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 | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Gorgeously Translucent, Welcome Return For Pianist Marta Sanchez

Before the 2020 lockdown, pianist Marta Sanchez built an avid following for her incisively melodic compositions and earned a reputation for incandescent performances throughout New York and beyond. Fast forward to 2022: she was able to pull a first-class band together and make a new album, SAAM (Spanish American Art Museum), streaming at Bandcamp.

Empowerment is a recurrent theme here, no surprise considering the mass disempowerment of the past two years. The first track is The Unconquered Vulnerable Areas: a glimmer from Sanchez’s piano and then the band are off on a determined, loose-limbed scramble fueled by bassist Rashaan Carter and drummer. Allan Mednard. A strange and disquieting dichotomy appears between the chords of the pianist and alto saxophonist Alex LoRe’s off-center phrasing, as if the two are in completely different realities. A societal parable maybe? LoRe straightens out in a dip to harmonize with tenor saxophonist Roman Filiu, then Sanchez takes it out with an anthemic, bristling coda.

A similar sax/piano contrast reappears in the ballad Dear Worthiness: spare. questioning introductory harmonies expand to a sober triangulation, LoRe’s long solo rising from the mist to balletesque leaps as Sanchez punches harder and then delivers a nimble, glistening solo of her own.

Does the title track relate to Goya, or Sequeiros, or Kahlo? Good question. Picasso, maybe? It’s little contiguous for cubism, Sanchez’s purposeful forward drive setting up a similarly edgy Filiu solo as Mednard takes a machete to the underbrush, LoRe resuming a persistent bad-cop role.

The Eternal Stillness is hardly a study in calm, with wistfully soaring sax harmonies and an almost frantically clustering Carter solo. Sanchez follows her wryly spaced chords beneath with a characteristically, gorgeously allusive, Romantically-tinged concluding solo.

She expands the group with Camila Meza on vocals and guitar, Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet and Charlotte Greve adding subtle keys in Marivi, a tender, understatedly poignant tribute to her mom, whom she lost during the lockdown. Gentle trumpet spirals and eventually a glisteningly determined solo from Sanchez testify to what was obviously a deep love between the two women.

The album’s most trad number is If You Could Create It, Filiu’s steady. smoky flutters over Sanchez’s crescendoing modal chords: her chromatically-charged, gleaming solo afterward is one of the album’s high points. The Hard Balance – a work/life dichotomy – seems like a tough one for Sanchez, judging from the song’s moody, slow sway: LoRe gets to be good cop this time. Carter tries to get the party started but this crew is dealing with issues.

December 11th – the day Sanchez lost her mom – is the most serious of them, memorialized via a spare fugue, striking tango inflections, and an maticulously articulated Sanchez solo built around the opening theme. The album’s final cut is When Dreaming Is the Only – the only what? Sanchez makes her point, orchestrating a series of increasingly close, febrile exchanges between Filiu and LoRe over a constantly shifting backdrop with what could be a sly Terry Riley reference.

It’s early in the year to be talking about the best jazz albums of 2022, but right now this is on the shortlist.

March 15, 2022 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment