Davina Sowers and the Vagabonds Make Noticeable Jazz/Blues Red House Records Debut With ‘Sugar Drops’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Acclaimed singer/songwriter/pianist Davina Sowers has been making low budget records since 2006 and attracted plenty of notice from prestigious outlets like Downbeat in the process. This writer described her this way five years ago – “Bandleader, pianist and vocalist Davina Sowers leads a horn-based group (sans guitarist and saxophonist) that combines the vintage jazz sounds of the ’20s through the ’40s with their own originals, paying tribute to Fats Waller, Aretha Franklin and even Patty Griffin. Moving beyond their Minneapolis base to thrill audiences in Europe and beyond, Davina and the Vagabonds have an inexplicable way of giving old-time blues and jazz a fresh, contemporary feel.” Fortunately, that vibe, with some contemporary flourishes, is still intact on her Red House debut, Sugar Drops.

However, some things have changed. The Vagabonds, her regular unit is absent as she recorded for the first time in a professional studio with top-notch Nashville session musicians. Sowers has also married and works with her trumpeter, string arranger and husband Zack Lozier. Garry West, Compass Records co-founder, produced and tapped these talents – bassist Todd Philips (David Grisman, Robbie Fulks), guitarist Doug Lancio (Patty Griffin, John Hiatt, Gretchen Peters), Hammond B3 wizard Reese Wynans (Stevie Ray Vaughan, Joe Bonamassa), multi-instrumentalist Jim Hoke, drummer Jordan Perlson, and in-demand trombonist Roland Barber. A four-piece string section plays on “Mr. Big Talker.” So, this time around we have guitar and through Hoke, both baritone sax and clarinet (also, flute, pedal steel, B3).

Davina has one of those quintessential conquering-her-demons stories She grew up in economically depressed Altoona, PA, was adopted by her much-older stepfather when he was in his 80s, who passed away when she was just 13. Thankfully, he was the one who introduced her to music and through that, probably saved her life. She developed a heroin dependency in high school that left her homeless, sent her in and out of jail, and brought all kinds of trouble. She kicked the habit, got clean, and started the band in 2004. As she puts it, “I am a miracle. It really is amazing I’, alive. I can barely express the life I’ve lived. Starting the band saved me. Even though I’ve been clean for a long time, I still suffer, but I persevere. For me, to be this miracle and shine for myself and others is really important.”

Shine she does with over 200 gigs internationally each year and now with six studio albums, she’s poised to make even a larger impact. This was a new experience for her, handing her music over to people that she hadn’t sat in a van with for 14 hours a day. These top-shelf musicians certainly embellished her vocal and piano talent but clearly, it’s her show. These are mostly her songs and her personality that shines through. Horns undercut the tension on the opening “Bone Collection,” which essentially poses the question of digging up all her secrets and revealing all. She uses her spare piano to beautifully and sadly sing about depression and mental illness on “Deep End.” More contemporary fare appears in “I Can’t Believe” and Ben Harper’s “Another Lonely Day.” One of the more interesting tracks is the tango rhythm Mariachi-infused “Devil Horns,” written at 3 AM after watching a documentary about the history of Stan on YouTube. – “Devil horns – I’ve got them under my bed.”

The title track is autobiographical, representing the sweet and sour aspects of her checkered journey. It’s about what happened to her and how she overcame adversity. As she puts it, each song is a tiny sugar drop to make an album of beauty. She’s done that. It’s tempting to say she’s arrived but that happened fifteen years ago. It’s like that store on the corner that’s been there a while but with new signage and a fresh coat of paint, it suddenly becomes noticeable. More folks will take notice of Davina’s talents going forward.

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