Steve Davis Quartet with Larry Willis,
Alone Together
(Mapleshade, 2007)

Steve Davis is a much-recorded trombone player. His first major success was an extended gig with the final version of Art Blakey's well-known Jazz Messengers. Although this is his 10th outing as a leader, you're more likely to have heard him recently with Chick Corea's Origin sextet, the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All-Stars, or the terrific group known as One for All, a collective that also includes the fine young tenor-man Eric Alexander.

Larry Willis (piano), Nat Reeves (bass) and Eric McPherson (drums) round-out Davis's quartet. Strong lineup! Willis is the senior member, having appeared on more than 300 recordings. Although he is primarily a jazz player, his extraordinary versatility has him in demand for Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, pop and most anything else you can think of. Reeves (incorrectly and prominently identified as Nat Pierce at one point in the insert booklet) and McPherson are also solid veterans.

The late Jackie McLean is a common link. The four musicians all played with that intense altoist. McPherson was with him for 15 years and has the full-partner aggressiveness that implies. Davis too can have an edginess that suggests McLean was a major influence. His tone is strong and smooth; his dynamic range and control are outstanding; intonation and rhythm are dead-on. It's no surprise he's a busy musician. Whether or not you like his quartet will probably depend on how you feel about solo trombone since his is the dominant voice, and it is sometimes a penetrating one.

Most of the tunes on Alone Together are well-known standards. "Milestones" gets things off to a strong start. Davis's solo, which follows a brief piano intro, is among the best on the album, melodic and fluent. There is no slacking off as Willis returns and breezes along at a brisk tempo, showing why he too maintains a very busy dance card.

Though Davis sounds completely into the beautiful ballad that comes next, "My Foolish Heart," it is taken at a slow tempo, with rubato and an in-your-face, almost vibrato-less tone that seems an odd choice for the tune. The title track, another ballad, works better because of a faster tempo and a lighter touch.

"Surrey with the Fringe on Top" gets a jaunty treatment and is one of the album's highlights. Another is Billy Strayhorn's "Upper Manhattan Medical Group." I don't think I've heard it done by a small combo before. So much of the original recording was about Ellington's exotic big-band textures that it was a surprise to hear how good a quartet could make it sound. Everyone gets at least a brief solo shot. Reeves deserves a special mention for his bass work on the tune.

Certainly one good way to end a trombone outing is with something by J.J. Johnson, long after his death probably still the instrument's best known practitioner. His "Short Cake" is taken at a genial, loping pace that is a perfect fit.

It's a good group. Trombone fans will want this one for sure.

review by
Ron Bierman

23 May 2009

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