Davina & The Vagabonds is a quartet led by Minnesota-based singer, songwriter and pianist Davina Sowers. She assembled the band in 2006 and Sugar Drops is their fourth album. I first came across them four years ago at North Sea Jazz Festival and was struck by their conspicuous talent. The band normally comprises piano, trumpet, trombone, double bass and drums but for this recording Sowers has used some top session musicians and for one of the tracks a string section as well.
Twelve of the 15 numbers are her own highly original compositions combining roots, blues, vintage New Orleans jazz, country and the Great American Songbook – all with a contemporary twist. She has a startling, chameleon-like voice, often sounding like Etta James, Janis Joplin or Billie Holiday. Despite the parallels, Sowers also has a distinctly unique approach and delivery.
She developed a serious drug habit in high school and became dependent on heroin but after periods of homelessness and terms in prison she managed to kick the habit and started the band. She says this saved her life and that she has, “worked her ass off every day since”. Some of the numbers on the album relate to these struggles with addiction and with her subsequently disjointed relationships.
Highlights are many and include the Dr. John inspired Bone Collection; the calypso style and boogie-woogie beat of Devil Horns; the Sergeant Pepperish piano and horns arrangement of Little Miss Sunshine; the Fats Waller / Louis Armstrong development of the title track; the barrelhouse blues of No Matter Where We Are; the brilliant trumpet in Magic Kisses and Goodnight; the dramatic strings and searing violin in Mr Big Talker and Sowers’s novel rendition of Sugar In My Bowl.
This is a spirited album with terrific songs, soulful vocals and an ace band that really swings.
P.S. – readers should note that I’ve reviewed the “deluxe” edition with 15 tracks here. There is another version on the market which has only 10.
Bone Collection; I Can’t Believe I Let You Go; Devil Horns; Little Miss Moonshine; Sugar Drops; Another Lonely Day; No Matter Where We Are; Mr Big Talker; Magic Kisses; Deep End; Holy Cow; Stop Playing With My Heart; I’m Gonna Take My Time; Goodnight; I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl (53.45)
Davina Lozier (v, p); Doug Lancio (g); Zack Losier (t, c); Roland Barber (tb); Jim Hoke ( cl, bar, f); Reese Wynans (org); Karen Winkelman (vn); David Davidson (vn); Betsy Lamb (via); Carole Rabinowitz (clo); Todd Philips (b); Jordan Perlson (d). Nashville 2019.
Red House Records RHR CD31