Jesse Davis: The Setup

Jesse Davis
The Setup

Whatever happened to the archetype of the “cool” jazz musician? Y’know, the black-tie-and-sunglasses-clad hepcat who could charm your date away from you in the nightclub as easily as running through a cycle of fifths? Most histories would have it either killed off by some revolutionary ’60s avant-gardists or dying of sheer boredom in the wake of ’70s fusion. Try as though they might, not even the Marsalis Brothers have been able to save it — they’ve got the music part down to a cold science, but not even an Armani suit can disguise Wynton or Branford’s reactionary square-ness from anyone with a pulse.

Jesse Davis might just be the hip messiah the Marsalises have longed to arrive, at least judging from the two photos included in his latest CD (which, admittedly, aren’t a lot to go on, though some of his past record covers back me up on this). Both are close-ups of the alto saxophonist’s face — one shows him taking a drag from a ciggie, looking detachedly away from the camera; the other portrays him in some sort of mohair coat, mirrored sunglasses and a self-satisfied smirk. If that shit ain’t cool, then what is?

This all probably sounds flip or facetious, but it’s meant with the utmost sincerity — because the only thing that’s always been lacking from the Marsalis-led charge back to the Golden Years of Jazz is style. Sure, all those young lions can play their asses off, but any sense of style they achieve is unconvincingly calculated; the intention to roar manifest as yawn. But not Davis (who, ironically enough, studied with the elder Marsalis — Papa Ellis, that is) — this cat’s got his standards perfected, both musically and stylistically.

While Davis has certainly put in plenty of time with his Cannonball Adderley records, to say that he’s a carbon copy of Sir Julian (and by extension, Bird and Sonny Stitt) would be as insulting as it is untrue. Davis is able to twist that classic bop alto tradition by means of the warmth that permeates his tone; it’s a highly personalized touch of style that elevates his playing beyond that of mere imitation. Another crucial factor in Davis’ ability to transcend the lions’ den is his source material — the original compositions don’t confine themselves to hard bop’s swinging blues ad infinitum (even if this disc’s title track proves he’d do just fine if that were the case), and his choice in standards is quirky enough to keep things interesting.

Continuing along this path, Davis’ decision to begin The Setup with an original is a good one; especially when it’s such a fantastic piece. “Vee Cee” recalls some of the more experimental mid-’60s Blue Note platters, as bassist Ray Drummond’s ostinato figure works in tandem with drummer Donald Edwards’ bossa nova-fied rhythm to spur Davis’ thoroughly modal workout. Davis gives another nod to the same era with his reading of Jackie McLean’s “Little Melonae” — though Davis doesn’t seem at all interested in ruffling the feathers of the upper register like McLean was back then, it’s still a respectful acknowledgement of another major influence on his playing.

As for the rest of the disc’s non-originals, Davis splits his time evenly among uptempo bop numbers (“The End of a Love Affair”, “Circus”), ballads (“The Very Thought of You”, “Lament”) and blues (Herbie Hancock’s “Driftin'”). The last two tracks — “Lament” and “Circus” — bear particular mention for the wonderful interplay between Davis and guitarist Peter Bernstein, whose refreshingly unadorned tone is another key factor in this session’s vintage feel. “Lament”, composed by trombonist J.J. Johnson, is just as the title implies — a mournful ballad that finds Davis in an appropriately somber mood over Bernstein’s lush chords before picking up a little joyful steam about halfway through his solo. “Circus”, on the other hand, provides a polar opposite blast of fiery Latin-tinged bop that’s saved from mediocrity by Davis and Bernstein’s fantastic unison lines on the tune’s tricky head.

So even if all this talk of style and image is superficial, Davis plays the classics with a humility and lack of pretense that’s awfully refreshing in this age where it’s nearly impossible to distinguish the jazz stars from the stodgy professors they are by day. And with The Setup marking the eighth album as a leader now under his belt (not to mention countless sideman appearances), Davis can hopefully convert that personal and musical confidence into a whole lotta spotlight for himself.