Reviewing David Halliday's performance on guitarist Corey Christiansen's soul jazz album Roll With It, Billy Kerr writes in Saxophone Journal,
Halliday's playing matches the music perfectly, but make no mistake, he is no ordinary R&B player. His saxophone playing and his music are at the highest levels, great dark, fat sound, wonderful time and feel, as well as a clean, fast technique. Judging from this recording, I'm sure he could play any kind of music.
And, indeed, versatility is one of Halliday's many musical strengths. The big Texas tenor R&B sound that Kerr praises also served the saxophonist well during his years on the road with blues diva E.C. Scott, gigs with the Temptations and the Four Tops, as a member of the New Orleans funk band Galactic, and on his forthcoming funk album with the Big Easy's premiere drummer Stanton Moore (also featuring Christiansen and San Francisco organist Will Blades, to be released this summer). But the variety of his musical accomplishments doesn't stop there. He's also been active as producer, composer, and professor, having produced Rotating Superstructure's alternative rock album Bouncy Castle and his erstwhile pupil Chase Baird's straight-ahead jazz album Crosscurrent (3½ stars in Downbeat). His compositions, meanwhile, have frequently been heard on CBS, HBO, ESPN and NFL Network, and on other TV networks around the world; and his academic endeavors include directing big bands at Brigham Young University, the University of Utah, and Westminster College, where he also teaches jazz history. Earlier this month he appeared as a featured soloist with the Utah Symphony, performing John Williams's knuckle-busting virtuoso piece for alto saxophone "Joy Ride," from the score of the film Catch Me If You Can.
But Halliday's deepest roots are in modern jazz, having heard his father's vinyl records of many of the tradition's greats from the time he was in his mother's womb, and as a grade-schooler having accompanied his father to San Francisco jazz clubs like Keystone Korner and the Great American Music Hall, where he listened to live performances by such jazz legends as Dexter Gordon, Max Roach, Sarah Vaughan, Zoot Sims, Tito Puente, Red Norvo, Tal Farlow, Betty Carter, Tete Montoliu, Billy Higgins, Phil Woods, Elvin Jones, Stan Getz, Al Cohn, Paquito D'Rivera, Dave McKenna, Oscar Peterson, and the Toshiko Akiyoshi/Lew Tabakin Big Band.
Having begun playing alto sax in grade school, by the time he was in junior high, young David had sufficiently impressed two San Francisco musicians (pianist Melanie Jones and bassist Bill Langlois) that they recommended he study with Joe Henderson, one of the greatest tenor saxophonists in the history of jazz, and they took it upon themselves to ask Joe if he'd take David on as a student. Joe responded that he'd decide after hearing a tape of the youngster's playing. David responded with a recording of "Jeep's Blues," doing his best Johnny Hodges imitation. After hearing the tape, Joe called David's dad and told him he heard some talent there that he'd like to help develop. When the elder Halliday asked how much the lessons would cost, Joe answered forty dollars for an hour of instruction. When David's dad expressed surprise at how little the instruction would cost, Joe replied, "Well, I think of it as planting trees." And so, for the next two years, David studied music with Joe Henderson.
"Music" is a more apt term than "saxophone" for what the youngster learned from Joe during those years. The lessons included no sheet music and Joe never once pulled out his own horn; and although he occasionally offered pointers on technique, he spent almost all their time together simply playing melodic lines on the piano, which David would repeat back on his alto (to Joe's piano accompaniment) until David had them note-for-note. As soon as he'd mastered a line, Joe would move on to another. Joe required David to tape all these lessons so that he'd have something to study between sessions (David still has all the tapes). More often than not the sessions would last longer than an hour – frequently more than two hours – but Joe never charged more than forty dollars no matter how long a lesson lasted . . . "planting trees." Recalling those lessons, Joe later told David's parents, "That boy was like a little sponge . . . just soaked up everything I had to give him." As a high school senior, Halliday would cross paths briefly with another jazz legend, when, as a member of the Monterey Jazz Festival High School All-Stars, he swapped solos with Dizzy Gillespie in a performance of Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight" on the stage of the '91 Monterey Jazz Festival.
With these roots in modern jazz, notwithstanding his other musical interests, Halliday identifies himself first and foremost as a jazz musician – an identity confirmed beyond any doubt by the album Dreamsville.
An essential component of jazz is spontaneity, and Dreamsville embodies that component at its creative best – beginning with the spur-of-the-moment decision to record the session from which the album was produced. Pianist Julian Pollack and bassist Christopher Tordini had flown from New York to Salt Lake City for one reason: to record drummer Steve Lyman's debut album Revolver. But they finished that recording ahead of schedule, leaving a three-hour vacancy in Mike Greene's Rotosonic Sound studio. Halliday, who'd been listening to the session with rapt admiration from the control room, asked Greene and the musicians if they'd like to fill the three-hour vacancy by playing another session, this time with Halliday joining them on tenor. They all eagerly agreed and in those next three hours Dreamsville was recorded. Halliday had never played with either Pollack or Tordini before then; decisions regarding intros and "outros," and who would solo when and for how long were necessarily made on the fly; and every track on the album was recorded in a single take – spontaneity! – though the subtle interplay between the musicians and the fluid elegance of the overall performances might well give the impression of an album assiduously rehearsed by instrumentalists who'd played together for years.
Choice of the album's songs was entirely Halliday's – a program, with the exception of the Ahmad Jamal-inspired rendition of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Wave," consisting entirely of ballads. When asked about this preference for ballads, Halliday mentioned Dexter Gordon's Blue Note collection of ballads as an inspiration and remarked further,
I love stretching out on ballads. They give you more time to relax and just tell a story – to explore the harmony and find what Charlie Parker called "the pretty notes" – no nervousness, nothing to prove, just immersing yourself in the beauty of the music and seeing how much feeling you can get out of a performance . . . to me that's more thrilling and more enjoyable than just about anything else.
Asked what other tenor saxophonists have influenced his ballad playing Halliday responded,
Besides Joe and Dexter . . . Ben Webster for sure, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Gene Ammons, Stan Getz, Coltrane . . . but there are influences other than tenor players . . . certainly Miles Davis . . . and Johnny Hodges, Charlie Parker, Brad Mehldau's recording of "My Romance," on his first album. But singers have probably been as influential as any instrumentalists . . . mostly Frank Sinatra, his Capitol recordings, but also Ella Fitzgerald, her Songbook albums on Verve . . . Shirley Horn, Diana Krall (for whom Halliday opened at her 2010 Red Butte Garden performance), Ray Charles . . . check out Ray's recording of "Stella By Starlight," Tony Bennett . . . his recording of "The Shadow of Your Smile" is like a laser beam right to my heart. My phrasing on ballads is probably more vocal than instrumental. I mean I'm really singing through my horn, telling a story, whether the listener knows it or not. I'm putting the emotion of a song out there because I'm feeling its meaning through its words, and I feel those words as sung by Frank or Ella or Ray or by other great singers . . . Nat Cole, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong . . . Of course I'm not the first jazz instrumentalist to admit my debt to singers. Lester Young acknowledged Billie Holiday's influence on his playing and Miles said he learned to phrase listening to Frank Sinatra . . . Coleman Hawkins liked listening to opera arias. A lot of jazz fans tend to underestimate the significance of singers in the development of jazz – and in keeping jazz alive by making it more accessible to the general public. So, I see my playing – especially my ballad playing – as paying tribute to singers, sort of singing their richly deserved praises to those with ears to hear.
Halliday's vocal approach to phrasing is evident throughout Dreamsville but perhaps most gloriously displayed on the title cut, in the spontaneous crescendo that concludes his improvisation, swelling over Pollack's shimmering accompaniment into a poignant recapitulation of Henry Mancini's urbanely lyrical melody – one of the many delicious moments that make this album worth savoring again and again.