With high-profile gigs and a long-planned recording date on the near horizon, what should a musician do when a beloved sibling dies suddenly and a dreaded political reality looms? Steve Davis, probably best known as the capable trombonist with Chick Corea’s late-’90s Origin band, and recognized as the last Jazz Messenger hired by Art Blakey, opted to forge ahead. Just 10 days after the passing of his younger brother Peter, in January, Steve led a sextet of first-call musicians in a three-night stint at Smoke in New York City, followed by a live recording in a Manhattan studio.
The MLK Day session, with Davis joined by a roomful of old bandmates and friends, yielded a solid collection of postbop tracks characterized by top-shelf soloing, and sonics and arrangements sometimes reminiscent of those aforementioned ensembles. The disc opens and closes with tunes carrying emotional weight for the leader. Tony Williams’ quick-twisting “Warrior,” the lead-off, gives ample space to drummer Lewis Nash, reflecting Davis’ admiration for Williams’ talents as a bandleader and composer. The second track, “Abena’s Gaze,” written for Davis’ fiancé, is a beautifully rendered midtempo piece deploying some call-and-response devices; Steve Wilson, the “other” Steve in Origin, shines here on soprano. The final track, “Farewell, Brother,” written on the heels of Peter’s death, thrives on color-shifting horn harmonies and fluent, gently inquisitive solos by Davis and tenor saxophonist Jimmy Greene.
A speedy unison head and quick tempo drive “Mountaintop,” referencing King’s celebrated final speech, while Davis also demonstrates his gifts as a composer with several other tunes, including the soul-jazz-tinted “A Little Understanding,” the zigzagging title track and the soprano-fronted “Evening Shades of Blue.” The group, with pianist Larry Willis and bassist Peter Washington, turns in impressive versions of two standards, a relaxed “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” and a perky “Love Walked In.”