Underrated is one of the most common terms in Jazz. But there are some artists who are so underrated that their names don't even come up when discussions about unrecognized masters occur. One man who clearly falls into that category is the brilliant pianist/composer Walter Davis Jr.
For many years we lived two blocks apart in New York City and I must have run into him hundreds of times in the subway, bodegas and the street over the years. A gentle and unassuming man, Walter always had an interesting observation or idea to share from his own perspective, which could also be said about his music.
Not only was Walter, who died in 1990 at 57 years old, an energetic and interesting pianist, but he was a fine composer as well, as eminently displayed on his first recording as a leader, 'Davis Cup' on Blue Note. Recorded in 1959 while he was a member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, Walter called on two former Messengers veterans, alto saxophonist Jackie McLean and trumpeter Donald Byrd, with whom Walter toured a year earlier. That, and his work on Jackie's "New Soil" album brought him to the attention of Blue Note's legendary and visionary founder Alfred Lion, who always knew greatness when he heard it.
The program features six originals by Davis, exhibiting his great talent for lyricism and structure. The horns handle the compositions with an ease and flair that disguises the complexity of the challenging boppish works. Bassist Sam Jones and drummer Art Taylor are ideal for this kind of music, setting the table nicely for the soloists.
Byrd's fluid lyricism shines on this kind of material as he offers some sizzling solos, especially on the driving ''Smake It,' along with a beauty on the lovely ballad 'Sweetness.' As were so many trumpet players in 1959, Byrd was still under the mesmerizing spell of the glorious Clifford Brown, which was a pretty good place to be.
McLean's hard-edged and acidic tone contrasts nicely with Byrd's reminding us why they recorded together often on each other's various dates. Punctuated perfectly by Davis' support, Jackie turns in one fine solo after another, with the ones on 'Rhumba Nhumba' and his bluesy offering on 'Millie's Delight' especially notable.
Typical of Walter's understated nature, on first listening one would not perceive this recording as the pianist's first date as a leader. Although all of his solos are inventive and thought-provoking, Walter didn't use this as a showcase for his very formidable solo talents. While his driving solo on 'Minor Mind' and his beautiful work on 'Sweetness' are especially noteworthy, he stays entirely within the quintet context. But on repeated listenings, the color and shape of this excellent recording is undoubtedly Walter - filled with subtlety and imagination in both its delightful compositions and its overall context.
This CD is an excellent way to begin to familiarize yourself with an artist who is one of Jazz' many hidden treasures.