WBGO Radar

Steve Davis: "Say When"

steve davis

When Steve Davis was a teenager, the budding trombonist's father brought home a copy of Horace Silver's Cape Verdean Blues. Hearing J.J. Johnson on that record changed Davis's life. Still does.

As Davis says, "J.J. Johnson is the Charlie Parker of the trombone. He's our Bird. Changed the game for the instrument. He's been a colossal influence on my writing, my playing and my overall approach to the music."

Even with studies and performance with Jackie McLean, Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, Chick Corea, Benny Golson and Jimmy Heath, among countless others, Steve still cites the moment meeting J. J.

And hearing the legend say, "Stevie, you're right on track. Keep it up. You sound beautiful, baby."

Davis says, "It was like getting my passport stamped. It meant the world to me."

Steve Davis has waited 20 years to pay tribute to his idol. Waited until he was ready.

He's ready. Joined by an all-star cast including former Johnson piano great Harold Mabern, trumpeter Eddie Henderson and long time bandmates Nat Reeves on bass and Joe Farnsworth on drums, his Smoke Sessions album Say When is a spark-filled, gorgeous tribute, bringing J.J. Johnson's spirit and music to today's jazz fans.

Davis says, "People need to hear this music. It's just that good."

It's out of the gate quickly with J.J.'s "Pinnacles," followed by Johnson's briiliant arrangement of "What is This Thing Called Love", with Davis's wide-open, handing off to trumpeter Henderson, saxist Alexander and drummer Farnsworth on this sweat-getter.

There's others, like "Shutterbug," the soulfully syncopted groover, "Kenya," pianist Mabern's "Mr. Johnson," written when he was part of Johnson's small group in the early 60s.

About Johnson's "Say When," Davis says,  "If I was having a technical difficulty of some sort, I'd just put on The Total J.J. Johnson and play along with him doing Say When. All of a sudden I could play again."

Along with the unbridled quickness of articulation so dominant in Johnson's playing (and in inspired fashion here), not overlooked is the glowing warmth of a J.J. Johnson composition.

"Shortcake," originally from Johnson's "The Total J.J. Johnson" shows these musicians know and appreciate Johnson's music, which Henderson's Harmon muted trumpet, Alexander's tenor, Mabern's piano and the leader's flowing trombone lines fully demonstrate. The group's treatment of Johnson's "Lament" seals the feel.

You'll hear a few surprises here too. John Coltrane's "Village Blues" which JJ. Included on his "Concept in Blue" fits nicely. Davis, after growing up around the tune, was overjoyed one night at a Johnson concert, when J.J. Did his own thing on "When the Saints Go Marching In".

It's a fitting closer for a salute to J.J. Johnson, who changed so much in music, brought the trombone to bebop and wrote music for Starsky & Hutch, Mike Hammer and The Six Million Dollar Man for television.

Turn yours off and go hear this music live at Smoke June 5 - 7.

"Say When" comes out June 9th. 

   - Gary Walker, WBGO music director

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