Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Haunted, Anxious Beauty in Saxophonist Caroline Davis’ Magnum Opus

As if the plandemic wasn’t tortuous enough, alto saxophonist Caroline Davis had lost her father the previous year. To cope with her grief, she read poetry and psychology and began writing what would become her most intense and ambitiously symphonic album to date, Portals, Volume I: Mourning, streaming at Bandcamp. She’s got a two-night stand at Smalls on July 22 and 23, with sets at 7:30 and around, leading an adventurously swinging quartet with Matt Mitchell on piano. Cover is $25 cash at the door.

Davis is as much at home in the postbop tradition as she is in the avant garde, although her compositions gravitate toward the latter, with a sometimes thorny, sometimes airily crystallized approach. The new album is stunningly in the here and now, and although a dark undercurrent persists, there’s a steely resilience and guarded hope in Davis’ acerbically shapeshifting themes and variations as well as her frequent spoken-word interludes. In the dead of 2020, she couldn’t find a studio in town to record it, so she had to go Westchester…and then had the misfortune to release it just as the Hochul regime crushed the arts in New York once again last fall. This album deserves to be vastly better known.

The lineup embraces the adventurous sweep of the music. Alongside Davis are Marquis Hill on trumpet, Julian Shore on piano, Chris Tordini on bass, Allan Mednard on drums and a rotating string quartet of violinists Mazz Swift and Josh Henderson, violist Joanna Mattrey and cellist Mariel Roberts.

They open with Yesterday’s Seven Thousand Years, the whole ensemble circling uneasily until the bandleader introduces a calm that rises with an unsettled, loose-limbed, quasi-funk groove. Mednard takes on a slinkier latin groove as Davis and Hill’s harmonies reach an angst-fueled peak.

Hop On Hop Off is the first part of a diptych, inspired by a father-daughter bus tour, the string quartet digging in hard bordering on frantic on the album’s opening theme, Roberts delivering a gritty, aptly frenetic solo. A lively conversation between Davis and Hill over insistent, loopy strings concludes what must have been a pretty wild ride. The second part, Highlighter Hearts refers to the notes Davis’ dad would hastily write her, in highlighter, during a busy workday. This time it’s Shore who runs the loop with anxiously soaring harmonies overhead. Davis’ bounding but allusively aching solo packs a wallop that stings long after she recedes for gentler clusters over the sweep of the strings.

The  improvisational string miniature On Stone reflect the abrasiveness of rock, and Davis’ fondness for meditating in nature, How to Stop a Drop of Water From Evaporating – put it in the ocean, as Davis’ father would say – coalesces into a funky rhythm out of an explosive violin solo. “Brown relics touch the belly of my sorrow,” Davis intones.

Acephalous Placebo, reflecting the elder Davis’ interest in epigenetic healing, has sax and trumpet returning to the tense, troubled opening theme, Hill choosing his spots in a bright solo over Shore’s flickering incisions, the piano’s eerie accents coloring the next disquieted variation. Respite, a surreal, music box-like miniature introduces Left, where Davis traces a narrative of childhood abandonment – clearly, this was a conflicted parent/child relationship. The jagged, raga-like solo violin intro only hints at the insistent agitation and moments of horror, individual voices following a series of split-second handoffs over a tense pulse.

A loopy string piece, Faced, precedes the album’s big epic, The Inflated Chariot Awaits Defeat, Davis elegantly picking up solo where the quartet leave off, then receding with clenched-teeth turmoil as Shore enters solemnly. It’s a reflection on pride and its implications, rising to a roller-coaster ride of sax. trumpet and bass solos and the most trad number here.

Davis closes the album with Worldliness and Non-Duality, a reflection on her father’s last words to her, serene orchestral grandeur juxtaposed against the relentlessly troubled initial theme. This is an absolutely brilliant, intricately conceived album that will resonate with anyone who’s suffered over the past twenty-eight months and counting.

 

 

 

 

July 19, 2022 - Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: