Jesse Davis

The Setup

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Alto saxman Jesse Davis plays bebop, blues, and standards and is in the long line of altoists from Johnny Hodges and Charlie Parker through Sonny Stitt, Art Pepper, Cannonball Adderley, Phil Woods, Hank Crawford, and a host of lesser lights. It's easy to take a musician like Davis for granted, in part because he plays the kind of music that's still played in every local jazz club by young pups who are learning the Gershwin, Parker, and Basie songbooks. The difference, of course, is that Davis is a master storyteller, as opposed to someone who has just memorized a few licks. A lesser artist may get all the lines right, but Davis understands the story and communicates it from the inside out. He invests each of the eight pieces in the program with the inflections, drama, and elegance that make them come alive, demonstrating a fluid lyricism and sophisticated improvisation skills. (His creative use of key changes and intervallic leaps, although not forced or the least bit extreme, consistently catch the listener offguard and give each piece on the CD a freshness and dimensionality even after long exposure.) In addition, Davis has a rhythmic sense that just won't quit (very similar to Parker and Adderley in that respect) and a highly nuanced style on ballads, with a lovely, subtle vibrato on held notes. Altogether, it's a compelling combination. Some younger jazz cats (Davis is only 38 himself) might throw a couple of hard bop pieces and standards into the mix to pay respect to the tradition or to show that they had that base covered, too. But Davis gives you the feeling that this is what he does -- and loves. So you're not going to find him doing a standard like "The Very Thought of You" or J.J. Johnson's "Lament" on this CD and then giving you his best Ornette Coleman imitation on the next track; he sticks to what he does best. Although Davis is the main attraction, he has populated his quartet with three very strong musicians on this recording. Guitarist Peter Bernstein may have been inspired early on by Hendrix, but he has evolved into a very tasteful, melodic player in the tradition of Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall. Bassist Ray Drummond is the veteran of the group; born in 1946, he has played some of the biggest names in mainstream jazz, from Art Farmer to David Murray. He has a huge tone and superb intonation. Like Bernstein, he's not flashy, but he provides a rock-solid rhythmic anchor and gets off a few nice solos as well. Both Davis and drummer Donald Edwards are natives of New Orleans (although Davis is well-traveled), and Edwards, the youngster in the group, has a distinctive style that links conventional bop rhythms with a subtle but funky second-line shuffle. His delightful punctuations on the opening track, "Vee Cee," even have a hip reggae vibe, and it's not the least bit out of place.

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