Born: July 7, 1981 Primary Instrument: Sax, alto
With a background like hers, it makes sense that Caroline Davis turned out to be such an intriguing artist. She was born in Singapore in 1981 to European parents—her father was a British engineer, her mother a Swedish actor. She was raised in a primarily African-American section of Atlanta, where she fell in love with gospel and R&B. And she spent her teens in the very different setting of a middle-class Dallas suburb, where she played saxophone in her junior high band, influenced by her parents’ love of Michael Jackson, Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and other rock and soul bands with horn sections.
Having covered so much ground geographically, she continued her travels as a student of music, going beyond the ABCs of notes and chords. After acquiring both a Bachelor of Music in Jazz and a Bachelor of Science in Psychology at the University of Texas at Arlington, she bridged those areas in acquiring a Ph.D. in Music Cognition at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Meanwhile, she pursued an accelerated kind of graduate education in music—on Chicago’s vaunted jazz scene. “My view of improvisation blossomed when I moved to Chicago,” said Davis. “Hearing Bobby Broom, Dennis Carroll, and Ron Perrillo every week was my own private version of music school.” Bobby Broom being the guitar great whose trio’s gig at Pete Miller’s Steakhouse was long one of the Windy City’s prime jazz attractions.
As revealed on her powerful and compelling debut album, Live Work & Play, Davis’s freedom of expression has deepened in the company of another outstanding Chicago guitarist, Mike Allemana, with whom she first played at the late, great tenor saxophonist Von Freeman’s celebrated jam sessions at the New Apartment Lounge. Allemana, a longtime Freeman sideman, was so impressed with her playing that he joined her quartet, as did Freeman’s bassist Matt Ferguson. “Mike suggests things that expand my harmonic vocabulary,” said Davis. “He also is interested in more challenging rhythmic concepts, so my ideas of conventional rhythm and meter have been expanded.”
She is up to any and all challenges he throws at her on Live Work & Play, released on the heels of Davis’s first appearance as a leader at the Chicago Jazz Festival. They include a tricky offbeat arrangement of the Billy Strayhorn masterpiece, “Blood Count.” It features different harmonic centers and constant shifts in and out of time. Davis transforms the deathbed classic into a lively blues lament with her rich alto sound—aware of the immortal Johnny Hodges’s playing on the original recording, but in no way indebted to it.
She also aces a free-style reading of Charlie Parker’s “Cheryl,” on which Davis and Allemana improvise over Ferguson as he plays the melody, and they trade full phrases with drummer Jeremy Cunningham.
Not to be upstaged, Davis issues her own challenges with her distinctive originals. They include a mini-suite inspired by a remarkable young autistic man she met in New Orleans whose specialty is identifying the make and model of different car rims. “Shiny Rims” features a ruminative drum solo by Cunningham, whom Davis met at Freeman’s session; Allemana’s bright chord voicings illuminate “Old Rims.” “Real Rims” is carried by the leader’s soulful, tough-edged solo.
Among her other standout compositions are “Dionysus” with its airy minimalism and artful bridging of musical sections; “Kowtow,” which Davis wrote in the key of E to fulfill the literal Chinese act of “paying respect by kneeling and bowing” in the face of a musical challenge; and “Craftsmanship and Emptiness,” which addresses Davis’s efforts to become more patient as an artist and person.
Allemana, whose own bands include the funk-driven Regulators and gospel vocal group Come Sunday, also brings strong political and social views to the mix. “The Academic Suite, Part 1,” a slowly lit tune that features some of Davis’s warmest as well as most pointed playing, was inspired by DePaul University’s treatment of popular political science professor Norman Finkelstein. In 2007, he was denied tenure based on research of his that was critical of Israel.
“This record is a representation of the artist’s struggle to live, work, and play,” she writes in the CD notes. “I believe that patience is the guide through this process, but I’m constantly working to attain it. I find a bounty of relief in the words of 13th-century poet Rumi: ‘Workers rush toward some hint of emptiness, which they then start to fill. Their hope, though, is for emptiness, so don’t think you must avoid it. It contains what you need!’”
Davis, who counts Wayne Shorter, Charlie Parker, and Chicago native Lee Konitz among her prime musical influences, settled in Chicago in 2004 to pursue her Ph.D. Her dissertation looked at the intricate collaborations musicians form in a scene, and related those connections to the ways they hear music. “I try to let all that stuff go when I play,” she said with a laugh. “The more you let thoughts go and just listen, the better you play.
One of the distinguishing traits of Chicago for musicians is its openness to diverse sounds. Surrounded by stalwart North Side players such as Broom, Carroll, Perrillo, John Wojciechowski, Geof Bradfield, and Dana Hall, as well as Fred Anderson, Avreeayl Ra, Nicole Mitchell, and other veterans of the South Side’s vaunted Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, she was exposed to myriad approaches to improvising.
Like so many local standout players before her, Davis has not restricted herself to any one style or genre. She has teamed with bassist Matthew Golombisky and drummer Quin Kirchner in the free improvising trio Pedway (which recently recorded its second album), and regularly performs in hip-hop, reggae, and R&B outfits. Recently she recorded a radical vocal version of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” with Elliot Ross, who works regularly with producer Hank Shocklee. In 2005, Davis received the Distinguished Graduate Student Award for her presentation on jazz communication at the Performance Matters conference in Portugal. In 2006, she received a Down Beat outstanding soloist award and was selected as one of five young jazz musicians to play with Sisters in Jazz, a program administered by the now-defunct International Association for Jazz Education devoted to the mentorship of women in jazz. In 2011, she played at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC as part of the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead Program. It brings together young emerging artists for two weeks of intense training with distinguished faculty, including George Cables, Curtis Fuller, Winard Harper, Nathan Davis, Chip Jackson, and Carmen Lundy.
Davis remains in debt to her band director in high school, Bill Centera, who introduced her to jazz—mostly big band music by such greats as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Lionel Hampton. She also credits her college band director, Bill Snodgrass, for exposing her to progressive favorites of his including Stan Kenton, Buddy Rich, Oliver Nelson, and Thad Jones/Mel Lewis.
In high school and college, however, “improvising wasn’t the central concern of our rehearsals,” she said. “I learned about the history of jazz music and listened mostly to big band music—being surrounded by the ever-powerful University of North Texas and their nine big bands!—but not the intricacies of playing over chord changes.” It wasn’t until she attended the Litchfield Jazz Camp in Connecticut, where she is now a junior faculty member, that she approached improvisation.
She may be proudest of her “degree” from the New Apartment Lounge. “I learned a lot from Von, about trying to make a musical statement instead of just stringing together phrases, about being sensitive to the other musicians, not playing too much, concentrating on the melody. I was really fortunate to have that experience. He was just so encouraging to me. And it’s a dream to play with Mike and Matt, who are a generation ahead of me and have so much to share, and Jeremy. I'm always excited to see what we'll do next.”
Awards:Sisters in Jazz (2006) Downbeat outstanding soloist (2007) Betty Carter Jazz Ahead Program (2011)
“All in all, proof that there is superb jazz still emerging from America's Second City.” - Jon Turney, Londonjazz.blogspot.co.uk, 2012
But if you've heard Davis in the past year, you already know that her own playing provides all the validation she needs. - Peter Margasak, Chicago Reader, 2012