Indicative of formative experiences in the bands of Art Blakey and Jackie McLean, as well as his current association with the cooperative sextet One For All, Steve Davis’ Systems Blue encompasses many of the characteristics of bop and hard bop without sounding stalled in a bygone era. On his fifth date for the Criss Cross label, the trombonist and prolific composer favors selections from the American Popular Songbook. While he frequently alters the forms and harmonic designs in engaging ways, Davis’ interpretations eschew fashionable deconstruction and burlesque, retaining the essence of each song. A first class rhythm section comprised of pianist/arranger David Hazeltine, bassist Peter Washington, and drummer Joe Farnsworth moves the music along with varying degrees of emphasis and intensity, but even at their most pronounced they never become strained or clunky. Each member of the group (including, on two tracks, alto saxophonist Mike DiRubbo) is encouraged to step up and express himself. With few exceptions, their solos are considerable in both length and substance.
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The Surrey With The Fringe On Top,” from the Broadway musical “Oklahoma,” is rarely heard in the context of modern jazz. The band’s collective arrangement is primarily a duet between Davis and Farnsworth, allowing the drummer four-bar breaks amidst a repeated sustained chord by the piano and bass, with everyone playing the tune’s bridge. Farnsworth’s drums and cymbals make a fine match for Davis’ warm and robust tone. His touch and level of assertiveness is just right, pushing the music with variations of straightforward timekeeping, and is devoid of clumsiness or a desire to put on a show. The duo evinces a keen playfulness, which carries into the trombonist’s solo. For the most part, Davis’ phrases come in short, easily digestible bursts, his sound masking a slight impatience. Always mindful of Fransworth’s presence, his strength lies in making these passages cohere while the solo goes streaming forward.
During another, seldom played tune, “A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square,” Davis provides a marvelous example of how to render the melody of a ballad. Encouraged by Hazeltine’s sympathetic accompaniment, he plays the song with a heart-on-his-sleeve sincerity, painstakingly making each note sound essential, and never hinting that there’s an improvisation to follow. His single chorus cleaves to the spirit and melodic core of the tune. On the bridge, surrounded by the snapping of Farnsworth’s brushes, he toughens things up a bit by employing spry phrases that contain a hint of blues tonality.
Inspired by John Coltrane’s “Bessie’s Blues,” the title track (one of Davis’ two compositions on the disc) manages to elicit the sound of the master’s classic quartet yet avoids becoming encapsulated by it. Sandwiched between admirable turns by the trombonist and Hazeltine, DiRubbo plays four cutting choruses. He wrings a lot of feeling out of a minimum of notes, and has an affinity for building up to climaxes without becoming spurious or contrived.
Personnel: Steve Davis--trombone; Mike DiRubbo--alto sax; David Hazeltine--piano; Peter Washington--bass; Joe Farnsworth--drums.