Caroline Davis Quartet – Doors: Chicago Storylines (2015)

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The city of Chicago has made headlines lately for some tragic reasons, but none of that should obscure the whole lot of good going on there, especially its vital contributions to American culture. And one very bright spot is its vibrant jazz scene, which has been vital for jazz in general ever since Louis Armstrong moved up there from New Orleans in the 1920s.

Chicago’s jazz scene had gone through many transformations since then, such as the emergence in the late 60s of the AACM and its subsequent influence on progressive and outside jazz. But another current was emerging in the 80s and 90s, one that largely shaped the city’s jazz scene to what it is today. Saxophonist Caroline Davis was a member of the Chicago scene until moving to New York recently but discovered while there that the documentation of this piece of history has been lacking so she set out to fill in the gaps herself.

For her newest release Doors: Chicago Storylines (Eyes & Ears Records), Davis assumes a dual roles as both journalist and musician, interviewing the musicians who were there and collecting their firsthand accounts. She blended these interviews with original music performed by her quartet (Davis, alto saxophone; Mike Allemana, guitar; Matt Ferguson, bass; Jeremy Cunningham, drums).

My own preconceptions told me that there was going to be a lot of discussion about Hal Russell with his NRG Ensembles, the rise of Ken Vandermark, Fred Anderson’s mid-90s comeback and the emergence of the various Chicago Underground groups right at the end of this span, but Davis digs much deeper than these nationally-known acts. The primary protagonists in this musical documentary of sorts were generally the guys who had been not only steady fixtures at the city’s various, ever-churning jazz clubs, but the ones who rarely ventured out beyond those environs, quietly nurturing younger generations and dutifully serving as the custodians of the Chicago sound. Local pianist and educator Joan Hickey pinpoints the real importance of these often unsung heroes during the track “Fields” when she observed, “I realize the value of having the same musicians that you can build upon the relationship.”

Davis didn’t collect information by passively Googling for it; she did real legwork by personally recording personal reminiscences from other musicians who were a part of this era, from the likes of Art Davis, Ron Perrillo, Bobby Broom, Eric Hochberg and Von Freeman. The pianist Perrillo, along with Russ Johnson (trumpet) and Katinka Kleijn (cello) guest on some of the instrumental tracks and passages woven into these conversations.

“Golden Era” refers to a comment from the interviews stating that “we were in the golden era and we didn’t even know it.” A mishmash of comments spoke of the mentors the interview subjects remember playing with, and the distinction between the “northside” and “southside” of town. The brief music that follows revels in the unconventional spirit of the music of that place and time, Davis using her voice to trace the trail of notes from Kleijn’s cello.

“The Hubs: Up North, Down South” and into “Little Fort Road” chronicled the jazz clubs from both sides of town. Davis weaves her music into it sparingly. “Lincoln Road” is the first beginning-to-end performance of Davis’ band on this disc, with Johnson sharing horn duties with the leader, and the trumpeter brings the song to a rousing peak powered underneath by Cunningham’s muscular drive.

“Lin” refers to Lin Halliday, the beloved saxophonist who after his arrival to the Windy City in 1980 became a staple attraction at jazz clubs there until his death in 2000, perfectly overlapping the time frame and scene of this album’s mission. Following some fond memories of Halliday, the Quartet launches into a heartfelt ballad that could serve as a paean to the late sax player, highlighted by Perrillo’s affecting piano.

Hard bop Chicago tenor sax legend Von Freeman is the topic of the chatter for “Rounds: For The Horses,” while the musicians pondered what distinguished jazz in the city, even, again, distinguishing the “northside” versus the “southside” on the track “Chicago Sound?”. Davis’ music that follows seems to make the point that whatever that sound is, a groove is involved.

“Golden Era of Elders” starts with a sax/guitar figure ahead of some discussions about some of the old vets who were still active during this period, such as Eddie Johnson, Johnny Board, Robert Barry and Kenny Prince. Allemana puts in some tasty licks remindful of Broom for the buoyant swinger “Delighted.”

On the concluding “Doors,” the interviewees compares how the scene then differed from the present scene, which as one of them astutely obverses, differs depending on the viewpoint of the one making the observation. Some of them looked back wistfully at a better time, while a few noted improvements since then. One comment seems to give all the justification needed for Caroline Davis’ project: “the yearning to do more is completely validated by what came before.” Doors: Chicago Storylines helps to make sure we know what came before.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on,, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at
S. Victor Aaron

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