Davell Crawford’s Gift

Davell Crawford’s new album My Gift to You is a gift indeed, particularly the inspired version of Billy Joel’s throbbing rock song of yesteryear, “River of Dreams.” Crawford – the grandson of “Jock-A-Mo” singer, the late Sugar Boy Crawford – with a long family background in church music, takes a feathery, slow-tempo turn at the piano and with his tender voice magnifies the lines of a salvation quest:

 “In the middle of the night
I go walking in my sleep
From the mountains of faith
To a river so deep
I must be looking for something
Something sacred I lost
But the river is wide
And it’s too hard to cross.”

In a liner note booklet included in the Basin Street Records release, Crawford says he was swept along by the song when he first heard it as a teenager, that he couldn’t get “River of Dreams” out of his head. The words touched him (the same words that eluded this writer, who was pulled by the rocking tempo and surging chorus). In this cover song – an old term from the heyday of early rock ’n’ roll, when one artist does a version of another’s song – Crawford strips out the bam-bam chorus to let his own voice, more spare than Joel’s, roam with help from serene alto saxophone clouds provided by Donald Harrison Jr. The horn player works nimbly with Crawford on keyboard to give the melody a more meandering flow and opens up space for Crawford to sing about the spiritual journey.

Other songs on My Gift to You register the skills of a jazz pianist and vocalist, doing what jazz has always done: refashioning pop standards, improvising something known into something new. As many times as I’ve heard James Taylor sing “Fire and Rain,” I was ready to be underwhelmed; but Crawford’s take has a sweetness and fresh nature, much like his approach to “River of Dreams,” this time with a poetic trumpet solo from Nicholas Payton.

Crawford showcases a refined keyboard talent on an instrumental version of the Allen Toussaint classic, “Southern Nights.” This one has none of the echo chamber effects in the original, rather an easy loping melody that manages to convey a surreal sense of sunshine.

My Gift to You is a major shift from his 1995 breakout Rounder Records release, Let Them Talk, a tribute to the rhythm and blues era of his grandpa. Sugar Boy was riding high with the Cane Cutters in ’63 when he suffered brain damage after a beating by cops in Monroe who arrested the band and beat the singer in an alleged response to civil rights demonstrations of the time. The band was going to a gig. Never the same, Sugar Boy soldiered on as a gospel singer, and died last year. On that album, released when he was 20, Crawford gave a slow-drag piano to “Still in Love,” a ballad by Doc Pomus that bluesman Johnny Adams recorded most memorably. In that cut one hears now the shape of things to come. He used veteran gospel artist, the late Sammy Berfect, on a Hammond B-3 organ to give the song a rocking-the-choirs gospel style.

The contrast with Johnny Adams is striking. Adams sang with the deep heart of a bluesman, moaning for that woman who was gone, “still … in love … with youuuu!” Crawford rolls it out like a rock singer: “I’m still in love with you, oh-yes I am, yes-I-am!” One man’s blues is another man’s jump.

Davell Crawford moved to New York years ago, where he found steady work at private events. Having an economic base gives a musician a certain freedom to explore without the pressure of constantly gigging on the club circuit. He has returned to New Orleans periodically over the years. He also works with a mass choir, the Davell Crawford Singers. He took the group to Switzerland in 2007 and performed with them several times at the gospel tent during Jazz Fest this year.

The studio sessions that culminated in My Gift to You also advanced his own lyrics. “I am the Creole man,” he sings on “Creole Man,” the first cut, “I come from foreign lands to spread the news.”

This summer Crawford was back in New Orleans for a string of Tuesday nights at Snug Harbor using a jazz ensemble back up, singing tunes from My Gift to You and others from Ray Charles to Professor Longhair.

His next venture for Basin Street will be Piano in the Vaults, a gathering of pieces he recorded over many years. “A lot of it is from the New Orleans songbook,” he remarked in a phone interview from New York as we went to press. “‘Blueberry Hill,’ ‘Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans’… ‘A Song for James’ in honor of Booker and ‘Basin Street Blues.’” It pays tribute to everyone who has played black and white keys, and roots music as a whole.”

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