Smoke Sessions Records, launched last year by the owners of the well-known New York jazz club Smoke, has released some excellent albums, including Cyrus Chestnut’s Midnight Melodies, Orrin Evans’ Liberation Blues, Harold Mabern’s recent Afro Blue, and Eddie Henderson’s Collective Portrait. It is a label with a growing catalog of “must-have” albums, and Say When, trombonist Steve Davis’ tribute to the great J. J. Johnson, is but the latest on the list.
Johnson was not just a trombonist’s trombonist. He, along with the stylish Kai Winding, was a major factor in finding new audiences for the instrument. For a couple of years in the 1950s, Johnson and Winding were synonymous with trombone. Winding favored a smooth swing sound; Johnson, inventive bebop. Nonetheless, when they got together to record, the duo made for a great blend.
For Davis, as he raves in an interview included as the liner notes for the new album, “J. J. Johnson is the Charlie Parker of the trombone. . . . J. J. belongs on the Mount Rushmore of bebop musicians.” Say When honors a legend not simply by playing some of his original music and some tunes associated with him, but by doing what he did, playing some great jazz.
Davis leads a sextet of all-stars featuring Eddie Henderson on trumpet, Eric Alexander on tenor saxophone, Harold Mabern on piano, Nat Reeves on bass, and Joe Farnsworth on drums. Their 11-tune set includes six Johnson originals. It opens with “Pinnacles” and moves on to “Shortcake,” with some muted highlights from Henderson. There is a beautiful version of “Lament” followed by the album’s title song, a Davis favorite. “Kenya” and “Shutterbug” complete the Johnson compositions.
In addition, there is Harold Mabern’s “Mr. Johnson,” which was written when the pianist was working with Johnson in the ’60s, and “Village Blues,” a Coltrane classic. “What Is This Thing Called Love?,” “There Will Never Be Another You,” and “When the Saints Go Marching In” round out one very fine addition to the Smoke Sessions catalog.
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