Say When (Smoke Sessions Records)

Steve Davis

Released June 9, 2015

DownBeat Four-and-a-Half-Star Review




Steve Davis, one of the most beloved trombonists in modern jazz, first dreamed of recording the music of J.J. Johnson some 20 years ago. “Something kept telling me— just wait, just wait.” he says, “Then finally, a year and a half ago, I did the first J.J. weekend at Smoke with this sextet and I finally realized I think I’m ready.” During those 20+ years, Davis was doing a little more than simply waiting, he was busy establishing himself as a worthy heir to his idols: J.J., Curtis Fuller and Slide Hampton. Along the way, he worked with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, the Jackie McLean Sextet, Chick Corea’s Origin, Benny Golson’s New Jazztet, Horace Silver, Hank Jones, Larry Willis, One for All, Freddie Hubbard and the New Jazz Composer’s Octet, the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All-Stars, as well as the big bands of Christian McBride, Ron Carter, Jimmy Heath and Roy Hargrove. He’s earned the highest praise, too, such as Freddie Hubbard calling him “one of the greatest trombone players in the world,” James Moody commenting that “his solos never cease to amaze me,” and Chick Corea saying that he plays “some of the most melodic improvisations ever heard in jazz.” For Say When, he’s enlisted the support of the very best—Eddie Henderson, Eric Alexander, Harold Mabern, Nat Reeves and Joe Farnsworth—to breathe new life into six Johnson compositional gems, as well as Cole Porter’s classic “What Is This Thing Called Love,” Warren and Gordon’s “There Will Never Be Another You” and Coltrane’s “Village Blues.” It concludes with a surprising rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In” that Davis vividly remembers hearing J.J. perform late in his career. It’s just another reason that Will Friedwald wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “The highly respected contemporary trombonist Steve Davis is a perfect bandleader to present the vast riches of (J.J.) Johnson.”

Track Listing:

1. Pinnacles (J.J. Johnson) 05:02

2. What is This Thing Called Love? (Cole Porter) 05:02

3. Shortcake (J.J. Johnson) 06:03

4. Mr. Johnson (Harold Mabern) 05:53

5. Lament (J.J. Johnson) 08:27

6. Say When (J.J. Johnson) 06:38

7. Kenya (J.J. Johnson) 06:44

8. Shutterbug (J.J. Johnson) 05:40

9. Village Blues (John Coltrane) 06:45

10. There Will Never Be Another You (Mack Gordon / Harry Warren) 05:46

11. When the Saints Go Marching In 05:57


Steve Davis: trombone

Eddie Henderson: trumpet (1–4, 6–9, 11)

Eric Alexander: tenor saxophone (1–4, 6–9, 11)

Harold Mabern: piano

Nat Reeves: bass

Joe Farnsworth: drums

Recorded December 1, 2014, at Sear Sound, Studio C, New York City

Producer: Paul Stache

Mixing: Roman Klun and Paul Stache

Mastering: Roman Klun

Photography: Jimmy Katz

Design: Damon Smith

Executive Producer: Frank Christopher and Paul Stache


This deeply felt set is steeped in a history that’s reflected in both the repertoire and the players in the studio. As detailed in the liner notes, Say When is Davis’ tribute to the late trombone giant J.J. Johnson that’s been 20 years in the making. It features six Johnson originals plus a few standards, a Crescent City classic, one John Coltrane piece that Johnson recorded and a dedication tune by Harold Mabern, who also plays piano on the album. It’s a nice overview of Johnson’s songbook, illuminating both his instrumental innovations and his vast influence. As a whole, the musicians assembled for this crisp session are a respected but perhaps underappreciated group. The interconnectivity heard here only strengthens their cases for wider recognition. Davis met trumpeter Eddie Henderson while a teenage undergraduate at the University of Hartford. Their longtime rapport can be heard on the heads of the opening cut, “Pinnacles,” and “Kenya.” Tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander has known Davis for two decades and is a muscular sounding standout on Coltrane’s “Village Blues.” Mabern gigged and recorded with Johnson in the mid-’60s, and his spirited “Mr. Johnson” is the setting for a particularly combustible Davis solo. A bandmate of Davis’ in Jackie McLean’s sextet, bassist Nat Reeves is nimble yet authoritative throughout. Davis and drummer Joe Farnsworth’s history also stretches back through the years, and the drummer gets a nice showcase on “What Is This Thing Called Love?” Interestingly, Davis approaches Say When’s two ballads, “Lament” and “There Will Never Be Another You,” in quartet settings, giving his warm legato tones some time in the spotlight. A modern version of “When The Saints Go Marching In,” inspired by a Johnson arrangement, ends Say When with comfortable aplomb. Farnsworth is given one final solo in which to channel the spirit of a second line before the horns wistfully fade out.

Yoshi Kato (DownBeat)