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Steve Davis: Say When

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What worked for J.J. Johnson will work for Steve Davis-that’s the apparent logic behind Say When, Davis’ competent but ultimately middling tribute to his and all bebop trombonists’ forefather. Davis expresses in the liner notes his desire for the world to hear Johnson’s music, but the strength of that desire paints him into a corner. The music is so thoroughly Johnson’s that it neglects to be Davis’.

The trombonist has done fine work in the past, especially on his own writing. Here, his sextet (trumpeter Eddie Henderson, tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, pianist Harold Mabern, bassist Nat Reeves, drummer Joe Farnsworth) assays six Johnson compositions, along with two of his standard arrangements, an original tribute by Mabern and two tangentially related tunes. Davis’ most inventive touch is to add a voice to the arrangement of “What Is This Thing Called Love?”; otherwise he plays them as Johnson did. Even the bitonal take on “When the Saints Go Marching In,” easily Say When‘s most interesting moment, comes from Johnson.

For music that so inspires the leader, it never seems to inspire him here. “Pinnacles” finds Davis working J.J. licks and dry bebop lines. He begins his “Shortcake” solo by quoting “Blue Train,” and nothing he plays after is so striking. The others do their best to buoy the session: Reeves and Farnsworth lay out their usual, preternaturally solid beat; Alexander lets gleeful coarseness invade his smooth lines on Mabern’s 72-bar “Mr. Johnson”; Henderson keeps bebop fresh and spry on “What Is This Thing Called Love?” and “Kenya,” and energizes Coltrane’s “Village Blues” enough that Davis briefly sounds excited. Would that it lasted.

Originally Published