Caroline Davis - Alula

Label: New Amsterdam Records, 2019

Personnel - Caroline Davis: alto saxophone, voice; Matt Mitchell: Prophet 6, Modular and ARP synthesizers; Greg Saunier: drums.


Brooklyn-based alto saxophonist/composer Caroline Davis debuts Alula, an adventurous project launched in 2016 with Deerhof drummer Greg Saunier. The duo was augmented to the current trio with the inclusion of sought-after keyboardist Matt Mitchell. This 11-track collection of originals was compositionally motivated by an anterior digit on a bird’s wing and comes charged with trippy flights and landings, rotating lines and looped impressions, taut yet organic beats, and synth washes with throbbing bass notes trailing rigorous paths.

Alula” and its reverse “alulA” sound very peculiar, opening and closing the CD, respectively. The palindrome reads the same way, yet their sounds are distinct. The former, featuring Davis’ embedded vocals as a surprising layer, is deep-seated in a psychedelic avant-garde jazz on the edge of intervallic dissonance and it’s just a glimpse of what is to come. In turn, the latter, much shorter in time, displays parallel motions between saxophone and keyboards with Saunier’s unrestrictedly paving the lower level.

Inaugurated by sax and drums, “Flight” holds quite some funk at its core, advancing within a well-defined structure. Despite the energetic balance, this number doesn’t surpass “Wingbeat” in terms of danceability. Brought up with a sweeping splendor, the latter piece seems ready to ignite a fire with orbicular saxophone figures, effusive drumming, and the congruous bass conduction offered by Mitchell’s synthesizer.

Remiges” is one of my favorite pieces, starting as an ambiguous droning exercise before catapulting expressive elliptical movements with an M-base-like urgency. The audacious propulsion serves Davis and Mitchell’s improvisations, while Saunier, naturally more confined to a rhythmic support function, doesn’t hesitate to fill the role with provocative drum swoops.

Taking us to serene places, “Coverts” shines with even-tempered melody, silky harmonization, and a combination of snare drum distinctiveness and cymbal grit. It feels like a restorative tonic against the hectic excitement of tunes such as “Scapulars”, a fruitful, sometimes turbulent encounter between indie rock and avantjazz marked by the tearing passion of the saxophone, ultra-modern synth effects, and agitated drum automation providing strength.

Eclecticism is something valuable that the bandleader doesn’t want to step aside. Hence, the shape-shifting “Vortex Generation” mixes elements of folk, jazz, and electronica with taste and freedom.

Committed to moving forward as an artist, Davis makes her most daring album with Alula, pushing boundaries through a fresh, powerful material that, being willfully challenging, opens new horizons. This work will definitely attract bold listeners.

Grade  A-

Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
04 - Remiges ► 05 - Scapulars ► 08 - Vortex Generator

Caroline Davis - Heart Tonic

Label: Sunnyside Records, 2018

Personnel - Caroline Davis: alto saxophone; Marquis Hill: trumpet; Julian Shore: piano; Tamir Shmerling: bass; Jay Sawyer: drums + guests Rogerio Boccato (percussion); Benjamin Hoffmann: organ.


Alto saxophonist Caroline Davis lived a great part of her musical life in Chicago, but was recently relocated to New York. The move served as an inspiration for her new album, Heart Tonic, as well as the woes related to her father’s heart arrhythmia. The quintet she gathered has Marquis Hill on trumpet, Julian Shore on piano, Tamier Shmerling on bass, and Jay Sawyer on drums.

Manifesting a permanently genteel touch throughout, “Footloose and Fancy Free”, the opening track, is all rhythmic sophistication. Convulsive electric bass notes work in consonance with the lithe drumming, having Shore’s Fender Rhodes supporting the compelling horn improvisations. Despite the complexity of the arrangement, which thrives with shifting tempos, noble rhythmic gesticulation, and melodic lines delivered both in unison and counterpoint, one can feel the grace in Davis’ music. This gives our ears an illusion of easiness and simplicity. Admirably, nothing sounds obvious, which forces you to stop, focus, and ultimately enjoy the sumptuous progressions followed by the group.

The same principle applies to “Constructs”, the longest piece at 10:30 minutes, whose introductory synchronism between bass and piano is unerring. A double horn epiphany emphasizes the flexibility of language, after which saxophone and piano corroborate ideas until an intriguing flow, carried by the drummer’s methodical attacks, takes a sudden swinging direction. Occasionally, it seems we are hearing a big band such is the power of music. The improvisations were assigned to Hill, Shore, and the bandleader, whose motifs and eloquence mirror the logic behind her music.

Featuring Brazilian percussionist Rogerio Boccato as a special guest, “Loss” is a feel-good 4/4 post-bop ride with a slinky pulse and a great improvised moment by Davis, whose in-and-out movements spark off instinctive reactions in the pianist. After interspersing chords and single-note phrases with devotion in his individual statements, the latter enhances a final vamp magnetized by the unbridled exchanges of Davis and Hill. This sort of conversational mode is adopted once more on “Dyonisian”, a contrapuntal post-bop adventure whose stimulating give-and-take by the end has Davis and Shore as protagonists.

There’s a short interlude mounted with effusive drumming and the woozy organ sounds by Benjamin Hoffmann, another guest appearance. It separates two pieces heavily influenced by Wayne Shorter. The first one, “Fortune”, is a ballad where the drummer employs brushes for softness and the bassist delivers a responsive solo. “Penelope” is, in fact, a Shorter composition, here re-ignited with no major syncopation but an enjoyable pair of improvised moments.

Caroline Davis penned her compositions with zeal and intelligence. Tackled by open-minded musicians, they translate into a warm, cliché-free contemporary jazz that transpires confidence all around. Highly recommended.

       Grade  A-

       Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
02 - Loss ► 03 - Constructs ► 07 - Dyonisian