensity that many artists strive for but few achieve. Saxophonist Jesse Davis was a featured player in Robert Altman's Kansas City and on this date he seems to be on a mission to revitalize jazz with the energy and excitement of a "real" jazz club, as depicted in that film. The group, featuring Davis' frequent collaborator Peter Bernstein on guitar alongside veteran bassman Ray Drummond and younger drummer Donald Edwards, has the sound of a back room combo playing with an intimacy that draws the listener into the music.
Davis' robust, soulful alto sound is most often compared to that of Cannonball Adderley, but on this date his sweet tone and fluid lines more genuinely resemble those of Charlie Parker and Sonny Stitt. Bolstered by Bernstein's spare guitar the ensemble evokes a simplicity that gives the listener the feeling that (s)he's hearing this kind of music for the first time.
The leader's "Vee Cee," which opens the album, is the disc's most sophisticated composition. Although it's unlikely that young Davis meant for the title's initials to represent North Vietnam's guerillas, Ray Drummond's introductory "Witch Hunt"-quoting bass solo and the composer's deliberately stated melody give the song an ominous mood, evoking feelings of danger in a dark jungle. "The End of A Love Affair" is a straight-ahead up-tempo bebop outing complete with walking bass and traded fours. Jackie McLean's "Little Melonae" is a faithful reading with finely arranged solos. "The Very Thought Of You" is played slow and deliberate (the way it should be) with Birdlike flourishes by Davis.
Back-to-back blues, Herbie Hancock's "Driftin'" and the leader's title track, evince the wisdom of substituting Bernstein's guitar for the more commonly utilized piano in the quartet, as well as the selection of Ray Drummond to hold down the bass chair. The sound of this "string section" lends an air of authenticity to the classic form, delivering it from the commonplace and beautifully framing Davis' improvisations. J.J. Johnson's "Lament," the set's second ballad offering and one of jazz's most beautiful compositions, is a reverent rendering, befitting the tune's title, with a wailing solo by the leader.
The disc's closer, Louis Alter and Bob Russell's "Circus," was famously recorded by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers on Impulse!. Here Davis plays the head in unison with Bernstein's guitar to give the ensemble a larger sound and offer a big rousing finish to an extremely enjoyable session.
Track Listing: 1. Vee Cee (Davis) - 9:25 2. The End of a Love Affair (Redding) - 7:01 3. Little Melonae (McLean) - 7:29 4. The Very Thought of You (Noble) - 5:08 5. Driftin' (Hancock) - 6:05 6. The Setup (Davis) - 6:22 7. Lament (Johnson) - 8:41 8. Circus (Alter/Russell) - 7:34
Personnel: Jesse Davis - alto sax; Ray Drummond - bass; Peter Bernstein - guitar; Donald Edwards - drums.