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John Daversa: Bursting Out of LA

R.J. DeLuke By

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Seen in the hallways at California State University in Northridge, a neighborhood of Los Angeles, where he teaches big band arranging, jazz history and other music courses, John Daversa might be seen with his goatee, and dense, dark and curly hair, parted in the middle, and correctly sense he might be involved in one of the arts programs.

What students at the university might not know is that Daversa is a man of immense compositional and arranging talents, who can also blow trumpet like the bell is about to fly off it. Like other LA-based musicians, he's done the film score gigs and television jobs. He even traveled Europe for a time as musical director for a Holiday On Ice troupe. But this cat is a jazz guy through and through and leads extraordinarily exciting bands, large and small, in Southern California.

It's coming time when that reputation is going to get more widespread, if good taste hasn't disappeared completely.

Daversa comes from a musical family. His father played trumpet with bandleader Stan Kenton. His mother plays piano and flute, and has years of experience with the band backing singer Andy Williams. So music was a direction that made itself known at an early age.

"In high school it was solidified that I wouldn't be happy doing anything else," Daversa says. "In that way, certain people might view the arts as a difficult way to achieve financial success. It's really just a mindset. It took me a long time to realize that too . In high school, I realized if I did anything else, I would just want to be playing music all the time. That's not fair to anybody. Especially not myself."

So he went headlong into it; good news for the arts. Daversa's latest recording, Artful JoyBob Mintzer and singer Gretchen Parlato are guests. The band sounds large. The tunes are exciting, from ethereal ("Hara Angelina") and funky ("C'Mon Robby Marshall"), to swinging ("Rhythm Changes"), dreamy ("Players Only"), and reminiscent of trumpeter Miles Davis' blues circa 1980s ("Flirty Girl").

It's consistently interesting and expertly executed. The players with whom Daversa has shared a long association are, by turns, outstanding, grooving, wailing and subtle when need be. The soloists are also outstanding, particularly saxophonist Robby Marshall and keyboardist Tommy King. And Daversa's trumpet—and sometimes the electric EVI (Electric Valve Instrument)—is superb. The recording came on the heels of 2011's Junk Wagon (BFM Jazz), an equally exciting album done with his Progressive Big Band. That band also gets some steady work in the LA area. Armed with Daversa's writing and arranging, it plays music from a wide range of genres and it always works. It is one strong aggregation and the disk was probably the best big band recording of 2011.

John Daversa—Artful Joy"With the big band, I love it because we can have these lengthy improvisational moments, but you always know, because of the arrangement and the composition, where you're going to land. It gives some structure to the chaos. But with the small band, we have no idea sometimes where we're going to land. A lot of the directions on that particular recording are the first time we ever did that. It's different every time. That's the fun of what that [small] group is," he says. That fun carries over to the audience.

Artful Joy is the third disk under his own name, though he has been part of some cooperative band recordings. The previous two were by the big band. He's also played on records by pop singers Joe Cocker and Fiona Apple, jazz group the Yellowjackets and songwriter Burt Bacharach.

Both the small and large bands had a regular gig at Los Angeles' Baked Potato club, where the small group has enjoyed a longer tenure than the big band. Daversa says the time had come to document the smaller group with a recording, "and start taking that music to the people. Both the big band and small band have the same personalities, the same directions in the music. There's just a lot more space for communication and improvisation with the small group because there's so much more flexibility when we're in the middle of these forms."

Daversa says of the CD, "I'm thrilled with the way it turned out. If we had recorded it the following week, it would have been a completely different record. It's always in a state of evolution. What we're doing now is the next iteration of what we were a year ago. There is a lot of gospel influence on those particular tunes. I had done a session for [keyboardist/singer] Andrae Crouch not too long before that. One of the tracks they played for us—not one of the things I played on, another track they were working on—was the most joyful, celebratory, happy sounding music. I was really inspired and I wrote a couple tunes after that. So a lot of the music has that undertone to it."

He's been playing with the same musicians for some time, so when writing for the group, he keeps their styles and personalities in mind.

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