Paying tribute to such a strongly idiosyncratic musical personality as cornetist Wild Bill Davison could be a doomed endeavor, if the cornet player in charge attempts to honor Bill by reproducing his repertoire of short phrases, growls, vocalized blurts and sotto-voce murmurs. My reaction to such things has been to turn back to Bill’s recorded legacy. The copies are the aural equivalent of Al Hirschfeld drawings: ingenious but verging on affectionate caricature.
A band of wise players assembled in Berkeley, California, at the Freight and Salvage in early 2006 to celebrate Bill’s centennial. The results, issued on a Jazzology CD, are a model of what energetic creative tribute should be.
The participants are Leon Oakley, cornet; Dan Barrett, trombone; Bob Mielke, trombone guest star; Richard Hadlock, reeds and master of ceremonies (offering commentary between each selection); Ray Skjelbred, piano; Katie Cavera, guitar; Clint Baker, string bass; J. Hansen, drums. The CD begins with an excerpt from a recording made in Britain — Bill singing a bit of IS IT TRUE WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT DIXIE? in a light, sincere, swinging voice — and it concludes with Bill, ending a set. So the presence of the great man is immediately evident. In between, the band plays the hot ones — THAT’S A PLENTY, COLLIER’S CLAMBAKE, I NEVER KNEW and I NEVER KNEW I COULD LOVE ANYBODY, a strong-minded BLUES FOR WILD BILL, BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE GAVE TO ME.
But the sweet melodic side of Wild Bill gets equal time, with MEMORIES OF YOU, WHEN YOUR LOVER HAS GONE (very successfully evoking a 1944 Condon date for Decca where Bill wasn’t present but Billy Butterfield and Bobby Hackett were), MANDY, I’M CONFESSIN’, SAVE IT PRETTY MAMA, and a particularly moving version of BLACK BUTTERFLY on which we hear Barrett and Mielke in tandem.
The band is superb, because each one of them knows the style deeply but is committed to improvising within it. Leon Oakley has said he was deeply influenced by Wild Bill, and occasionally he dips into the Davison grab-bag of singular effects, but for the most part he simply, eloquently plays hot cornet — in a way that would fit in at The Ear Inn in 2013 or Condon’s in 1956. Barrett, Hadlock, and Mielke all sound like themselves (Hadlock in a particularly forceful mood) but they are all obviously overjoyed to be playing with the ideal rhythm sections, with the ghosts of Stacy, Sullivan, Condon, Walter Page, Wettling and Drootin making ectoplasmic appearances.
It may be heretical to say so, but I gave up collecting Wild Bill records because each one sounded precisely like the last (he had created his own master solos and delivered them — perfectly or slightly imperfectly) but I have not tired of this disc. I’ve already played it several times and found new reasons to cheer each time. (Excellent recorded sound, too.)
May your happiness increase.