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An interview with trombonist Steve Davis…

Contemporary jazz great Slide Hampton proclaimed, “we trombonists are problem solvers.” Yet for all the back-boning trombones provide, even the most famous ones — J.J. Johnson, Frank Rosolino, Al Grey or Curtis Fuller — aren’t household names like adored trumpeters or saxophonists. One such “problem solver” has long since made a name for himself in the contemporary jazz world — trombonist and composer, Steve Davis, who was called “one of the greatest trombone players in the world” by legend Freddie Hubbard.

Davis’s credentials include time spent playing with such greats as Art Blakey, Chick Corea and Jackie McClean, where he earned acclaim not only as an elite-caliber trombonist, but also as a sought-after improviser. Steve also happens to be the cousin of local jazz and avant garde monster Jon Davis, clarinetist, bassist and electronic composer known for a litany of envelope-pushing projects.

Steve took a few minutes between teaching lessons to chat with Gimme Noise in anticipation of his appearance this Sunday, April 7 at Icehouse.

Gimme Noise: Was trombone your first instrument?

Steve Davis: No, I started on trumpet, got braces at a young age, 10, and switched to baritone horn, which is like the euphonium, similar timbre to trombone, but it’s like a baby tuba. When I started getting interested in jazz, it was suggested to me, you might want to play slide trombone, and I went with the flow and picked that up at about 14 years old. Then I heard J.J. Johnson on the Horace Silver record my father had called Cape Verdean Blues — it’s one of the Blue Note mid-’60s Horace records — and once I heard J.J. and I heard Curtis Fuller I got really excited… I was listening to Lee Morgan, record of his calledSidewinder, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers… you know I was hooked!

Chick Corea said of your playing, “Steve can create the effect of a string section or brass section.” What is it about the trombone that affords it this timbral potential? Do you do that intentionally? Is it universal to trombonists or something you get/strive for specifically in your tone?

That’s a good question. I’m certainly honored by this compliment from Chick, I think certainly maybe a little bit of both. Trombonists, at least the good ones, tend to be very thoughtful players. I think we have the sound of the instrument going for us, what you refer to at the timbral qualities. It is a very majestic, rich sound, and its main strength. That being said, I probably get a lot of my ideas from other instrumentalists and from the piano, from the harmony, the chord changes of any given piece – all of it really, the rhythmic aspects…You develop a concept or an overall approach so you’re not just playing the music strictly from the vantage point of being a trombonist or a saxophonist…if you really think about the total music and how you can enhance what’s going on, as an improviser, as an arranger, it all comes together under one statement, one concept that hopefully comes through in your playing.

Do you take a similar philosophy when you’re writing pieces as well? Are you thinking in terms of the trombone, or more an ensemble?

Oh yeah, definitely. I’m a big fan of the rhythmic section, I love piano, bass, drums or guitar, bass drums — whatever it may be. When I write music and when I play, I’m playing with the intention of being a part of that, or as integrated in the total music — maybe like a fourth member of the rhythmic section, and it just so happens I’m a trombone player. My voice, I’m a single-note instrument, and you tend to be associated with a solo voice or the melody voice, but that’s not my number one approach. Certainly that’s a part of it, to sing the songs so to speak. I just like to play as much with whom I’m playing with…it’s not like they’re just back there laying down. I could never get into that vibe at all. To me, then you’re not really a jazz musician anymore. The whole fun of what we do, is we get to play together, it’s so important to have those connections in the music.

I would think the sheer physics of the instrument probably requires and promotes some of the best listeners among instrumentalists.

Sure, I think trombonists are good listeners, and good writers, but to me, after awhile, you are the musician you are regardless, and you just happen to be a trombone player and that’s your voice. I always tell my students, especially the incoming Freshman here at the Hartt School at the Jackie McClean Institute here where I teach at the University of Hartford. Here’s the first lesson, you are who you are every day of your life, that’s the person you are. And they all kinda look at you like ‘duh’, but I say, no, don’t take that for granted. And number two, you’re a musician, 24/7, without the horn in your hands. And the sooner you get with those things, THEN you’re the trombone player, trying to be the baddest cat you can be on the trombone – that’s third. You’ve gotta have one and two first. A lot of students have thanked me for that years later. I got that idea from Jackie McClean, who was an alto player, he was my mentor – it didn’t even matter that I played trombone and he played saxophone, it was the concept of being a musician, being a jazz musician and what that entails.

You cultivate your musical voice away from your instrument as much as you do on your instrument. So by the time you get the horn in your hands – and of course there’s many hours and years of practicing, and technique that’s inherent to the trombone, and I don’t take that for granted at all – but there’s more to it than that. I never play to impress the other trombone players. I always wanted to be accepted by the Jackie McCleans, the Chick Coreas, the Jimmy Heaths – all the great masters, Freddie Hubbard, that I’ve been so lucky to be around. Their acceptance always meant more to me than whether or not a room full of 40 trombone players thought I had great chops. That’s nice, but that’s not really it for me. The idea was, if Chick Corea, or Roy Hargrove likes you, wants to play with you, well then you’re going to be the trombone player…and BOOM, there you go, there’s your chance.

Recommend some favorite jazz albums featuring trombone for the new listener?

Wow. Anything by J.J. Anything by Curtis Fuller. Anything by Slide Hampton. Frank Rosolino. Recently I just did a wonderful project with Steve Turre, who’s very well-known and one of my heroes, and he had me and a great trombonist Frank Lacy and another great trombonist Robin Eubanks…a great rhythm section in New York, just recorded two weeks ago, and it’ll be Steve Turre’s next cd on the HighNote label…I don’t know what he’s going to call it, and the idea is that the four of us, the trombonists at least, were all at one time members of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, so that’s the common thread and concept he had. It was a wonderful project, I haven’t heard it yet [laughs], but I can hopefully recommend that…and going back, I would suggest Jack Teagarden, that’s going way back, but he was just so good to listen to.

Should we expect any trombone/bass clarinet duo-ing this Sunday at Icehouse?

OH! With my cousin! I am SO excited to have a chance to play with him [Jon Davis]- cause we’ve never played together…and I think that sound is going to be fun. I was able to do that a little bit with Chick Corea’s group Origin, some of that involved bass clarinet, so it’s not totally unfamiliar to me, but it’s not every day either. And not everyday you get to play with your cousin who’s playing bass clarinet AND bass. I’m really excited to play with Jon, it’s gonna be a blast.