Jazz CD Reviews

Roger Davidson Trio – We Remember Helen – Soundbrush

Part commemoration, part remembrance, part life affirming: that’s how We Remember Helen.

Published on October 30, 2012

Roger Davidson Trio – We Remember Helen – Soundbrush

Roger Davidson Trio – We Remember Helen [11/6/12] – Soundbrush SR1024, 67:22 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:

(Roger Davidson – executive producer, piano; David Finck – bass; Lewis Nash – drums)

Pianist Roger Davidson is no stranger to tributes. Last year, Davidson paid homage to French keyboardist and composer Michel Legrand (Umbrellas & Sunshine: The Music of Michel Legrand) and in 2003 he gave Richard Rodgers a Brazilian twist on Rodgers in Rio. Davidson’s latest outing, We Remember Helen, strikes closer to the heart. This 67-minute, 15-track venture is dedicated to mentor, producer, and friend Helen Keane, who passed away in 1996. Keane was one of the few women who worked behind the scenes in the jazz world, and is best known for her business relationship with pianist Bill Evans, who she represented from 1963 until Evans’ 1980 death. As explained in James Gavin’s extensive liner notes, Keane had a sharp ear for up-and-coming jazz artists. In 1991, Keane produced a full-length demo cassette for Davidson, although she did not have the opportunity to do further work with Davidson. Ten years later, in 2011, Keane went into a studio to officially say thank you to the person who had meant so much to him: the result is We Remember Helen.

Davidson gets able assistance from bassist David Finck, who sat in on those 1991 sessions and has been a frequent collaborator ever since, and acclaimed drummer Lewis Nash (Betty Carter, Tommy Flanagan, and a long list of other jazz icons). The program is balanced between poignant ballads and more energetic material, plus a who’s who from the Great American Songbook; many associated with either Evans and/or Keane’s personal favorites. Davidson also includes two pieces he penned specifically to honor Keane. The record commences with Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach’s “Yesterdays,” which begins with a classically-tinged piano introduction. Then the tempo escalates: right from this get-go, it is clear Nash, Davidson and Finck are in simpatico collusion, with Nash’s graceful touch on the cymbals matching Davidson’s lucid, higher-register keyboard flourishes, and when Finck solos, it’s icing on the proverbial cake. Henry Mancini’s legacy is part and parcel with American music, and the trio puts polish and elegance into their interpretation of the main theme from Stanley Donen’s, Hitchcock-esque movie, Charade. This brisk translation has some of the playfulness between Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, which helped give Charade a charismatic characteristic. Other standouts are those connected to Evans. The Depression-era number “Beautiful Love” was often found in Evans’ live sets, and it is abundantly obvious Evans was a big inspiration for Davidson’s version: he discloses in the liner notes, “I fully admit that my way of playing it was the same basic way that Bill played it.” Irving Berlin’s impressionable love song, “How Deep Is the Ocean,” was another piece Evans often performed, and can be heard on Evans’1961 release, Explorations. Here, Davidson, Nash and Finck accentuate the tune’s sense of vulnerability and yearning as they highlight the cut’s harmonic virtues. The closer is a stunning adaptation of Evans’ rightfully famous gift to his daughter, “Waltz for Debby.” Many have increased the pace into a faster tempo, but here the trio emphasizes the tune’s lilting, lullaby aspects and preserve Evans’ original waltz timing: Finck’s arco bass solo adds an extra soupçon of affection.

Another side of Davidson which comes to the forefront is his admiration for spiritual music, which he provides as a triptych. First up is Davidson’s Southern, blues-gospel offering, the aptly-titled “Soul Search,” where Davidson rollicks on the piano, Finck delivers another dynamic bass solo and Nash keeps the nimble groove moving right along. That is followed by the traditional hymnal, “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho,” which Davidson suggested during the session as a piano-drums duet, which Nash quickly agreed to. There are not many keyboard-drums duets, and this is a triumph. Rounding out the three-piece mini-suite is Davidson’s pumping “Dance of Faith,” which he created on the spot, hastily arranged with Finck’s support, and before the ink was dry, a propelling, urgently-driven classic was born.

Davidson’s creativity has a gentler, tender aspect as well. Nowhere is that more felt and heard than on the two-track tribute to Keane. The sprightly but lightly melancholic “A Tune for Helen,” which also dates back a decade, was written shortly after Keane produced Davidson’s demo. “A Tune for Helen” has some of the swinging and carefree momentum of 1950s cool jazz. The mournful, memory-laced title track was composed right after Keane’s memorial service: the solo piano performance has a personal reserve which reflects Davidson’s thoughts about Keane on her day of remembrance. There’s much more to hear on We Remember Helen, and that’s part of the joie de vivre of listening to and spending time with Davidson’s splendid album.

TrackList: Yesterdays; What’s New; Whisper Not; Charade; A Tune for Helen; We Remember Helen; Beautiful Love; How Deep Is the Ocean; Soul Search; Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho; Dance of Faith; The Way He Captured You; Early Autumn; All the Things You Are; Waltz for Debby.

—Doug Simpson

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