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Steve Davis Quintet at Cecil's Jazz Club

David A. Orthmann By

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Steve Davis Quintet
Cecil's Jazz Club
West Orange, NJ
June 15, 2007

The first of Steve Davis's seven recordings as a leader for the Criss Cross Jazz imprint, entitled The Jaunt, refers to the 110 mile trip from the trombonist's longtime base in Hartford, CT to the jazz Mecca, New York City. Although each of the Criss Cross sides has documented Davis as a savvy organizer of small mainstream ensembles, fans were more likely to hear him in person in bands like One For All, or The New Jazz Composers Octet. Fortunately, over the past couple of years Davis's treks to the Big Apple have often been for gigs under his own name.

Cecil's Jazz Club is a northern New Jersey venue which hosts Davis on a semi-regular basis. Although his June 15th appearance included an excellent working ensemble of alto and soprano saxophonist Mike DiRubbo, pianist David Bryant, bassist Dezron Douglas, and drummer Eric McPherson, the band's greatest strength was the empathy between the musicians. Even as a motif spontaneously made the rounds, the ongoing interplay, particularly between the rhythm section and soloists, always maintained a core of stability.

A composer deserving of wider recognition, Davis's themes are thought-provoking, soulful, and devoid of affectation. The first set at Cecil's featured mostly work written only a week or so prior to the date. The new pieces were part of The Hartford Suite, a work in progress, consisting of tributes to people and places associated with the city. "Nato is the nickname given bassist Nat Reeves by the late Jackie McLean, Davis's teacher and mentor at the Hartt School of Music, and both Reeves and Davis were sidemen in McLean's band during the 1990s. Davis dedicated "The Modernist to Chick Austin, a former curator of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. In the early twentieth century, Austin was responsible for bringing the first major Picasso retrospective to the United States. A longstanding (now defunct) jazz room in Hartford's south end, "Club 880 was an important venue in the early years of Davis's career.

The trombonist's solo on "Nato set a high standard, which he maintained throughout the set. His smooth- sounding lines were substantial yet easy to follow. Davis continuously generated fresh ideas, yet he was never in a hurry. Leaving space for Bryant, he took one of the pianist's phrases in the accompaniment and incorporated it in the following sequence of his own solo. Small changes in emphasis played in a full, lush tone made his "Rose Garden solo one of the night's highlights. As always, Davis proved that he didn't need to wax dramatic to make an impact.

DiRubbo proved to be an ideal frontline partner. The alto saxophonist's ideas gradually became more expansive during the course of "The Modernist, as he displayed a coherent flow and relaxed command of the horn. When McPherson's drums started chattering behind him, DiRubbo's phrases on "Spirit Waltz (one of the gems in Davis's deep book of tunes) twisted in various directions before his tone got noticeably broader on a series of long notes.

Bryant's spot on "The Modernist consistently inspired interesting changes by Douglas and McPherson, the pianist's split-second hesitation leading to an alteration in the previously steady bass line, and some in-the-pocket playing provoking a double-timed ride cymbal for a long stretch. Later on in the solo, Bryant's intermittent chords came in pairs, his ideas on "Spirit Waltz revealing a McCoy Tyner influence that wasn't overly broad. At one point hard, obsessively repeated chords clashed with biting right-hand lines.

Throughout, McPherson demonstrated why he's a significant force in jazz drumming, his straight-ahead groove deep and full of telling details, occasionally marked by stimulating albeit brief tangents. Unlike numerous assertive trapsters, McPherson's busy-ness never became overbearing or distracting because he was always listening. His extended turn on "Nato employed a variety of textures, went in and out of time, and included a smart theme built around the band's riff.

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