The N. Glenn Davis Quartet
A Different View
Cleveland, Ohio, is known as a working man’s town. Glenn Davis, academic background, masters degree and all, fits right into the Cleveland tradition. “I work all the time,” he says. “I’m a working drummer.” Like Davis, his sidemen in this debut recording are Clevelanders who have been immersed in music all of their adult lives.
Davis’s career as a working drummer began early. At sixteen, he was playing for parties and country club dances, studying guitar and piano on the side, absorbing the great American songbook, forming the all-round musicianship he displays here. As a teenager he took lessons from Bob McKee, the drummer on the Mike Douglas Show and leader of the house band at Cleveland’s celebrated Theatrical Restaurant on Short Vincent Street. When he was a boy, the air in Glenn’s house was full of Count Basie, Duke Elllington, Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin. “As long as it swung,” he says, “my mother had it on the phonograph.” When he was in his teens, the Beatles, Motown and soul entered the picture. “I knew all the James Brown 45s.” In his early twenties, having spent two years at the University of Akron as a music major, he was working several nights a week. He played in a variety of styles, but jazz was stealing his heart.
When he wasn’t working behind his drum set, Davis spent much of his time at the Smiling Dog Saloon, a club that thrived at West 25th and Woodbridge in the early 1970s. The Smiling Dog had a name policy, presenting Chick Corea, Bill Evans, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley and Keith Jarrett, among others.
“They always had an opening house band of Cleveland cats who on any given night might include Bill Dobbins on piano, Ernie Krivda or Joe Lovano on tenor sax, and Bill DeArango, the great guitarist who played with Charlie Parker. There were also fine Cleveland drummers like Val Kent, Jamie Haddad and Skip Hadden. I hung out there a lot. I was influenced to attend Berklee School of Music because of the jazz I heard at the Smiling Dog and conversations with Joe Lovano and others who had been up to Boston before me.”
At Berklee, Davis studied not only drums but also vibraharp, marimba, tympani, composition, harmony and arranging. Among his teachers were John LaPorta, Gary Burton, Joe Hunt and Alan Dawson, with whom he studied privately for a year. His style melding strength and subtlety was influenced by Dawson and Hunt, and by other quiet, tough, melodic drummers like Billy Higgins and Paul Motian. “I never wanted to be a Buddy Rich,” he says, “a god of the drums.” In Boston, Davis was in the major leagues of jazz education and a hotbed of jazz performance. Among those he worked with in the city were guitarist Mike Stern, bassist Santi Debriano, pianist Emil Viklický, guitarist Jeff Richman and trumpeter Tiger Okoshi. Following graduation, he stayed in Boston for five years, spent two years in New York City and went home to Cleveland in 1986. Playing steadily, Davis found time to return to the University of Akron to receive teacher certification and a masters degree in music education.
Over the years, Glenn has forged strong bonds of musicianship and friendship with his colleagues on A Different View. His contemporary Larry Porter has distinguished himself in Europe as a jazz pianist and as a rebab player in the Indian and Afghan music scenes. Porter has played with musicians as varied as Chet Baker, Al Cohn, Archie Shepp, Art Farmer and Sheila Jordan. He makes his home in Berlin. Bassist Dallas Coffey, whom Davis describes as a Cleveland institution, is in constant demand. “If Dallas plays only six nights, it’s a slow week for him,” Glenn says. “We have done hundreds of gigs together.” Coffey’s credits include work with Mark Murphy, David “Fathead” Newman, Ken Peplowski, Scott Hamilton and the popular Cleveland bands the Joe Hunter Trio and the Swing Lizards. Dave Sterner, best known as an alto saxophonist, is a member of the Ernie Krivda Fat Tuesday Big Band and is featured on Krivda’s CDs. A Different View offers a rare opportunity to also hear Sterner on tenor and soprano saxes.
“We’re friends,” Davis says of his bandmates. “The camaraderie is a strong part of our quartet sound. This combination of musicians was meant to be, and I think that comes across in the performance.”
Something else that comes across is Glenn Davis’s mastery of composition. He wrote all of the tunes but one. His musicial maturity and the variety in his work put this impressive group of pieces miles ahead of the collections of stultifying originals that fill so many CDs. Here are a few words from the composer about his pieces and one by Larry Porter.
The Happy People: My objective was to write a happy, swinging song based loosely on “I Got Rhythm” changes. Larry’s piano harmonies support the alto melody, with a hint of Thelonious Monk.
Distant Celebration: The ¾ time suggests an African feel. The sections vary as the lyrical melody moves through G minor to B-flat major. Dave displays his soprano sax versatility. The ending vamp allows for interactive group improvisation.
Monday Night Jam: I wrote this after coming home from a jam session I played with Dallas Coffey. It alternates between funk and swing, with a touch of Latin thrown in.
Sliding: The drums play the rhythmic theme in this 32-bar bebop-style tune.
In Passing: The slightly unusual phrase structure of this 16-bar piece in B-Flat makes it feel longer. The feel is of a relaxed bossa nova.
Ashley’s Samba: This is dedicated to my daughter.
Hometown Waltz: We’re all from the Cleveland area, hence the title. At one point we considered calling the album Cleveland Stories. There is nice interplay between Larry and Dallas throughout.
Passion Walk: This was inspired by McCoy Tyner’s “Passion Dance.” It’s a 24-bar tune in ABA form. Solos by tenor, piano and drums are short, strong and to the point without the self-indulgence one might expect on this style of tune. Listen to Larry’s harmonization of the melody in intervals of seconds. Dissonant, but it works.
Eadie Is A Lady: This is a highlight. Larry Porter wrote it a few years ago for his mother. He came home to Cleveland from Berlin to care for her before she passed in the fall of 2006. He requested that we do the song in one take. I am moved that Larry agreed to include it on my CD.
Bright Roads: The bright montuno groove has the rhythm section playing syncopated figures during the melody. The figures also serve as the ending.
It’s Late: I wrote this at 2 a.m. after returning from a gig. Dallas really lays down the walking feel and has the first solo. Dave’s tenor captures a smoky, late night, Dexter Gordon kind of vibe.
After hearing this music, the veteran drummer Jamey Haddad offered an observation that characterizes the work of his peer and fellow Clevelander: “Glenn demonstrates the ease and comfort that a seasoned drummer can achieve while opening creative paths for his fellow players. The flow of his music never hints at a need to push beyond a harmonious vibe.”
Davis does, however, feel a need to push beyond Cleveland. He plans to take the Glenn Davis Quartet on the road. Their harmonious vibe should get a welcome reception wherever they go.
Doug Ramsey’s latest book is Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond. He blogs about jazz and other matters at www.artsjournal.com/rifftides.