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Jesse Davis: Live From New York's Other Basement Club

Jul 20, 2012
Originally published on July 20, 2012 4:26 pm

Many jazz musicians, the kind who wear jackets and ties on stage, are often carelessly referred to as playing bebop. In reality most of them are post-boppers, who build on that dynamic style that burst forth after World War II, without bringing it back in pure form. It's the rare modernist who gets an authentic bebop sound on alto saxophone, who catches some of the raw explosiveness and rapid-fire grace of jazz god Charlie Parker. And then there's Jesse Davis.

Charlie Parker never recorded the 1945 ballad "I'll Close My Eyes," but Davis' version made me check. His bluesy rasp is straight out of Parker's playbook. Ditto the way he strings unlikely notes into a pretty melody, his double-time precision and left-field quotations from other tunes. But Davis speaks that style like a native language; he makes it his own.

This music appears on the Jesse Davis Quintet's album Live at Smalls, Smalls being New York's other basement jazz club on (or just off) Seventh Avenue South, two minutes from the Village Vanguard. Davis' music is very New York, even if he came out of New Orleans, city with its own bebop tradition, personified by Davis' teacher, Ellis Marsalis. But there are also traces of earlier jazz in Davis' approach. There's a bit of swing altoist Benny Carter in the way he caresses a ballad, and Davis' tune "Piece of the Apple" is a revamped "Sweet Georgia Brown." On trumpet is his old colleague from the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Ryan Kisor.

Giving venerable tunes a face-lift is part of what jazz is about: It's an ongoing mix of old and new ingredients. Davis is no antiquarian; he brought a couple more contemporary-sounding tunes, including "Journey From the Lighthouse." His bassist, Peter Washington, and drummer, Billy Drummond, are two esteemed modernists who've been meeting in studios and on bandstands for more than 20 years.

The least known player in his quintet is pianist Spike Wilner, who runs the club where the music was recorded, and the label, Smalls Live, that put it out. I get skeptical when the guy who signs the checks joins the band, but Wilner and Davis go way back, and the pianist acquits himself well, joining in the quotation games. Jesse Davis' Live at Smalls features unedited tunes running 10 or 20 minutes, with applause and introductions left in — verite touches that don't wear so well on repeated listening. But the album is a good portrait of high-level nightclub jazz in our time.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

Alto saxophonist Jesse Davis came out of New Orleans and began recording under his own name in the 1990s. He also made a few albums with trumpeter Nicholas Payton and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and he appeared in Robert Altman's film "Kansas City." In the last few years, our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says, Jesse Davis has attracted less attention than he might because he's been living in Verona, Italy.

But he did make a live album in New York last winter. Here's Kevin's review.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Many jazz musicians, the kind who wear jackets and ties on stage, are often carelessly referred to as playing bebop. In reality most of them are post-boppers, who build on that dynamic style that burst forth after World War II, without bringing it back in pure form. It's the rare modernist who gets an authentic bebop sound on alto saxophone, who catches some of the raw explosiveness and rapid-fire grace of jazz god Charlie Parker. And then there's Jesse Davis.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL CLOSE MY EYES")

WHITEHEAD: Jesse Davis on 1945 ballad "I'll Close My Eyes." Charlie Parker never recorded it, but Davis' version made me check. His bluesy rasp is straight out of Parker's playbook, ditto the way he strings unlikely notes into a pretty melody, his double-time precision, and left-field quotations from other tunes. But Davis speaks that style like a native language; he makes it his own.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL CLOSE MY EYES")

WHITEHEAD: This music's from the Jesse Davis Quintet's album "Live at Smalls", New York's other basement jazz club on Seventh Avenue South, two minutes from the Village Vanguard. Davis' music is very New York, even if he came out of New Orleans, a city with its own bebop tradition, personified by Davis' teacher, Ellis Marsalis.

But there are also traces of earlier jazz in Davis' approach. There's a bit of swing altoist Benny Carter in the way he caresses a ballad, and Davis' tune, "Piece of the Apple," is a revamped "Sweet Georgia Brown." On trumpet is his old colleague from the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Ryan Kisor.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PIECE OF THE APPLE")

WHITEHEAD: Giving venerable tunes a facelift is part of what jazz is about - it's an ongoing mix of old and new ingredients. Jesse Davis is no antiquarian; he brought a couple more contemporary-sounding tunes, including "Journey from the Lighthouse." His bassist and drummer are two esteemed modernists who've been meeting in studios and on bandstands for over 20 years, Peter Washington and Billy Drummond.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PIECE OF THE APPLE")

WHITEHEAD: Jesse Davis quoting there from "I'm A Fool to Want You." The least known player in his quintet is pianist Spike Wilner, who runs the club where the music was recorded, and the label, Smalls Live, that put it out.

I get skeptical when the guy who signs the checks joins the band, but Wilner and Davis go way back, and the pianist acquits himself well, joining in the quotation games. Jesse Davis' "Live at Smalls" features unedited tunes running ten or 20 minutes, with applause and introductions left in - verité touches that don't wear so well on repeated listening. But the album is a good portrait of high-level nightclub jazz in our time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz columnist for emusic.com and the author of "Why Jazz." He reviewed "Live At Smalls," the new album by the Jesse Davis quintet on the Smalls Live label. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.