Singapore born (to European parents), Atlanta and Dallas raised, and now ensconced in Chicago’s thriving North side jazz scene, Caroline Davis is an alto saxophonist whose taste in music has evolved from the rock & soul acts of Michael Jackson and Steely Dan to Stan Kenton, Oliver Nelson, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, mentor Von Freeman and contemporary stars like Bobby Broom and Dana Hall, as well as living legends Wayne Shorter and Lee Konitz. Davis’ alto, to my ears, sounds much influenced by Konitz, as well as the broadly expressive tone and articulation of Kenny Garrett.
Dr. Davis (she earned a PhD. in Music Cognition from Northwestern University) is all set to release her debut album, called Live Work & Play. It’s an assimilation of the rich and varied experiences she had having traversed over so many places both physically and musically, distilled into a unified style that nonetheless allows her the freedom to attack each song with a different strategy. For this date, she assembled a quartet with fellow Chicago jazz practitioners Mike Allemana (guitar), Matt Ferguson (bass) and Jeremy Cunningham (drums).
It’s virtually impossible for any jazz saxophonist to escape the overpowering influence of John Coltrane, and Davis makes some nods to the spirituality and natural beauty of his transcendent, 60s style, but on “Kowtow” she puts her own touch to it with a more contemporary styled chorus. “Craftsmanship And Emptiness, For Rumi” also recalls ‘Trane, but more because of Cunningham’s Elvin Jones gait. The melody itself is emblematic of Davis’ ability to build one that’s esoteric and alluring at once. Allemana’s simple, uncluttered single lines are just right for the song, too.
Davis might be a North Side performer, but that doesn’t mean she hadn’t picked up on some of the abstractions and shape shifting approaches championed by the AACM crowd on the South Side. You can find some lean, spatial constructions like her own “Dionysus,” where she builds her own harmonic area while Allemana find his own, and the two overlap in an interesting way. Maybe the most interesting arrangement comes from “The Academic Freedom Suite, Part I” which is off-metered and the melody largely stripped down to elliptical bass line. Following a thoughtful guitar solo, Davis and Allemana cooperate well together in harmony, tandem and unison.
Charlie Parker’s bebop nugget “Cheryl” is re-harmonized a bit while remaining true to its blues basics, and Davis negotiates the tricky changes like it’s no big deal. The other cover comes from a reimagining of Billy Strayhorn’s “Blood Count,” which gets a gorgeous reading from Davis’ silky alto sax lines.
Good songs, imaginative arrangements and fine support. But what makes Live Work & Play a solid debut comes from the alto saxophone of Caroline Davis herself. Never overplaying or forgetting about melody, Davis is an improviser who sounds like she’s been around the block a few times. Not surprising, given her worldly roots.
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