Orbert Davis: Trumpeting All Kinds of Music
“ Music and life is a matter of study. It never ends. ”
Orbert Davis is one of the most active trumpet players on the music scene, heard in tons and tons of contexts and not just by jazz fans. He's credited with performing on something like 2,500-plus commercials. He's done film music, most recently helping arrange music in "Road to Perdition" with Tom Hanks and Paul Newman. His work with pop acts includes Stevie Wonder, Dionne Warwick, Duran Duran, Gladys Knight, The Temptations and others.
He is known as a guy who can fit in anywhere. Regardless of style, he can work it. But at heart, as a player he's a jazz guy with a beautiful tone and strong technique. He can cut it with Ramsey Lewis, Kurt Elling, T.S. Monk, Paul Wertigo and anyone else, really. He's complete. He was featured soloist at the 1996 Chicago Jazz Festival, performing Miles Davis and Gil Evans' "Sketches of Spain." And last fall, a 55-piece orchestra he assembled headlined the Chicago Jazz Festival, a group that he wants to do a lot more working with and writing for.
More than a musician, Davis dedicates huge amounts of his time schedule to teaching kids. Not just aspiring musicians, either. At-risk kids. Kids who need a different approach; a chance to see there is something else out there. And he's a family man, usually staying home two days a week when his wife works, to help tend to his 4-year-old daughter while his 8-year-old son is in school.
It seems like he might need a large "S" emblazoned on a blue undershirt beneath his business suit. But not if you ask him. Orbert Davis is dedicated, hard working, yet unassuming and affable. He's comfortable in the Chicago area, where he grew up and still resides. At age 44, he has carved out a strong career in music. He's extremely busy when many musicians wish they could say the same.
What has propelled him, Davis says, is "perseverance, setting goals high and working extremely hard."
His latest effort is his new jazz CD Blue Notes that features original music from Orbert and his band mates, for the most part. His crystal tone is one of the highlights on this mostly straight-ahead gig. Ari Brown on sax is notable, as is Dee Alexander, who sings bluesy vocals on two numbers. On "Shaw Nuff" you can her Davis' chops fly through a number. But his trumpet and fluglehorn are so great in their sound, technique doesn't matter. It's no wonder that his friend, Kurt Elling, used Orbert on a song he wrote in tribute to Miles Davis, "Prayer to Mr. Davis" on The Messenger. Because Miles was first and foremost about sound.
"Tone is the most important thing in sound production, " he says. "Of course having the right equipment too. I play a Clifford Blackburn trumpet. I don't know of any other jazz musicians who do. If there are any out there, I would love to meet them. I know a lot of classical musicians who play it. It's the sound that I go after."
It's on his own label, Orbark Productions, which he runs with his business partner and childhood friend Mark Ingram. The label has produced some nice albums, including Priority, Davis' last release. Running the label, therefore avoiding direction from others, is important.
"We turned down a nice deal with a major label," says Davis. "But we didn't want to give up control. He'd rather have artistic control over the music that comes out, which you can lose going in with a major label where it's business first, not music first."
He says Priority did well and made various jazz charts here and abroad. But as far as sales go, "We broke even... But it's worth doing it, because it's our thing. We do it for the love of the music."
Davis grew up in the rock- and pop-dominated era and liked all kinds of music in Chicago. His parents didn't play music, but were fans. To say Davis took a liking to the trumpet is putting it mildly. "I became obsessed with the trumpet," he states. "My parents had to yell at me to stop practicing, not to start practicing." Gradually, he was drawn to jazz, listening to Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard. Raphael Mendez also as an influence "for his articulation and sound. As Davis moved to taste the pantheon of trumpet players, he realized "musicians have to be open to every voice," and in jazz, he found that it was a demanding place to hang one's hat. It didn't deter him.
In fact, "The challenge of the trumpet drew me into jazz," he says. "My voice as a jazz musician is my most important voice."
Davis worked hard in high school and college on his instrument, learning, as well as racing from studio session to studio session, carving out a living. He has a bachelor's degree in trumpet performance from DePaul University and from Northwestern University a master's degree in jazz pedagogy, "the art of teaching jazz, or learning what's needed to be a teacher in jazz... Preparing educators to head jazz departments or be an administrator in jazz departments at whatever level."