By Devon Wendell
Wild Bill Davison was a truly unique and brilliant cornet player. He was one of the bright stars from Eddie Condon’s band since the 1920s. His thick exaggerated vibrato and dynamic attack created a truly distinct sound. He could play soft and gentle one moment, and in the next one of his punctuated phrases would hit you like a Mack truck. Of course you can hear the influence of Louis Armstrong in much of his playing but Wild Bill took that inspiration to new places.
By the 1960s, big band jazz was suffering and Dixieland jazz had almost been forgotten by the jazz press, audiences, and record buyers. But that didn’t stop the music’s greatest pioneers from playing what they knew was loved more than anything.
In March of 1968, pianist and musical director Claude Hopkins (who also played in Eddie Condon’s band) led a session at Toronto’s Colonial Tavern with Wild Bill Davison, joined by the incredible Benny Morton on trombone (Morton played in Fletcher Henderson’s band in the 1920s), Arvell Shaw, bass (from Louis Armstrong’s band) Herb Hall, clarinet (also a Condon mainstay for many years), Buzzy Drootin, drums, and Hopkins himself on piano. The session was billed as “The Jazz Giants” and the results were phenomenal.
The album kicks off with a steaming reading of Louis Armstrong’s classic “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue.” Davison’s cornet slurs and distorts beautifully. His lines are rough and tough, yet hard swinging and beautiful. Morton plays one of the most exquisitely melodic trombone solos I’ve ever heard. And Hall’s clarinet dances gloriously around each soloist with precision and jubilance.
On the tender “Dardanella,” Hall’s lyrical clarinet style just cooks. Shaw’s bass lines swing tightly with Drootin’s subtle, in the pocket drumming. Hopkins’ piano is sparse but perfect.
Davison makes the cornet scream and cry on a delicate rendition of Fats Waller’s “Black And Blue.” Morton and Hall play a beat behind Davison’s mournful phrasing in true Dixieland fashion.
The beauty of this session is that it feels more traditional as it goes on. This is certainly the case on “I Would Do Anything For You,” “I Found A New Baby,” “Blue Again” and “Them there Eyes.” It’s obvious that each band member knows the material intimately. Both Davison’s and Morton’s style is so masterful that it could easily fit in just about any genre of jazz as did Sydney Bechet’s (Who also worked with Davison on Blue Note Records.)
There’s something universal about Dixieland jazz. You truly hear the entire history of jazz; the past, present, and future are all there when it’s played at such a high level as this.
Davison and the band’s versions of “I Surrender Dear” and ‘Yesterdays” both showcase Davison at his best. He plays stronger than he did in his youth. No one could sound so rough and sweet simultaneously. His tone had the dichotomy of sounding thick and rich yet sharp and piercing.
Hopkins’ piano sets the mood with precision and elegance. Shaw and Drootin lock in the groove and everyone cooks there, right in perfect time. Shaw plays some truly haunting bowed bass lines on “Yesterdays.”
The album finishes with an up-tempo, barn burning rendition of “Three Little Words” and a stellar alternate take of “Black And Blue.” On the first, Hopkins is the only soloist, playing ragtime piano at a breakneck pace. The second take of “Black And Blue” is vastly different from the first. Davison plays like his life depends on it. Morton and Hall offer a softer contrast to Davison’s harder phrases. The mood created is both sad and joyful. The sheer pleasure of playing this music is felt in every line played at a time in history when so few were actually paying attention.
Wild Bill Davison: The Jazz Giants is a true gem. It features some of the most brilliant musicians in jazz who had been playing this music for over 40 years by the time of this recording. This album is a reminder of how important, exciting, and timeless Dixieland jazz will always be. This is essential listening.