John Daversa is pioneering a new jazz sound" —Marc Myers, Jazz Wax
On the heels of 2011's high-energy, take-no-prisoners, boundary-stretching Junk Wagon: The Big Band Album, acclaimed L.A.-based trumpeter-composer-arranger John Daversa scales things back for his upbeat follow up, Artful Joy. "It was difficult trying to find the right album name for this one," says Daversa, who has been leading a big band and small group concurrently for the past six years. I didn't realize how much in the spirit of deep happiness and joy that it was until it was done. It's been a very fertile, wonderful year and I think this album is a reflection of that."
Special guests Bob Mintzer and Gretchen Parlato appear on two tracks alongside Daversa's working group of tenor saxophonist Robby Marshall, keyboardists Tommy King and Brandon Coleman, guitarist Zane Carney, bassist Jerry Watts and drummer Gene Coye. Together they take listeners on a musical journey that travels from the opening go-for-it jam Seven Grand" (named for the club in downtown Los Angeles where the band regularly performs) to the gospel-tinged No Frets, No Worries," the raucous, tambourine-shaking second line number C'mon Robby Marshall!" (a showcase for the outstanding tenor player), the hard-boppish Rhythm Changers" (featuring Mintzer on bass clarinet) and the anthemic closer Some Happy S*#t." Other highlights on Artful Joy include the gently moving Hara Angelina" (written for Daversa's newborn daughter and featuring the affecting wordless vocals of Parlato), the thoughtful waltz-time ballad Moonlight Muse," the ultra-slow-grooving Flirty Girl" and the mysterious soundscape-ish Players Only" (featuring some beautiful muted trumpet playing by the leader).
One other tune on Artful Joy, the emotionally-charged "Good to be Alive," was directly inspired by a session that Daversa played on for an album by gospel great Andraé Crouch. I found it to be one of the most inspiring moments for me," he says. The track that we played on had this kind of Dixieland vibe, with Bob Mintzer playing clarinet. That was a lot of fun, but the track they played right after that completely blew my mind. It was just so joyful and positive and it just felt so incredible that I said to myself, 'I want to do something that feels like that!' And the next day I wrote 'Good to be Alive.'" He credits singer Hillary Johnson as co-composer of that uplifting number. She was a student of mine at the University of Southern California," he explains. We had a lesson together the day after I wrote out the initial sketch for 'Good to be Alive' and I said to her, 'Sing something on top of this form." And she came up with the beautiful melody that I ended up playing on the album."
While Daversa says that there is some gear shifting involved in piloting both the big band and small group, he feels that they both convey the same spirit in the music. To state the obvious, the small band allows a lot more room for improvisatory exploration and for the personalities to be even more developed. With the big band, we have our road map in front of us so we always know where we're going. There's some definition to the chaos. One of the wonderful things about a smaller band is it can be much more open, the improvisations can really take off and there's more room for different things to happen. So the challenge with the small band is to make sure that we harness that energy, that we always still play the song and stay reverent to whatever that particular moment is."
Daversa takes full advantage of the benefits that his small group presents on Artful Joy. The aggressive opener Seven Grand," is a snippet from an extended jam in the studio that serves as a kind of overture for the project. Daversa's trumpet is positively bristling on this urgent number. Shelley's Guitar" opens with some otherworldly synth sounds by the leader on Electronic Valve Instrument (EVI) before segueing to some searing exchanges of eights between trumpet and tenor over a swinging groove. The thoughtful No Frets, No Worries" features some nice harmony lines between Daversa's flugelhorn and Marshall's tenor and is buoyed by the gospel-drenched piano playing of Brandon Coleman. The tender Hara Angelina," another vehicle for Daversa's EVI, has rising star Gretchen Parlato doubling the tender melody with her ethereal wordless vocals. She's so wonderful," says Daversa. Gretchen and I went to school together in L.A. way back when. It had been a while since we connected but I heard her so clearly singing the melody on that song. And she just sounded so beautiful. I wrote the song for my daughter when she was born and I told Gretchen what it was about, and she just went deep with it from note one. That's what she can do. She's just really special that way."
Tenor man Marshall wails with blustery tones on his namesake piece C'mon Robby Marshall!" and burns on the hard boppish romp Rhythm Changers," which features a guest turn from the Yellowjackets' Bob Mintzer on bass clarinet. I just love the way Bob plays bass clarinet," says Daversa. There's just a certain wonderful sense of time that he has on any instrument, and I love the way it comes out on bass clarinet. It was so much fun to hear him play on this tune, and I especially liked the little fugue-like moment where it breaks down just between the two of us. Bob is as much a composer when he plays as he is an improviser, and I've always admired that about his musicianship. I certainly try to be that way myself, so it was really fun to get to do that song with him."
Daversa, who played in Mintzer's big band on a recent tour of Japan, adds, We've been playing together more and more lately so we're getting to know each other as musicians. Of course, he's also a big band composer and arranger-orchestrator, so he thinks in that kind of head as well. There are a lot of parallels in our musical interests. He's someone who has been just an invaluable, incredible, wonderful mentor for me. And I really admire him for his commitment to his craft. He's always learning and always growing and asking questions. I find that to be very inspirational. It's so much fun to be around him because you learn something every time."
Moonlight Muse" is a lyrical number in 3/4 time underscored by Gene Coye's sensitive brushwork and buoyed by Jerry Watts' melodic bass playing. The piece opens up midway for some highly expressive solos by Marshall, Daversa and Watts. Players Only" opens with an ambient intro with Daversa playing muted trumpet and resolves to a haunting soundscape that gradually builds in intensity until reaching a big backbeat crescendo with Daversa wailing on harmonizer-infused trumpet and Brandon Coleman adding some dazzling piano lines. That recording is the first time we ever played it like that," says the composer. That just happened. And that's the advantage of a small band...it's different every time."
Flirty Girl" oozes along on a slow progression that recalls one of Miles Davis' latter day tunes, New Blues." Says Daversa, It's one of my favorites on that album because it's so wonderfully patient and economical. There's nothing on there that doesn't need to be on there. It's just very honest, very in-the-moment. There's nothing to prove. I think that's the kind of spirit we were trying to play with there. It's just music. It's so slow and fun and flirty."
Throughout the album, and particularly on the emotionally charged Good to be Alive," Daversa demonstrates a tight chemistry with his frontline partner, saxophonist Robby Marshall. I've always just loved his musical personality because he's fearless and there's so much integrity in everything that he plays," says the leader of his right-hand man on tenor. He's just going for the heart with every note. There's not one note that he's just trying to really reach a higher place with. And those are the people that I want to play with. I've known Robby since he was in college, in his early 20s. And he had that then. The first time I heard him I knew that I was going to see him more. And now after years of getting to play with one another, we have this thing together where I know that whatever I play, he's going to be there right with me. When we play live I'm very open to going to different places, and he's always right there with me. Because he's in the spirit of the moment, he's not locked into what it should be or what it was or what it's supposed to be. He's just in the now. So it's an irreplaceable kinship."
The joyful Some Happy S*#t," conveys the same upbeat spirit that Joe Zawinul concocted on his hit song for Weather Report, Birdland." It concludes Artful Joy on a note that is decided on the goodfoot. A dynamic project from start to finish, Artful Joy shows another side of Daversa's writing and arranging. And all the players elevate the proceedings with inspired playing from track to track.