The infinite fecundity of the jazz art form is such that every valid style within it can provide a language for creativity. Charles Davis speaks the vernacular of '60s hard bop, eloquently and naturally. It would be very easy to overlook Blue Gardenia. It is a modest little album on an unknown label by an all-but-forgotten 70-year-old journeyman reed player. Its genre and its instrumentation are also unremarkable (postbop mainstream and saxophone-plus-rhythm section, respectively). But Blue Gardenia is one of the great sleeper jazz albums of 2003.
A major reason for its sense of proportion and inevitability is the rhythm section. Cedar Walton and Davis are exact contemporaries, and their hook-up is deeply embedded. Every one of Walton's piano statements sounds unforced, almost casual, yet is a complete, distilled response to the needs of the moment. The bassist and drummer, Peter Washington and Joe Farnsworth, respectively, constantly push this session with their younger, insistent energy.
Davis plays the first four tunes on tenor. "A Beautiful Friendship" is a Sammy Cahn evergreen, but Davis hits the theme hard in syncopated stop-time. His solo rolls right down the middle of the Washington-Farnsworth groove and yet keeps finding surprises. (Davis has played with people like Sun Ra and Archie Shepp. He says that he likes to "play pretty," but his take on "pretty" is never obvious.)
"Texas Moon" is an original waltz by Davis. His solo is typically tight and disciplined, yet feels comprehensive because of its scope of ideas. "Texas Moon" also demonstrates Davis' profound fluency in the blues. "Bossa Joe" and Frank Lacy's "Stranded" are very impressive and very different tenor saxophone mini-recitals, one swaying and mellow, one not.
But it is in the second four tracks, when Davis switches to baritone, that this session becomes indispensable. There is almost no one left alive who can exploit the darkly evocative expressive potential of the baritone saxophone like Davis. "Shadow of the Sunset" is a response to the events of 9/11 by Martinican pianist Michel Sardaby. The eruptive force of Davis' instrument is restrained by the subject matter into a solemn, unsentimental contemplation. (Cedar Walton's solo is concise but leaves nothing unsaid. His touch has the fine patina that comes only from decades of application.)
"Sabia" is by Antonio Carlos Jobim, and it sets up a beautiful tension between the lightness of a Brazilian momentum and the weight of Davis' horn. "Blues for Yahoo," another Davis original, swings like a big hammer. The title track is an inspired choice for a closer. It was the theme of a noir Fritz Lang film of the same name, written by Bob Russell and Lester Lee and made famous by Nat "King" Cole; Charles Davis has now definitively interpreted it. As a ballad performance, it is reminiscent of Ben Webster, not in specific tone, but in the way it lingers.
Blue Gardenia is the first release by Reade Street. It is gratifying to see a new label take its mission so seriously.