"Steve Davis is one of my favorite trombone players of all time," says Jackie McLean, who is not known to mince words or indulge in idle praise. "I like his sound, I like the way he writes. He's a very special musician."
McLean's actions speak more tellingly than words; he's employed Davis -- a former student in McLean's African-American Music, Jazz Degree Program at Hartt School of Music -- since 1992. Nor is McLean the only jazz immortal partial to the 31 -year-old trombonist's impeccable chops, unfailing swing, innate musicality and smooth, capacious sound. Davis played in the final edition of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (1989-90); currently he's one of the talented improvisers spurring Chick Corea's creative renaissance in the Origin ensemble, and a key member of One For All, the formidable hard-bop sextet.
Crossfire, Davis' third Criss-Cross recording, is distinct from the previous two by the presence of veteran piano giant Harold Mabern, whose creative solos, percussive phrasing, poetic voicings, and intuitive ear for ensemble necessities impart continuous excitement and class to the proceedings. Bassist Nat Reeves and drummer Joe Farnsworth, masters of the dynamic groove, keep the pot simmering and seasoned, while on the take-no-prisoners front line 29-year-old tenor-monster Eric Alexander and 27-year-old alto firebrand Mike DiRubbo are more than foils for Davis, but co-equals.
Like many improvisers, Davis has music in his bloodline. His maternal grandmother was a semi-professional pianist-singer. "Nana was a Yankee woman playing Jazz, and it was kind of a novelty," Davis recalls, "She played tunes like 'Honeysuckle Rose,' 'Them There Eyes,' 'Embraceable You,' a lot of the great standards, in a hybrid that was sort of boogie-woogie and stride, Teddy Wilson style, everything in C or F. She was really gifted, a total improviser who didn't read a note. On my Dad's side, my Grandsir, a swing man, played a little trumpet. My father, who's a journalist, really exposed me to the music. He had tons of records that I heard growing up -- Horace Silver, the Jazz Messengers, Miles Davis, Lee Morgan's The Sidewinder (one of the first that grabbed me), a lot of Blues, and lots of Blues, like Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Otis Rush."
After experimenting with the trumpet, euphonium and tuba, Davis at 14 began playing slide trombone in his junior high school band in Binghamton, N.Y. Gradually, as he absorbed his father's J.J. Johnson, Curtis Fuller and Bob Brookmeyer collection and studied with encouraging band directors, music -- and the trombone -- became a life commitment. When it was time for college, his family sought a music program that offered a broad range of disciplines in the humanities, and settled on Hartt. "My mother liked the campus environment," Davis laughs, "and Jackie McLean really charmed her after my audition, which I'll never forget. I played 'Summertime'for him, no rhythm, then he played the piano, and began a little vamp from D-minor to E-flat-minor. He said, 'Let's see what you do with this, son,' and started playing some rhythms to which I played a response -- 'Yeah, you got it, man. Come on, where's your Mom?'
"Jackie turned everyone's world around. He gave a history course that took the music from Africa through the music of slavery and field hollers, evolving into the blues and brass bands, culminating with Charlie Parker in the second semester. Hotep Galeta became a big role model for me, as was Nat Reeves. Hotep and Nat not only taught ensembles at the school, but gigged a lot around Hartford, and started hiring me to play quartet. I also played a lot of Latin gigs, getting my sound together, and learned tons of tunes doing what Jackie calls'cocktail sips,' playing a song straight that you might have heard Miles Davis do twice, hearing the lyrics.
"When I arrived at Hartt, Antoine Roney was in his last year -- he was a huge influence. Not a week passed before we borrowed somebody's car and drove to New York. Antoine took me to the after-hours session Ted Curson ran at the Blue Note and showed me around Harlem. After he moved to New York, I'd hang with him. We'd go to Rashied Ali's house and play a little. Jackie recommended me to Charlie Persip when I was still a student at Hartt, and my first real New York gig was in the Superband, at Visiones in 1988. Also Nat was in the house band at the 880 Club in Hartford with Donnie De Palma, a pianist. They brought in guests every Thursday night like Eddie Henderson, Junior Cook, Tom Harrell, Pepper Adams, Kenny Garrett. It gave you a taste of what the real Jazz world is like."
On McLean's recommendation, Art Blakey hired Davis, all of 22 years old, at the end of 1989. Asked about the impact of playing with Blakey, Davis responds, "Javon Jackson once said that Art had a way of showing you what to play, or how to play, without actually telling you anything. He'd guide you through the drums. Art taught me -- as did Jackie later from a different vantage point -- how to get to the point quickly and say what you're going to say. It was like he planted a seed in you that hadn't even blossomed, that's going to grow as you grow. One time he was singing Fletcher Henderson arrangements, doing the trombone parts, and he said, 'You watch, that's going to be your style -- swinging."'
Davis began to blend the harmonic acuity and rhythmic punch of J.J. Johnson and Curtis Fuller with the big sound approach of the pre-J.J. big band trombonists. "I was captivated by Miles and Wallace Roney at the time," Davis comments, "and wanted to be that on the trombone. Not obvious, but more subtle, mysterious, abstract, less vibrato. I started to listen to how Curtis Fuller brought a warmth to that approach. To me Curtis phrases like a saxophone, taking it another step beyond J.J., translating Coltrane to the brass. His velocity and authority when he played next to Freddie Hubbard and Wayne Shorter in the Messengers was astounding, and he transcended whatever limitations the horn might present.
"Art loved the trombone. He'd goose you, prod you, root for you, give you stuff to play off of -- like riding a tidal wave. If you stay on the surfboard, all of a sudden you get someplace where you never thought you'd play. I made a couple of hits with Elvin Jones, which was very different, though the sound of the drums was similar. Eddie Henderson warned me, 'If you try to assert the beat with Elvin the way you did with Buhaina, it will be like stepping in quicksand.' I don't think I figured that out well enough at the time. Elvin played soft and exposed you in a different way, which I think about all the time now."
After Blakey died, now on his own, Davis came on lean times. In 1991-92 he joined forces with drummer Leon Parker in a group that included pianist Brad Mehidau, tenorist Mark Turner and bassist Ugonna Okegwo. "I had to start a band," Davis says, "because I wasn't playing much. It was a drastic switch. All of a sudden I was practicing in duos with Leon where he's playing one little ride cymbal. I was interested in Tony Williams'writing with his late '80s band, how he'd employ suspended chords to get an airy, open quality.
"Earlier when I was at Hartt," he continues, "Jackie McLean, Rene McLean and Hotep Galeta were doing the music that appeared on Jackie's Rites of Passage and Dynasty. Rene and Hotep have a lot of South African influence, but both were also long-time New York cats through the '60s and '70s. They're earthy and hip -- very rhythmic. The way they'd create melodies and lines over vamps, strong rhythms and laterally moving chords was very interesting. And Jackie's music is always accessible, catchy, but with notes you don't expect, little jagged edges that make it identifiable. Rene and Jackie bridge the outside and inside with integrity and honesty."
In the fall of '91 Davis became conductor of the Hartt big band, and soon joined McLean as the alto legend's first trombonist since Grachan Moncur held the chair in the '60s. "I once asked Jackie what he dug about Grachan, and he answered, 'His nerve.' Apart from Grachan's sparse approach, Jackie liked that he had the heart to do something so different. Grachan inspired me not to feel like you've got to play a million notes, that it's okay to stick some big colors out there. Whatever it is, as long as you have the ceiling. Being next to Jackie always made you feel special, that nobody could mess with you. Every little thing you played meant something to him. If you crack some notes, who cares? 'Nobody knows but you, man,' he'd say. He gives you the spirit to go ahead and try."
In 1994, off tour, Davis began working steady sessions at Augie's with Joe Farnsworth, Eric Alexander and Jim Rotondi, the hard-core of One For All, now with two albums to its credit. "Eric and Jim together played with a lot of muscle, very fleet, and trying to keep up was a challenge," Davis remembers. "It made me feel I'd been taking some things for granted, that I needed to be next to these guys to deal with chord changes, tempos, sound, articulation and control. Eric makes me rise to the occasion because he's so consistent and nails everything so impeccably, but always musical and creative. He'll take a different approach on each solo, like he has a map in his head, and brings something special to every tune."
That last comment applies to the quality of Steve Davis' playing on Crossfire -- deceptive ease, hard-won flow veiling mature virtuosity. He flexes his chops on a broiling-hot Con Alma, normally taken in an idiomatic slow 6/8, on Mike DiRubbo's McLean-inflected flagwaver From The Inside Out, on a barn-burning Cousin Mary. Lyricism is the word on Peacekeeper, an evocative bossa by pianist Chris Casey, who co-conducts the big band at Hartt with Davis; ditto on Davis' song-like readings of Old Folks (balladic) and Falling In Love With Love (jaunty). Davis arranges the Rodgers & Hammerstein ballad This Nearly Was Mine as a waltz (it's a homage to a Grachan Moncur feature with the Jazztet in 1962). His one original, Then and Now, performed by the quintet, features Farnsworth's Nouveau Swing backbeats under an AABA form in D-flat with suspended dominant chords on the outside -- "You can play blues vocabulary through the whole thing if you want to, or approach it more in a harmonic way."
"When you're younger," the young veteran concludes, "you think you know everything. You want to fly before you can run, or even walk. I've been fortunate to learn from masters that improvising is being in touch with the basic elements of the music. After a while you get the confidence and intuition to create, to play off what everyone else is playing, instigate a purer musical approach as opposed to running some stuff you've been working on. To me the struggle in finding your true voice is to really play the song. It's your sound, your spirit, your time and your tone -- melodies and rhythms."
TED PANKEN, WKCR-FM, NYC
New York, June 19, 1998
Criss Cross would like to thank Yamaha New York for providing the grand piano for this session.
Gerry Teekens, Producer