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Clubland by Ken Maiuri: Trombonist Steve Davis sits in with Green Street Trio

  • Steve Davis Courtesy photo

Published: 12/5/2019 8:47:48 AM
Modified: 12/5/2019 8:47:38 AM

We thought we were arriving early at City Sports Grille in Northampton this past Tuesday night, hoping for a good seat at the venue-inside-a-bowling-center and its popular weekly jazz concert and open jam.

But an hour before the show’s start time, the place was so crowded with even-earlier-birds that we had to grab a table in back. Eventually the audience swelled to 80 people.

One person who wasn’t there as showtime approached was trombonist Steve Davis, the guest musician scheduled to play that night with the house band, the Green Street Trio. Drummer Jon Fisher, bassist George Kaye and pianist/emcee Paul Arslanian were scattered around the room, chatting with folks waiting for their food to arrive — and then Davis did.

“We go in 10 minutes,” Arslanian had to tell the still-bundled-up trombonist, who’d just driven a few hours from Stamford, Connecticut, through wintry traffic. He only had enough time to remove his instrument from its case, shake off the car torpor and thaw a little before jumping onto the bandstand.

Over the clink-clank hubbub of knives and plates and chatter, Arslanian took his place over by the piano and loosened up the room with some jokes and info as everyone got settled on stage. “We have George Kaye on bass tonight — in fact, we’ve had him on bass every night for the last 10 years.”

The pianist admitted that the musicians hadn’t chosen what tunes to play yet, and that they also had to do a sound check.

“Sound check!” Kaye said emphatically into the room (instead of into a microphone). “How’s the sound?” The audience laughed. “Just kidding,” he said, dutifully going over to set levels on the mixing board.

Davis leaned down into his trombone microphone and quietly said, “My voice is gone,” good-naturedly explaining he wasn’t trying to do his impression of Miles Davis’ trademark raspy semi-whisper. And with that he and the band cleverly segued into the Kurt Weill tune “Speak Low,” which started off their five-song, hour-long set.

The group gave the tune a groovy Latin rhythm. Davis’ smooth trombone and Arslanian’s angular piano played off each other like good conversationalists, filling in any gaps and continuing the flow.

Irving Berlin’s 1932 hit “How Deep Is the Ocean” was another easygoing swinger, and before the group played the tune, Davis shared his awe for its “timeless” lyrics, reciting some of them for the audience: “How much do I love you? / I’ll tell you no lie / How deep is the ocean? / How high is the sky? / How many times in a day do I think of you? / How many roses are sprinkled with dew?”

Arslanian reminded the crowd that he’d promised a surprise, and with that he welcomed another special guest, multi-instrumentalist Rob Scheps, an old friend of Davis (and the Green Street Trio), who had driven up from New York City just to join in. The bond between Davis and Scheps was immediate as the latter took the stage with his soprano saxophone. “That’s the spirit of jazz right there,” Davis warmly said about him.

“It’s You Or No One” was the first of two songs with Scheps in the group, and during his solo he let loose with an instant torrent of notes. A writer once described Scheps’ style as being able to achieve “Coltrane-ish intensity at the drop of a hat” and that definitely seemed accurate. Davis was totally grinning at the spirited work of Scheps, who, if I heard correctly, snuck a blink-and-miss-it snippet of Duke Jordan’s “Scotch Blues” into the tune.

When the song was over, amidst the biggest applause of the night so far, a beaming Arslanian said, “Yeah, all right, there you go!”

The last tune of the set was “Fried Bananas” (a Dexter Gordon composition based on the chord changes of “It Can Happen To You”), and it had a sweet and mellow breakdown that allowed the upright bass and soprano sax to have their say. Davis and Scheps ended the song playing an impressive melody in unison and the approving crowd went wild. Arslanian had an immediate quip for his fellow musicians: “Hey guys, wanna start a band?”

The Green Street Trio always puts the spotlight on their visiting guests, but the threesome are truly stars in their own right. Arslanian told the audience that the trio’s 10-year anniversary is just around the calendar corner; they’ve been doing their regular Tuesday night thing since April 2010.

I feel lucky I got to see them play almost nine years ago to the day, in the venue from which they got their name (the long-gone Green Street Cafe in Northampton). It was a place so intimate that 20 people made the room feel packed, so it’s a joy to see the trio still going strong a decade later, filling a bigger venue with a larger audience. They never blow their own horn, but they’re a fantastic band.

Ken Maiuri can be reached at clublandcolumn@gazettenet.com.




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