Caroline Davis – Heart Tonic (2018)

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The last time we checked in on what jazz saxophonist and composer Caroline Davis was up to, she was just getting settled into New York as she told a longing look back at the dynamic and wide open jazz scene in Chicago that she had just left. Doors: Chicago Storylines (2015) was no mere tribute, it was an artful education of why the environment that nurtured her for so many years mattered to her and why it should matter to anyone who was enriched by the sounds they produced. If it might appear that Davis raises her game when there’s a real personal stake in the topic, then it’s good news that her next record Heart Tonic is also built around a topic near and dear to her. This time it’s about her father and his recently diagnosed heart arrhythmia condition.

Her deep devotion toward studying any topic that helps to understand her world better — whether it’s music cognition in which she earned a PhD or the local Chicago jazz scene that shaped her as a musician — is the same curiosity that led her to intensely research the human heart from a scientific standpoint. And just as she turned investigative journalism into art for her last project, she’s adroitly making art from scientific knowledge, using the unique pulses, rhythms and cycles associated with the body’s cardiovascular system.

Being that Caroline Davis is already a composer capable of interesting complexity, it’s a tall order to fill but she found capable hands to help her carry it out. For Heart Tonic Caroline Davis leads a combo that’s an embarrassment of talent: Berklee guys Julian Shore (piano, keyboards) and Tamir Shmerling (acoustic & electric basses), Chicago rising star Marquis Hill (trumpet), and the in-demand drummer who helped get Davis noticed in NYC, Jay Sawyer (drums).

There are a lot of moving pieces to these songs and they don’t always move at the same tempo. Yet, it still sounds very much together and Shmerling’s highly original patterns are usually found at the heart of the synergy. Consider for instance “Footloose and Fancy Free,” which rides easily on top of a twisty electric bass figure, while Davis devised some striking patterns that Hill and her play together. The odd-metered repeating figure that underpins “Constructs” is handled by both Shmerling and Shore this time, going seemingly against the grain of the drums. Eventually, though, the band swings and Davis revels in it, as her sprightly solo attests. The rhythm section is churning some funky stuff underneath on “Dionysian, spotlighted by Davis and Shore trading fours.

“Fortune” sounds like one of the nocturnal, sophisticated ballads Wayne Shorter crafted with regularity during the mid-60’s. So maybe it’s no coincidence that Shorter’s “Penelope” gets a reading, imaginatively redone with a bass line roughly resembling a heartbeat that adds energy and sacrificing none of its expressiveness. Further inspired by the great tenorman, Caroline Davis sports a soulful side of her alto sax for the urbane “Loss,” buttressed by guest Rogerrio Boccato’s percussion and followed by Shore’s accomplished piano.

The hushed atmosphere make “Air” a wind-down tune but one featuring a pretty piano showcase from Shore. Boccato’s tuneful percussion adds an exotic flavor to the serpentine stroll of “Ocean Motion,” where Sawyer’s terrific kit work throughout the whole album gets rewarded with an extensive feature that concludes the song.

You won’t gain any academic knowledge about the human heart from listening to Heart Tonic, but it’s unmistakable that Caroline Davis invested all of her heart into this project. Which makes it easy to whole-heartedly recommend this sterling release.

Expect to see Heart Tonic for sale on March 23rd, 2018 by Sunnyside Records.


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 jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, 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 https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron

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