This potent veteran is best known as a baritone saxophonist. I’ve seen him with Abdullah Ibrahim, and listened most to him providing the second front line voice on The Straight Horn of Steve Lacy, an early little masterpiece album by the lately much-missed soprano saxophonist. Now here he is on tenor, and soprano, guesting on the Small’s label just as he used to guest at the club the label’s named after.
Great or major saxophonists are one thing; there are hours of Hawkins or Rollins or some others worth hearing on record. It isn’t necessarily the case that recordings by seriously substantial originals are less interesting than those by giants. Take the late Arnett Cobb, who at the end of his career turned up on crutches and bowled over audiences who’d expected to relish the late Joe Henderson, who had just ceased to be underrated, and Jimmy Heath, who could easily be missed by people not interested to hear that wide a range of jazz. Big names are rightly trusted, except as one of my colleagues lately discovered, at times on the Moodsville label which Prestige created to supply what fans of the more lightweight wanted, and channel their money to subsidise the real thing and the best musicians. Davis is the real thing; probably he can do only the real thing, and here it is.
This is Davis’s regular quartet, every man playing very well indeed, all the better for knowing each other well. Davis is a saxophone-filler, not a light-toned player with a capacity to swell out, but the maker of a big sound, strongly blown, and tapered down to the penetrating or poignant for the best of expressive purposes. I’m not sure he was always like that, but over the years hearing my Scottish compatriot and Davis’s contemporary, Joe Temperley, has been an experience of a man who by no means sounds the same every time, though forever mightily impressive. Davis was never a smoothie, and with age here he sounds farther than ever like anything of that kind. Look for deeper satisfaction.
Jimmy Wormworth on drums and Lee Hudson, bass, I never heard of. The pianist Tardo Hammer can fairly be called strong, I needed to check his website and am glad I did. The chance to hear him playing should be taken. The label’s proprietor/producer reminisces about a youthful interest in jazz which he couldn’t develop fully. Because the prices of gigs were too high. And some people he’d have loved to hear playing were earning a living and outside music. And as I remember from New Yorkers I met in Scotland, there was a lot to confuse interested people, and make them part with their money for, at times, pap. The English sometime critic turned jazz retailer Peter Russell was surprised by the number of American customers he had, who needed European resources to find out things, to even find the records.
“JC” isn’t an example of the obsessive Coltrane-imitation which has been a longtime bane of the music, complained about by everyone from the critic and sage Ira Gitler, to the front-line English reedman Tony Coe. It’s something of an homage with echoes of the young Coltrane, indication of what influence is—as contrasted with looking like a man with a saxophone but being a parrot.
Davis plays soprano with a big sound and stiffish phrasing, but eccentric pitching, on “How Am I to Know”, and then delivers one of the best performances I’ve heard yet of Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now”, not to be confused with the show tune with the “see me now” words. I’m not comparing it with Dameron’s own recording, or any arrangement (and Davis has worked with an ensemble specialising in Dameron’s compositions). He’s in a powerful melodic vein rarely found on that number. Hammer has a nice lead into his solo, first linear, no doubt inspired by Davis, then by way of chording into magical colours such as that composition can evoke. He then finds a variety of frames for Davis’s very flowing, rhythmically free improvising.
“Love for Sale” is back in heavy tenor mode, but on at least one early non-jazz recording of that number (as I recall from a radio series long ago) the singer sounded like she was auditioning as Brunnhilde. It is a whore’s lament, after or before anything else.
Herbie Nichols was a real original neglected in his short lifetime, when maybe only his piano versions of his very difficult compositions were feasible. Nichols developed on the far side of Monk, and Hammer’s seriously Monkian here. Lee Hudson’s bass is all there too. This is some quartet.
“Strangeness” is a terrific theme, composed by Davis, and on Monk’s “We See” the stiffish soprano phrasing makes me think of Davis as a diamond-shaped peg in a diamond-shaped hole. There’s an old bit of TV film on which it’s explained Monk sometimes hit adjacent piano keys to achieve more hornlike effects. Davis on soprano drives through bar lines and pitches variably off the centres of successive notes, so that at one point it’s not quite clear where he is—and then the next chord comes up and he’s there already. This number also features a finesse of Hsmmer with Hudson’s bass solo, and a drum solo from Wormworth the way they happened on Monk quartet performances.
“Land of Dreams” is a swinger of a conclusion, as if Davis might have thought of playing “Cherokee” then thought of this tune, less hackneyed and at least as good. Not for the half-hearted listener, this set with nothing half-hearted anywhere near it, whether the players or the guy who recorded them and issued it.