New Orleans Advocate Interview and Review
Debbie Davis is used to being part of the New Orleans experience. With her standing gigs on Frenchmen Street, the singer and ukulelist plays for crowds of visitors to the city every week. The making of her new album "Linger 'Til Dawn," though, was a special sort of command performance.
"There's a company in New Orleans whose business is to appeal to a high-end clientele, who want to have a New Orleans experience other people don't get," she explained. "It's obscenely exclusive."
One of the experiences offered, for example, she said, was a private meal at a John Besh restaurant, served by the chef himself. Another was the chance to watch a New Orleans musician record — that's where Davis came in.
"They had a deal with Mark Bingham to buy studio time for a day and pick from a short list of musicians, based on their availability," she said. "It had been a couple of years (since she'd agreed to be on the list) and I'd forgotten about it. Then Mark called and said, 'What are you doing on Nov. 4?'"
Davis and her regular band, freshly named the Mesmerizers for the purpose of the recording — guitarist Alex McMurray, husband and sousaphone/bass player Matt Perrine, and pianist Josh Paxton — suddenly had a free day at Piety Street Recording.
Davis has a big, lush and wryly sultry voice, infused with intelligence and wit; the well-rehearsed Mesmerizers are a perfect setting for that gem. After logging so many dozens of hours as a live ensemble, they work together like surefooted dance partners, making the musical twirls and dips look easy.
"I'd been working with the same guys for years, and we had a bunch of songs ready to go," she said. The combination knew what worked well, and what crowd-pleasers might sell best on CD at the edge of the stage during set breaks. No song got more than two takes. There was no time, she said, to overthink the process.
"It's really exactly what we do on the bandstand," she said. "It's very close to a live record."
Debbie Davis and the Mesmerizers in their natural habitat:
The exercise in efficiency that was the "Linger 'Til Dawn" session must have contributed to the recording's playful sense of freshness; every cut is surefooted, but none sounds overworked. It's there as well that Davis' skill and sensibility as an interpreter comes in. The baker's dozen songs that the Mesmerizers chose for the album split the difference between American songbook classics, vintage jazz and soul ("I Cover the Waterfront," "Dream a Little Dream of Me," Jelly Roll Morton's "Winin' Boy Blues," Little Milton's "Grits Ain't Groceries") but also arrangements of less-expected rock and pop: the Velvet Underground's "After Hours," the Kinks' "Sunny Afternoon," the Beatles' "If I Fell" and Led Zeppelin's "D'yer Maker."
"Standards, the songs that are a part of the American songbook, are just pop tunes that are now considered jazz — when they were popular, jazz was the pop idiom," she said. "'After Hours' is as traditional a jazz song as Irving Berlin ever wrote.Those kinds of choices and what's done with them, for a jazz vocalist, are what separate the true songbirds from the parrots. Davis, spanning a hundred years of pop music, does so ably and with a sharp understanding of the bones of a song.
"It's only when you take it out of context that you realize that, and it suddenly becomes a very universal song."
Appearing with the Mesmerizers, the retro vocal trio the Pfister Sisters, Ingrid Lucia's New Orleans Nightingales Revue, Paul Sanchez's Rolling Road Show, Sophie Lee, Banu Gibson, Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes and the Gloryoskis (with Myshkin and Helen Gillet) Debbie Davis performs many, many times during Jazz Fest 2014, on the Fair Grounds and off. Visit debbiedavismusic.com/calendar to catch up with her.