Trombonist and educator Steve Davis was a member of the last graduating class at the University of Art Blakey, and as he said in a Blakey-related panel at this year’s Jazz Congress, he’s made it part of his mission to continue the legacy of the Jazz Messengers. He has succeeded in Hartford, Conn., where Davis studied under Jackie McLean at the Hartt School and now teaches himself. Davis’ band is made up almost entirely of former Hartt students: bassist Dezron Douglas, trumpeter and flugelhorn player Joshua Bruneau, tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, and drummer Jonathan Barber. Xavier Davis (no relation) he knows from David Weiss’ New Jazz Composers Octet.
Hartford was home to the 880 Club, an erstwhile Davis mainstay that hosted a weekly jam session, and Correlations displays the harmonic challenges and open ears of the best jams. On the insouciant bossa “Embarcadero,” Davis’ solo segues seamlessly to Escoffery, who then passes the baton to Bruneau as in an Olympic relay. Space is tight, but evenly distributed; solos maximize single-chorus parameters and exemplify ending with a conclusive statement.
Like the best Messengers albums, Davis includes a bit of everything within the hard bop tradition: a medium shuffle (“Song for My Love”), an up-tempo Latin groove (“Bautista’s Revenge,” featuring guest percussionist Cyro Baptista and one of several blistering, transcription-worthy solos by Escoffery), and a ballad, “Peace.” The latter showcases Davis’ warm, vocalizing tone, round like Curtis Fuller’s with an economy of expression and a legato crispness that never feels clipped. This is a welcome reminder that there are thriving jazz incubators outside New York, and that there’s life left in the hard-bop tradition McLean and Blakey shaped.