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Charles Davis: Sweet Storyteller

R.J. DeLuke By

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Some people say you just play, but you don
There’s a difference between the elder statesmen in jazz and the newer firebrands, no matter how talented. One is the former’s ability to take their time to tell a story. They’ve been around life and they’re not in a rush. Like Dexter was. And Prez.

Out of that mold is 70-year-old Charles Davis, displaying his rich tenor sax sound and strong baritone sax work on his new CD Blue Gardenia, titled as much for his admiration for Dinah Washington as for his association with Billie Holiday. He played with both, but longer with Washington. He’s not a household name in jazz, but his resume is impressive – as is his new music.

Davis has played with Sun Ra, Coltrane, Johnny Griffin, Archie Shepp, Kenny Dorham, Illinois Jacquet, Amah Jamal and more. He’s a bopper with a sense of adventure. He’s a smooth storyteller with a sonorous sound influenced by his upbringing in Chicago, a musical hot bed (though he was born in Mississippi). On Blue Gardenia, he’s joined by Cedar Walton on piano, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Joe Farnsworth. It’s a straight ahead set and a smooth ride.

“It’s songs I felt and songs I like. There’s more I wanted to do, but we didn’t have so much time. But those are some of the ones I liked,” says Davis. It’s got a taste of blues, bossa and bop, and show Davis great style with melodic improvisation. There are pieces of the great players in his playing, but they’ve been amalgamated into a personal sound and the world should hear more of Charles Davis.

“The main influence was Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins. Don Byas,” he says of his formative days learning the instrument. “Getting out later on, I became friends with John Gilmore, Clifford Jordan. In my neighborhood was John Jenkins and Johnny Griffin. So there was music all around.”

He also learned from the singers he worked with. “Billie got phrases from Lester Young. Dinah was very clear on her diction. That was always something to listen to,” says the soft-spoken sax man.

“A Beautiful Friendship” gets things started and the mood is set for good. It’s a mid-tempo bop tune that Davis and company negotiate in a relaxed fashion, sliding into a blues and then “Bossa Joe” before getting on it with more of a burner, “Stranded,” that shows the quartet’s fire. With the baritone in his hands, the band works though a pair of ballads, including the title tune, and a bounding blues. It’s easy to see, listing to those tracks, why Davis became known as a baritone player, even though he contends he has switched back and froth between the two with regularity throughout his career. He keeps the same rich sound, and has good agility and creativity on the larger horn. He gracefully burns, for example, through “Blues for Yahoo” and softly addresses “Blue Gardenia” with sophisticated melancholy.

“I started out on alto. I have played baritone and tenor all along. I was playing baritone with Coltrane. I played tenor with John Gilmore, Clifford Jordan, Johnny Griffin, back in Chicago in the 50s. I’ve always played the tenor,” he says.

About the CD, Davis says he’s very self-critical. “I hear things and I say, ‘I could have done this better.’ But it’s like telling a lie, once you do it, it sticks forever. But I enjoyed it, but when you first record something, you think you’re the worst sounding individual on the record. Because you’re trying to get out all of yourself, and that’s an impossibility.”

While the recording industry seems to be taking its lumps from musicians in the new millennium, Davis takes things in stride. He says it’s not a lot different than it ever has been. Musicians aren’t getting rich, and many aren’t getting notoriety. But that’s not new.

“For the most part, the people I’ve been involved with seem to be able to come to an amicable agreement about what should be done [on a recoding]. There’s also an area where an artist should take a suggestion. Some things may be personal, as far as what you want to do, but may not be appropriate at the time. I remember a friend of mine, Eddie Harris, when he put out “Exodus,” that was one they didn’t want. But he got it on there, and that was a hit. Shows you how much they know. That’s happened in a lot of cases, the ones they don’t want turn out to be the ones that become most popular.”

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