Julio Davis stays the course of Trio’s jazz/hip-hop soul
By Moira McCormick For Sun-Times Media March 19, 2014 7:03PM
J. Davis Trio, 9 p.m. Mar. 21, Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee. $10. (773) 489-3160; doubledoor.com
Updated: March 20, 2014 4:38PM
‘I love hip-hop to my bones,” said rapper-vibraphonist Julio Davis, leader of Chicago’s masterly jazz-rap band J. Davis Trio, while steering his SUV post-rehearsal through a spitting March rain as it morphed into the five-hundredth snowstorm of this apparently immortal winter. “I have a blueprint, in my head, of how that music is supposed to sound. And luckily, people keep enjoying this journey I’m on, transcribing that stuff in my head into [actual] sounds.”
Said journey, 19 years and counting, brings all seven current members of the Trio’s flexible lineup (plus guest vocalists Cara Dawn and Poi Dog Pondering’s Carla Prather) to the Double Door Mar. 21 — hence the full band get-together several hours earlier, in drummer Sam Sharp’s Logan Square home.
Amid the turmeric-hued walls of Sharp’s commodious basement, Davis and his ultra-cool virtuoso ensemble ran through original tunes plus transfigured covers: ’90s hip-hop classics including Tupac Shakur’s “California Love” and LL Cool J’s “Jingling Baby,” plus Hall & Oates’ 1981 pop-R&B chart-topper, “I Can’t Go For That;” and the insouciant ’60s instrumental “Soulful Strut,” laced with founding member Dave Winer’s trumpet and more recent addition Chris Greene’s tenor sax.
Throughout, Davis deftly toggled between rhyming, supplying extra percussion, playing vibes parts on a stand-in glockenspiel — and directing the band, which also includes original bassist David E. Smith, conga player Ryan Patrick Murphy, and keyboardist T. J. Widner. “They’re the most talented musicians I know,” observed Dawn, who’s sung with a variety of Chicago groups. “Highly skilled and hard-working, they’re also passionate and driven.”
Dawn delivered supple, powerhouse vocals on “Soulful Strut,” which began life as the backing track for Chicago R&B singer Barbara Acklin’s 1966 Top 40 single, “Am I the Same Girl;” re-released in ’68 as “Soulful Strut” by Young Holt Unlimited, it hitNo. 3.
Both versions were produced by the late Chicago soul legend Carl Davis, who crafted a multitude of classic hits — and who happens to be Julio’s father. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” remarked saxophonist Greene.
“I grew up in a super-musical family,” confirmed Davis. “Music always playing in our house, Dad was bringing home music, people would be sending demo tapes, the Chi-Lites would be singing in my living room ….”
Classic soulmeisters Davis revered in his youth — Isley Brothers, Barry White, Stevie Wonder — “were all, like, my dad’s friends;” Wonder himself would send them his new albums. Still, Davis stressed, “It didn’t dawn on me how big Dad was; he was my dad, and that was his job.” A photo of Carl Davis, who passed away in 2012 at 77, adorns the cover of “Vintage,” the Trio’s most recent release.
Chicago rock ’n’ soul bandleader Nicholas Tremulis, a guest guitarist on “Vintage,” favorably compares a Trio show to a Beat Generation experience: “When I hear Julio rap, it reminds me of how Miles Davis talked. And their music is all about the spaces; it’s like the lines of a ’57 car. You feel cooler, just having been in the room with them.”