April 2, 2015
Fresh Sound New Talent FSNT 444
Hopefully Brooklyn-based drummer Jeff Davis doesn’t mind being compared to earlier percussion activists like Chico Hamilton or Art Blakey. Like Hamilton, Davis, who has long-time affiliations with the likes of bassist Michael Bates and pianist Jesse Stacken, is in many ways the perfect accompanist. He gets the job done, but never overwhelms the other players – even if he’s leading the band. That is how Blakey comes into the picture. Like the older drummer/bandleader, Davis has the knack of recruiting the most appropriate players for bands under his direction.
Dragon Father is a case in point. His chosen formula on the seven selections composed and arranged for this live club set is to exploit the talents of the other improvisers. Sometimes this leads to unexpected discovery. Cornetist Kirk Knuffke for instance, usually known for more meditative and constrained almost chamber-like sounds in his duo with Stacken, and in other situations, comes across like an updated Freddie Hubbard or Lee Morgan. Starting with “Dirt Farmer”, the first track, his vibrant open-horn work could have got him a gig in Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Pianist Russ Lossing contributes cascading power from his position in the band, while multi-reedist Oscar Noriega, part of Tim Berne’s Snakeoil band, is in turns slick, sharp or sedate in his solo forays. Taking the mid-century combo metaphor a little further, bassist Eivind Opsvik does his job as colorist and time keeper well, often in tandem with Davis, but like a Hard Bop throwback stays in the background.
Amusingly, and an indication that this is a 2013 CD rather than a 1963 LP, is that the vigor and strength the quintet brings to Davis’ tunes aren’t reserved for out-and-out agitated or staccato forays. As a matter of fact the pieces which best express how to temper toughness – which may be an attribute of a “dragon father” – are the two parts of “Eli’s Progress,” written for Davis’ first child. As Knuffke growls in the background, the jerky, juddering line develops as if mirroring a child’s initial hesitant steps. Meanwhile Lossing gently comps as if his role is that to offer maternal encouragement, while rugged jolts and rebounds from the drummer personify the expected paternal role. Finally the tentative chromatic theme which has been expressed by cornet and alto saxophone, reaches a proper ambulatory mode – peppy and reflective in turn.
Not that all of Dragon Father unrolls speedily. “Pavilion of Temporary Happiness”, the lengthiest and apparently most solemn of the compositions is pushed by osculating cornet tones accompanied by a piano obbligato. Noriega’s orderly clarinet variation blend perfectly with inner piano clips and basso rumbles. Later the twisting and revolving theme resolves itself as descriptively sympathetic. Along the way, harsh layered horn cascades are guided by percussive chording from Lossing and elevated stentorian splatters and ruffs from Davis.
If the achievements of Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Hamilton’s different quintets helped define modern improvised music in the mid-20th Century, then there’s a good chance that Davis’ band here is doing the same thing early in the 21st.
Track Listing: 1. Dirt Farmer 2. Spicy Water 3. May 16th 4. Pavilion of Temporary Happiness 5. Eli’s Progress, Part 1 6. Eli’s Progress, Part 2 7. Dragon Father
Personnel: Kirk Knuffke (cornet); Oscar Noriega (alto saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet); Russ Lossing (piano); Eivind Opsvik (bass) and Jeff Davis (drums)