Trombonist Steve Davis dedicates his new album to the great hardbop trombone giant J.J. Johnson, who not only was a master on his instrument, but wrote a lot of timeless pieces as well. Steve plays with a band he’s been playing with over the years at Manhattan’s Smoke club and in the group One For All and he opens the set with a Johnson original called “Pinnacles” which appeared on an album of the same name recorded back in 1979. The melody here is played by Steve and trumpet meister Eddie Henderson (Oscar Brashear on the original album), opening in truly swinging fashion. The uptempo swing is continued on Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?” allowing Steve to play an awe-inspiring solo which he then passes on to Eddie and tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander who is superb throughout.
I’ve heard Johnson’s “Shortcake” on his Live at the Village Vanguard album from 1964, a tender midtempo tune which features the muted trumpet of Eddie Henderson here and also has a beautiful solo by Eric. It is really a delicate composition. Steve comes in as the third soloist bringing the piece to its mellow center again. Pianist Harold Mabern wrote “Mr. Johnson” and has worked with him from 1963 to 1965. One of many fantastic compositions by this fabled pianist.
Johnson’s most famous composition, the ballad “Lament”, gets a very poignant treatment here. The title track was originally recorded for the 1966 LP “The Total J.J. Johnson” and comes across as pretty sinewy with a solidly soulful approach by Mabern and lots of trading. “Kenya” is named after his granddaughter and first appeared on the 1992 album “Let’s Hang Out” (which featured Terence Blanchard) and very much reminds me of some of the bluesier Horace Silver-style Blue Note charts from the 60s. Steve is in an exalted mood on this one.
My favorite here is “Shutterbug” from the 1960 LP “J.J.Inc.” (which had Clifford Jordan on sax) with its pure, straight-ahead voicings and some of the most imaginative playing from all involved. The remaining three pieces include John Coltrane‘s “Village Blues”, recorded by Johnson on his 1980 album “Concepts In Blue”, a hilariously executed blues cut, the standard “There Will Never Be Another You” done as a stylish ballad with an intriguing intro by Mabern before Steve sets in with his most sensitive playing, and the traditional “When The Saints Go Marching In”, a gradually widening variation with Steve playing muted trombone, ending this session on a joyful, playful note.