Fistfuls of Notes: Davina and the Vagabonds

Davina and the Vagabonds rolled in to San Francisco last night to begin a weekend run at the SFJazz Center, that  noise-proofed concert venue of gleaming steel and glass on a busy San Francisco street corner between the trendy restaurants and shops of the once-rundown Hayes Valley and the glowering edifices of cultural and political prestige: opera, ballet, symphony, and the domed cathedral of local government, the Civic Center. In San Francisco jazz has architectural standing: a place to be heard, enjoyed, taught, nourished—and respected.

For its part, the band affected surprise at, if not unease with, with the cultural—and economic—capital lavished on their music. From her bench at the gleaming Yamaha grand piano in the Joe Henderson Lab (the smaller of the two auditoriums at SFJAzz), frontwoman Davina Lozier’s various inter-song remarks bewondered the luxurious surroundings, especially the artists’ green room from which she and her quintet had emerged for the first of the night’s two sets. Also eliciting her praise was the singularly attentive and well-heeled audience along with the related fact that no football game was playing on multiple TVs behind the bandstand. And bemused gratitude was expressed for having to play just two sixty-minute sets instead of their usual “tons of hours.”

Long years on the road had apparently inured her to the competition from blaring TVs and rowdy barhoppers. At times the silence was deafening to her: even the traffic and occasional homeless trolley trundling by outside didn’t intrude sonically.

When drummer George Marich’s snare was disabled during the raucous but tightly delivered kickoff tune—Louis Jordan’s “Knock Me A Kiss”— another was produced within a couple of minutes. SFJAzz has resources and style: the musicians will be able to make their music how they want to make it. The support for them is expert but unfussy.

Davina and her crew had driven up the Coast Highway from a gig in Santa Cruz the night before. Even that stretch of road seemed to have been exhausting not exhilarating, in spite of her wry comment that the lake to their left was somewhat bigger than those spread across their home state of Minnesota.

Since its founding in 2005, Davina and the Vagabonds have done hundreds of dates a year ranging across 45 American states, a couple of Canadian provinces and a dozen European countries.  Davina is a laconic humorist, an aphoristic philosopher, a singer of grainy exuberance, a pianist of punch and poise, and an imaginative and unexpected songwriter. She exuded radiant energy in the cool SFJazz interior.

By contrast, the four male Vagabonds looked tired, as if the road miles had taken their toll—not to mention the musical miles done traversing Davina’s songbook. Trombonist Matt Hanzelka, trumpeter (and husband) Zack Lozier, bassist Matt Black, and drummer Marich were uniformed in white dress shirts, dark trousers and vests, ties with big knots askew, five o’clock shadows lengthening towards midnight, rheumy eyes peering down from the bandstand out through the smokeless hall. The sartorial semiotics suggested waiter, bellman, or undertaker having shed the jacket for some heavy lifting. Perhaps their musical itineracy is a kind of vagabondry, but its dress code is rather different than that of the real vagabonds so plentiful around the SFJazz Center and sometimes visible during the show through the plate glass. Davina does not plan her set list and her musicians responded to her spur-of-the moment choices with body language that conveyed not eager delight but dutiful doggedness, as if they were holding it together till the next rest stop.  There were cheerleading calls from Davina, and more later from trumpeter Lozier, to find out how we were all doing.  The question could have been asked more trenchantly of the Vagabonds.

Yet when they played the syncopated horn lines of their crisp and clever arrangements above driving bass line and perfectly calibrate drum energy, there was panache and thrill. All those motoring and musical miles had polished their machine to a dazzling glint. Hazelka is the most consistently interesting improviser in the ensemble. His solo to Fats Waller’s minor blues strain “You Must Be Losing Your Mind” started sparse and low and skeptical and then grew over its many choruses to a high pitch of incredulous intensity.

Davina’s singing on the tune was, as always, vibrant, personal, compelling: hers is an assured and beautiful voice when she wants it to be, but it can be rough or coy when required. Her singing has the texture, wisdom, and deep confidence of experience. She doesn’t play like Fats Waller nor does she try to. She won’t be boxed in or intimidated by the past. Hers is music in the present tense. Still, the classic William Gottlieb photographs of Thelonius Monk and Art Tatum hanging in the windows of the derelict building across the street seemed to look directly over Davina’s shoulder and made one wonder what these pianists would have thought of her barracking comping behind Hazelka’s trombone work. Whatever the verdict of these legends, Davina’s fistfuls of notes added to the atmosphere of madcap disbelief far crazier than the Waller version.

On the previous number, “Ain’t That a Shame,” by a different Fats (Domino), Davina had already shown herself in full vocal fettle and rightly unabashed in her keyboard bashings.

In her original compositions she likes to take on personal demons, as in the Latin seductions of “How Did the Devil Get His Horns” and “I Try To Be Good.” Her pianism turned crystalline in the declarations of love in “Pocket, ” her voice taking on an intimate quality also capable of great ardor and pathos. Toms Waits and Randy Newman seemed to look and listen over her shoulder in a newly minted song puncturing the ballooning hot-air rhetoric of a mansplaining “Mr. Big Talker”—Marich evoking that inflation with his inexorable crescendo moving from sibilant brushes to drumsticks hissing on that snare and crackling on those cymbals.

Davina’s plaintive cover of Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind” would have closed the set in muted tones if it had not been followed by the rollicking Preservation Hall coda, “Shake that Thing” sung by Zack Lozier and capped by his high-heat brass effusions. Even before the hard-working set was over, Davina, too, had earned a breather.


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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com


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