Trombonist/composer Steve Davis has long been a first-call sideman. Chick Corea, as one example, tapped Davis for his revived Spanish Heart Band a couple of years ago. But, like the members of this esteemed sextet, Davis is a bandleader too, in his case with close to twenty-five albums under his name. On each of his three previous releases for Smoke Sessions Records, Davis assembled a stellar sextet with modern jazz’s most vaunted players. He repeats that here with Bluesthetic, but in an interesting way, shunning additional horn players on the front line, instead, he creates interesting harmonic possibilities with guitarist Peter Bernstein and vibraphonist Steve Nelson, a reunion of sorts as both appeared on his 1998 album Vibe Up! years. Rounding out his elite sextet is the formidable rhythm section of Geoffrey Keezer, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Willie Jones III. All of these players had convened in various configurations over the past three decades.
The ten Davis originals each bear a story of their own. The breezy “Encouragement” hails the emergence of the pandemic with an uplifting melody. “Silver at Sundown” is dedicated as you may guess to Horace Silver and may not guess the Hartford jazz community from which Davis emerged under the mentorship of many, most notably Jackie McLean, whose lines course through the previous tune. In the liners, Davis references Silver’s trio playing in Hartford at The Sundown, a club where Silver led the house band in the early 1950s. It was there that Stan Getz saw Silver play and invited him on tour, a key moment in the pianist’s now-legendary career. Silver later recounted the story to Davis, who lived in Hartford for more than 25 years before moving to his current home in Stamford. “It’s a very cool piece of jazz history connected to a city that I spent a lot of time in,” Davis says.
The tune “Maybe So” comes from two words Davis uttered upon waking up. It glides along briskly with shimmering turns from each front liner as well as a pizzicato statement from the ever articulate McBride, who in turn engages his rhythm mates through a few choruses before Davis returns with the melody, passing the baton to Bernstein and Nelson in the hard-swinging beauty. Just three tracks in, Davis displays a remarkable sense of melody.
Commenting on the free-flowing, relaxed nature of the music McBride compares many of these compositions to those of pianist James Williams and Bobby Watson of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers because the compositions have the feeling of soul and R&B mixed with post-bop blues. Speaking of McBride his waling bass line is perfect for “Bedford Stroll,” named for the bustling street where he and his wife live in Stamford, CT, and where he often develops his melodic ideas on late night walks. Low tones from the trombone usher in “Faraway Dream,” another nocturnal one as if floating on Nelson’s resonant vibes and Bernstein’s ringing guitar, with Keezer sitting out and Jones whispering on brushes.
The aptly muscular “They Wore 44” draws on a passion for sports that Davis shares with McBride. The recent death of legendary right fielder Hank Aaron, who wore the number 44 during his long tenure with the. Davis, a die-hard Red Sox fan, would likely have loved to mention one from his team but none measure up to those listed above. It features featuring lively soloing, especially both Keezer and Nelson.
Bernstein carves out a bluesy solo and Willie Jones III creates a maelstrom on his kit. “Off the Cuff” is a spontaneous free-wheeling tune pulled together near the end of the session, features spirited soloing from each band member. The aching ballad “Indigo to Azure” explores the full spectrum of the blues, with some of the leader’s most sensitive and lyrical playing, matched by his band members led by Keezer’s elegant comping, Nelson’s inspiring notes, and subtle support from the rhythm tandem as Bernstein sits out.
The title track Bluesthetic captures a combination of the appreciation of artful beauty suggested by “aesthetic” combined with the foundational influence of the blues. Interestingly in the liners, he alludes to the first concert he ever saw – electric Muddy Waters at Tanglewood. Finally, and inevitably given the close association between Davis and Chick Corea, “A Star for Chick” bids the icon a warm farewell. Davis was initially tapped for a three-year stint in Corea’s band Origin in late 1997, then later took part in the keyboardist’s orchestral piece “The Continents” and his Grammy-winning, Latin-inspired Spanish Heart Band. He played with Corea for over twenty years and earned the nickname “Davissimo the Melody Man” from Corea. Davis certainly lives up to it in this well-constructed session.