LIVE: Steve Davis Sextet @ SUNY Schenectady (A Place for Jazz), 09/09/2022
Change happens. It’s inevitable, provided you don’t listen to those longtime campaigners who insist that “We’ve always done it THIS way!” Happily, the board members of A Place For Jazz kept that oft-used excuse out of their decision process to move the series from the First Unitarian Society’s Whisperdome to SUNY Schenectady’s Carl B. Taylor Auditorium.
Thanks to Bill Meckley’s tenure running the Empire Jazz Orchestra, the Taylor has had serious jazz cred for a number of years. So when it became obvious that APFJ needed new digs, the choice was a no-brainer, and from the pre-show comments of SUNY School of Music Dean Christopher Brellochs and board member/emcee Bill McCann, everyone involved in the decision is tickled pink about the outcome. So was trombonist Steve Davis, who opened A Place For Jazz’s 2022 season with a ripping set of straight-ahead smashes.
“What a great venue,” Davis marveled, dressed for summer in a powder-blue jacket and pink tie with matching pocket kerchief. Davis had already gotten a good sense of the space that afternoon when he led SUNY Schenectady music students through a master class. Now it was time to school the sizable first-night crowd, starting with a knockout take on J.J. Johnson’s “Pinnacles.”
Davis “sounds” mellow, but his lines are no-nonsense, sailing right down the middle with a great sense of lyric and shading. Besides, Davis didn’t need to blow things up, as that job was ably handled by trumpeter Joshua Bruneau. His muscular solo on Davis’ original “A Little Understanding” was absolutely righteous. The two kept a brilliant contrast throughout the 90-minutes-plus set, setting up vibes master Steve Nelson for success and beauty on multiple occasions.
Nelson is one of the greats at his instrument, and he’s brought that brilliance to Schenectady before, most notably with the Dave Holland Quintet. On this night, he looked like SUNY Schenectady’s favorite absent-minded professor in comparison to the sharp wardrobe favored by the rest of Davis’ outfit. That said, when you’re as amazing as Nelson, you can show up to the show wearing a green trash bag and Doc Martens, and if you hit it as beautifully as Nelson did on “Atmosphere” (Davis’ soaring reboot of Chick Corea’s “500 Miles High”) and Horace Silver’s iconic ballad “Peace”, nobody will make a peep.
Pianist Rick Germanson and bassist Nat Reeves are solid journeymen who gave Davis and the front line the support they needed while making marks of their own – Germanson on the growling cruiser “Star Eyes”, Reeves on Davis’ killer version of the Miles classic “All Blues.” I last saw drummer Eric McPherson a couple of weeks ago backing young lion keyboardist David Virelles at the Village Vanguard, and the distance between that music and this show can be measured in light years. But even though he COULD be a purist, McPherson is all about the job, keeping the foundation lively even as he showed his own unique lyrical sense.
All in all, this was a great shakedown cruise for APFJ’s new venue, as Davis served up the kind of savory musical meat and potatoes the series’ prime demographic eats up with two spoons. And for those longtime APFJ goers muttering, “Butch must be rolling over in his grave,” I guarantee you that if a space like the Taylor had been available when the late Butch Conn founded A Place For Jazz in 1987, he would have been on it like white on rice. The sound is outstanding, there isn’t a bad seat in the house, and the stage set isn’t the cob job it was at First Unitarian.
No, the acoustics aren’t as incredible as they are at the Whisperdome, but if the acoustics were the deal-breaker here, APFJ would have to move to Troy Music Hall, or maybe the whispering gallery at St. Paul’s Cathedral. I repeat: Change happens. You can embrace it and glory in the positives, or deny it and sit home listening to Charlie Parker 78s. The choice is yours.