Written by Kevin Whitehead from National Public Radio
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’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, 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 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.
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.