© 2024 WBGO
Discover Jazz...Anywhere, Anytime, on Any Device.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Jesse Davis: ‘There's more to music than just notes’

Jesse Davis
William Brown
Jesse Davis

In 2004, New Orleans native and alto saxophonist Jesse Davis moved to Italy where he continues to reside. A fixture in the European jazz scene, he has toured and recorded with fellow expatriate, Alvin Queen, who recently formed a new band. Before heading to Italy, Jesse was a member of a distinguished group of young musicians dubbed the "Young Lions." At the age of 23 he recorded his first CD on the Concord label. With the release of his new CD Live at Smalls Jazz Club, Jesse has come full circle, having reunited with his friends with whom he got his start. I met Jesse in 1995 and fell in love with his playing and his music. It was great catching up with him on the eve of his new release.

Watch our conversation here:

Interview transcript:

Sheila Anderson: Let's talk about your new CD., Live at Smalls Jazz Club. You have one of my dear friends, Peter Washington on bass, and Joe Farnsworth on drums and Spike Wilner on piano. Spike is the owner of Smalls. What is it like, given that Spike played with you in the beginning of his career, years ago?

Jesse Davis: First, I love all those cats. I can't say how long my relationships with Spike and Peter go back. I met Joe Farnsworth at William Paterson. When I was there, it was Joe, Eric Alexander and Bill Stewart. That's where I met Peter Bernstein as well. I've known all of those guys many years. There's no energy like that, to go back and play in New York and to play with three friends. It was a joy for me. In terms of recording live, it's the energy. It's different because you have the audience and for me it's become one of the most important things. More important than any particular musical devices or any kind of thing that has to do solely with music because it gives purpose to what you do. I often talk to audiences and I tell them that even before we begin to play, I can feel the energy coming from an audience when I walk onto the stage.

Most of the time I already know how it's going to go and many times I'm already getting fired up because that energy is so real. They give it to us, we give it back to them, and it circulates and it's powerful because everybody is vibing on the same frequency. You don't get that in the studio. To a certain degree the studio has its place as well. You're in a comfort zone once you get the ins and outs, but it can be a bit homogenized by comparison. You have to bring your own energy. The biggest thing in the studio for me is to have guidelines. If we can’t do it in one take, I don't like to do 50 million takes. I'm not a fan of absolute perfection because you do many takes of a track and you come back and listen and you say, “Well, wait a minute, which take is that?” See, that's the first take and then everybody goes, “Oh, okay, I'll deal with my mistakes.” Unless it's something really bad. So the people make the difference. People are more important than they think, when it comes to a live show. What it's made me realize is that there's more to music than just notes. There's more to music than just music. It's essential for human beings. It touches something inside of us like nothing else does.

Yesterday we talked about music from a writing point of view. I was asking you about my favorite song of yours, “Coffetto.” I wanted you to talk about that song in particular, but also what goes into writing a song. Do you ever think when you've written a song, “Oh my God, it's a hit”?

Actually, I don't say those particular words. For me, everything starts with the melody or a groove. It'd be in my head over and over. Music like, I guess many things in life, has a certain kind of thing when it comes together. It's just the natural symmetry, rather than something that's forced or something that's conceived for reasons other than music's sake. I like to take a little time to let it marinate, especially the melody and the groove. Then the harmony comes and everything starts to come naturally. You start hearing bass notes, the bottom that goes along with the top, which is the melody. That’s where the piano comes into play. You start to fill in the middle. You put in the colors and the chords and the nuances. That’s my particular way.

Usually for me, there's like a three -month period from conception to actually becoming something. Then there are those days where nothing works. You learn over time never to throw things away. One day you're doing something and you're missing a bridge or you're missing a section and you say, “Well, wait a minute.” And you go look in your trash pile. Everyone has their own way of doing it. There are some people who approach it the other way. They come to it from more of a harmonic approach first. and then they put the melody on top. It's a personal process. For me what’s always paramount is that it’s got to feel good and it's got to have a groove. Or it's got to be pretty, it's got to be beautiful. First and foremost, it has to mean something. .

Speaking of tunes, let's talk about your new CD. Why Live at Smalls Jazz Club? Why did you choose the songs you chose?

The scope was basically for four old friends to get together and do what we used to do when we were knuckleheads running around New York City. We'd get on the gig, go to the bar, hang out, do whatever, and five or 10 minutes before it's time to hit, come together in one spot. “Well, what are we going to play?” I just called some tune and we took off. We were taught to learn a lot of tunes and play the standards. But if you’re going to play them, do something with them. Now, when I say do something with them, I don't mean change the tunes up or do something crazy. What it means is utilizing your musicianship to communicate with one another. No matter what situation arises, you learn how to meander as a group. Someone might have an idea, like I remember, in particular, on “Love for Sale,” Peter just started to play just a bassline and then Joe came in and then Mike came in and I let it ride, and we began playing it. It’s strange, but it's kind of our little version of “Love for Sale.” The same goes for basically everything we played

I love “Juicy Lucy” too. It's fun. Horace Silver tunes will fool people into thinking that he not be as sophisticated as other composers. “Juicy Lucy” has got that groove and energy. It pretty much epitomizes what Horace Silver meant to the music. When you take Horace Silver, Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter and maybe you throw in Jimmy Smith and some other people, those guys helped bring about a change in the beat and the vibe in the ‘60s. There's always a lot of talk about the different eras. “Oh, that’s bebop or that's swing.” But those are just sedimentary layers. Someone comes along and they learn the foundation and they understand those sedimentary layers to the point where they can create their own layer and stamp on it. I think those guys, and especially Horace Silver helped to define a style. You come to not only respect these people for their great talents in particular at composing, but you start to understand what made each and every one of those composers special and different.

Your music was called neo bop. Did you agree with that categorization of your music?

No, I've never agreed with that, as a young musician coming up in New York, and being given an opportunity to record with Concord when I was 23. I kind of didn't want to at first because we had this feeling that you had to earn it. At that time in my life, I didn't feel like I was ready to make records. I didn't feel like I was ready at all. A big part of that is because on any given night back then, you could walk from club to club and see the cats doing what they do,. You're just standing there going, “Oh God, who the hell do I think I am to be taking myself so seriously?” But the older you get, you understand that people see potential. That's what they're seeing. You can't really understand that back when you are young.

When you came along and came to the city, you were part of the group of musicians considered Young Lions. Were you uncomfortable being in that group of musicians?

Not me. I reveled in it. Matter of fact, I was ecstatic. This is the first time I'm ever saying this to anyone. I was happy because I didn't feel like I belonged in that group or category, because it was a pretty broad category. We’re talking about from 20-somethings to people like Wynton, Branford, Terence and Lewis Nash. Are you kidding? When I first moved to the city, I'd go to the Vanguard or The Blue Note and see these cats playing with these great masters. “You gotta be joking!” But I loved it and it served me well because I always felt like the fly on the wall in many cases, but with one distinction. I knew I belonged there with those guys. I never doubted the fact that I was a part of what they were doing.

Who was the first jazz master you went on the road with?

I left New Orleans in high school and I moved to Chicago where I went to Northeast Illinois University. I woke one morning and said, “I gotta get to New York.” It just hit me. So I worked my way towards it. I had spoken with Ellis Marsalis and he said, “Hey man, I just did a master class at a school in New Jersey, William Paterson, where Thad Jones started the program. Rufus Reid is there now.”

I went to William Paterson for a couple of semesters. Peter Bernstein and I decided to go into town from Paterson one weekend. He was apartment sitting for his aunt, so we had a place to hang. It was really the first time hanging out in New York and it was great. We hit a million jam sessions. We hit all of the gigs. At one there was an alto player, Joey "G-Clef" Cavaseno, and he liked my playing. He said, “Hey man, I play with Illinois Jacquet and he’s looking for another alto player.” He hooked me up and I went out to St. Albans in Queens and auditioned and got the gig with Illinois Jacquet. I think I was 20 years old. My very first professional gig in New York City was with the Illinois Jacquet Big Band for a week at the Vanguard. Immediately after the start of the next week, we headed to Europe for an eight-week tour of all of the major festivals. I still can't believe it when I think about it. That's how it started. And it continues.

Are you going to tour with this?

We have a few promotional gigs, starting in Seattle and going up the west coast, until we get to Vancouver, which is where the record label Cellar Music is. It’s run by the great saxophonist Cory Weeds. We then come back to New York and have the release party at Smalls on Feb.6-7.

What is it that you hope that people take away from your recording?

The main thing is to understand that you don't have to reinvent the wheel every time you play some play music. If one is able to go beneath the surface, they would understand that there's more there than one might think. . I think that we've come to a period where the most visually demonstrative [get the attention] and there are certain things that people are missing in the music in particular.

This is just an old-fashioned blowing session by four veteran musicians who understand how to communicate with each other and who understand how to play this music. We do it with the understanding that the most important element always is the listener or an audience. It’s music for the people and it’s personal and inventive. It’s got all of the elements of all of the other things that are constantly being called contemporary and modern and original. There's so much emphasis on those things that I think a lot of kids are missing out on actually learning how to really express something through their music. I think musicians will get a lot out of this as well. I think there's something in it for everybody. I'm happy we did it and I'm happy I did it with the cats I did it with.

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

In 1995 Sheila E. Anderson joined the staff of WBGO in Newark, New Jersey where she hosts Weekend Jazz Overnight and Salon Sessions. She has authored four books: The Quotable Musician: From Bach to Tupac (2003), How to Grow as A Musician: What All Musicians Must Know to Succeed (2005) (both published by Allworth Press), The Little Red Book of Musicians Wisdom (Skyhorse Press, 2012) and the 2nd edition of How to Grow as A Musician was published in 2019,

In addition to curating jazz at the Newark Museum of Art, Ms. Anderson is a 2017 Columbia University Community Scholar, an inaugural Dan
Morgenstern Fellow by the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers-Newark
(2020), is a graduate of Baruch College and resides in Harlem, NYC.