Nathan Davis Live

Saxophonist Shines on Previously Unreleased Recordings

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Nathan Davis Live

For some midcentury American jazz musicians touring Europe, the experience was so inspiring they ended up moving there. The attraction made sense. Back in the States even some A-list jazz players scuffled to find steady work while expats often found themselves on more solid ground. And there was something else, something Miles Davis recognized while visiting France. “I had never felt that way in my life,” he wrote in his autobiography. “It was the freedom of being in France and being treated like a human being, like someone important.”

A native of Kansas City, Kansas—he was born two blocks from Charlie Parker’s house—Nathan Davis had no trouble warming to Europe, where, starting in 1956, he toured with various jazz ensembles. In 1961 he moved to Paris, where he remained until taking a teaching position at the University of Pittsburgh in 1969. A multi-instrumentalist (tenor saxophone was his main instrument, and he also played soprano saxophone, flute, and bass clarinet), Davis was a hard bopper during a period when that genre was still in its infancy. No wonder Blue Note offered him a contract, as his recordings from that period bear a resemblance to the classic Blue Note sound. After Wayne Shorter left the Jazz Messengers, Art Blakey invited Davis to join the group, and again, you hear some Blakey in his music. The list of sidemen on the LPs Davis recorded while living in Europe included Hampton Hawes, Woody Shaw, Carmell Jones, and Kenny Clarke, and Davis featured prominently in the recent Resonance Records set of previously unreleased mid-60s recordings by Larry Young. Clearly, then, Davis was a well-respected player, yet his output during that period was modest. In fact, while many of his colleagues during that same time frame released new albums like the Beatles pumped out singles, Nathan only put out five albums as a leader the whole time he lived in Europe.

Which makes Live in Paris: The ORTF Recordings 1966–67 all the sweeter. Consisting of previously unreleased performances by Nathan Davis, the album gives us five more sides of recordings with Davis as a leader during his European years (the third platter is one-sided on this three-LP set). And those tapes that went unheard for half a century ended up in the best of hands. Originally the Paris-based Sam Records reissued LPs recorded and released in France, with sessions led by Chet Baker, Donald Byrd, Lester Young, Barney Wilen, Bobby Jaspar, and others. More recently, Sam Records has joined the ranks of musical archeologists who put out previously unreleased recordings of historical significance. Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960, which Derk Richardson reviewed in Issue 274, features music Thelonious Monk recorded for a Roger Vadim film, and Live in Paris performs a similar rescue mission.

Since its founding in 2011, Sam Records has always had extremely high production standards, and Live in Paris is no exception. The album was remastered from the original master tapes and pressed at Pallas. The gorgeous triple gatefold album cover solely consists of black-and-white photographs by Jean-Pierre Leloir—in other words, the cover contains no text whatsoever, as the liner notes are printed on an insert and other information about the release appear on an obi strip. The nostalgic black-and-white pictures do a superb job of evoking the period and setting the mood for some bracing mid-century jazz.

Although dates and locations differ, on nine of the ten cuts Davis is joined by the George Arvanitas Trio, and the other track is also a quartet session. All but two of the performances consist of Nathan Davis originals, and several are in the hard bop idiom. The opening track, “The Hip Walk,” helps set the tone with its bluesy swagger and sure sense of swing. On “Nathalie’s Bounce,” where the pianist Arvanitas switches to organ, the quartet lays down a mean groove and Davis and Arvanitas both deliver exhilarating solos. “The Thing” starts out upbeat and bouncy and then morphs into a powerful blues statement. The edgiest performance may be “The Rules of Freedom,” where Davis plays with breakneck intensity from the first note. If you’re searching for impassioned, full-bodied tenor saxophone with guts and soul, look no further.

During the mid-60s the influence of John Coltrane was widespread, and you get a strong whiff of Trane during Davis’ solos on “Love Ye the Neighbor,” “Mid Evil Dance,” and “Blues for Southeast Asia.” That said, the affinity you hear for Coltrane transcends technique. The deep emotional cry you heard in Trane long before he developed his much-imitated style you also hear in Davis regardless of stylistic similarities. And Davis isn’t the only musician tearing up on these performances. Pianist Georges Arvanitas solos with the same energy and creativity (and tenderness, on two radically different renditions of the Jerome Kern ballad “Yesterdays”) as the band leader. Jacky Samson offers a bedrock of support while coaxing a deep, woody tone from the double bass, and drummer Charles Saudrais keeps kicking things up a notch during the solos by Davis and Arvanitas.

Jazz fans have all heard archival live recordings that suffer sonically. The piano can sound faint, boxed-in, and murky; sometimes the bass drops out almost completely; the drums, too, can sound recessed and the cymbals grainy. Happily, those shortcoming do not describe Live in Paris. There’s plenty of space between the instruments, and the music is well-balanced. Far from boxed-in, the piano has room to breathe and retains its rightful place in the mix, and the bass and drums come through clearly. There are issues with distortion on the second platter. Other than that, the sound is quite good, and there are sections where it’s better than good, with a “you-are-there” presence that can induce goosebumps. Sometimes those moments occur when musicians lay out—on Samson’s bass solos, for example, or when the bass and drums pair off during “A5.” When Arvanitas scrapes the strings inside the piano during the bass solo on the 1967 performance of “Yesterdays,” the effect is beguiling. I doubt I’m the only jazz lover who, while listening to inspired live recordings, imagines being in the venue on the night of the performance, and if that happens to you too, well, Live in Paris can take you there.

Along with photographs from concert performances, the album cover contains two pictures of Nathan Davis sitting at a park bench with the Eiffel Tower in the background. In one of those photos he’s holding his daughter in his arms as they gaze at each other lovingly. That picture suggests that, in more ways than one, Nathan Davis was in a good place while he lived overseas. And there was more to come—a lot more, actually. After returning to America in 1969, Davis helped pioneer academic studies in jazz, and he made a major contribution in that area. He also continued to play and record music until late in his life. By all accounts Davis, who passed away last year, led a full and happy life and, as a teacher, played a pivotal role in nurturing a major art form during a pivotal period. And he could play.

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