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Steve Davis Quartet at Cecil's Jazz Club

David A. Orthmann By

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Steve Davis Quartet
Cecil's Jazz Club
West Orange, NJ
March 17, 2006

Great jazz musicians always find a way to rise above adverse performance conditions. Despite a sparse St Patrick's Day audience, the constant ringing of a cell phone, and a bartender whose voice boomed over the band, Steve Davis' Quartet played a riveting opening set. Davis' affable remarks between songs, and the band's frequent exchanging of smiles and knowing glances, let the assembled few in on the pleasures of making improvised music.

They opened with "If I Love Again, a standard Davis recorded on Systems Blue, one of his six recordings for the Criss Cross label. Played with his customary rich sound, the trombonist's interpretation kept the melody intact and added a few choice embellishments. Backed by bassist Dezon Douglas' robust walking line, Davis' solo integrated long tones, syncopated figures, and smartly executed bebop lines—and made it all sound effortless. Pianist David Bryant frequently referred to pieces of the tune's melody. One of the many examples of the band's interactive communication, Bryant repeated a phrase and Eric McPherson immediately picked it up on the snare drum.

Next up was Davis' arrangement of Henry Mancini's "Moment To Moment, a tune he wanted to tackle after hearing versions by Eric Alexander and Roy Hargrove. Taken at a slow-to-medium tempo, a four-note vamp underlined the melody. Amidst the various twists and turns there was honesty and emotional directness in Davis' solo. As McPherson dogged his every move, the trombonist repeated a stuttering, five-note figure, inserted a long bellowing interlude, laid into one phrase like a riff, then returned to Mancini's melody.

Davis' composition "Spirit Waltz was written for the late Ra Atam, a djembe player whom Davis met years ago at the Artists Collective in Hartford, CT. McPherson's unaccompanied introduction paid tribute to Atam as well. He began by wielding blades, a cross between a stick and a brush that produced a unique, ringing sound. Leaving the snares off, he moved between all of the drums, executing an assortment of rhythms that hung together in a loose manner. For a while the steady click of the hi-hat was the only audible cymbal. The cadences became more scrambled, as the tom-toms formed a rich thicket of sounds. McPherson began to change direction by using sticks to introduce a series of light cymbal crashes that blended with the rumbling of the toms. Then, one by one, a succession of more discernable patterns emerged. McPherson topped off the dazzling, varied improvisation and cued the band by going into a straight-ahead jazz beat in ¾ time.

Davis preceded Billy Strayhorn's "Daydream with a brief lecture on the composer's association with Duke Ellington. Lingering on nearly every note of Strayhorn's melody, his exquisite treatment contained a hint of melancholy. The trombonist's solo left a lot of open space that Bryant filled with lush chords. During the course of just a few measures, Davis' line in double time led to a quote from the song "On The Trail, followed by another rapid-fire phrase that descended into silence.

Bryant's introduction jump-started Herbie Hancock's "The Maze, the set's final selection. The pianist began his solo by rearranging a four-note phrase like moving the pieces of a puzzle, and after that he made chords answerable to a series of single-note runs. McPherson's chattering snare drum briefly posed a challenge, then retreated for a spell before he built another set of rhythms around Bryant's repetitive chords.

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