Caroline Davis is a true Renaissance woman: a singer, a storyteller, a saxophonist, a scholar, a teacher, and more. This Thursday she performs with her quintet at the Jazz Gallery; we spoke with her on the phone about her upcoming performances, and her new experiments in rhythm, neuron-tracking, and more.
The Jazz Gallery: You’ve performed with a quartet in the past. What prompted the transition to a quintet?
Caroline Davis: I really wanted to push myself to write for two melodic voices, with harmony behind it, which is kind of another step for me, in terms of my own composition. I wanted to add another voice. It’s really my own goal of adding another voice, and I like trumpet, I’ve always wanted to have a trumpet player in my band. I guess maybe it also comes from hearing Cannonball Adderly playing with his brother Nat Adderly in his quartet, hearing that sound. I had that sound in my head and wanted to incorporate that sound into my music.
TJG: And you’re a singer and a saxophonist too, in your bands, right?
CD: Yeah, but in this context I’m just going to be playing saxophone.
TJG: Can you talk a little bit about the way you incorporate history in your music? You’ve done some work featuring storytelling.
CD: The album I came out with in November was kind of an homage to this community in Chicago that mentored me. I wanted to know where they came from, and how they found influence when they were my age. So now those musicians who mentored me, they’re in their 50s, their later 50s, and I wanted to know what their stories were from my age standpoint. So that was the reason why I wrote that music.
Nowadays, though, I feel like some of the music I’m writing is coming from a different place. I can’t necessarily verbalize where that place is… I’ve written two new pieces for this show. Those two new pieces are more interested in rhythm, and transpositions between rhythms, metric modulations, and this way of superimposing a different meter on top of a standard 4/4. I’m more interested in rhythm these days. But I think there’s a longstanding history of people being interested in rhythm. I have been reading the composer, Elliot Carter, who cared a lot about rhythm, I read some of his works and looked at some of his music. Steve Coleman has always been a huge influence on me, historically, and I’ve been listening to his music for years now but trying to figure out what’s going on more specifically in his music. I’m trying to look a little deeper into the input I’ve had for years, so I guess you could say I’ve been incorporating history in that way, but it’s a little different than before.
TJG: With your rhythmic explorations, do you start by scoring it, or by feeling the rhythm you want and then figuring out how to notate it?
CD: The latter, feeling and then notating. Sometimes that takes a little longer than I’d like, but it feels more natural that way, feeling and then notating. I write it from there.
TJG: How do you feel your identities as a scholar and a performer interact?
CD: I always try to do a lot of research. Like going with that theme of rhythm– reading what people have written about rhythm; there’s a lot of scholars who have written about superimposition of polymeter in music theory journals, so I checked that out. I know how to look for articles that are relevant to the way I want to compose. Also, when I was in graduate school, I was taught that if I was interested in a scholar, I should contact them. I still do that these days; Steve Coleman for example, I contact him and ask him a lot of questions. Sometimes people are too busy to answer my questions, but sometimes they’ll take the time to answer. So those are a couple things that I was taught to do, and I still use those ways of being, and of getting in touch with people who I’m interested in.
In the future also I’m trying to incorporate this idea of the way music is represented in the brain, trying to represent that better. So that I can potentially write music that complements that. Our brains interpret music in certain ways, and it’s not the easiest to understand the ways that our brains interpret music, but I want to try to represent that in a piece of music. If our neurons respond to a pitch in the brain in a certain way, I want to see if I can try to write a piece of music that eventually describes how the brain interprets music. Something that musically represents the way it looks: I want to explain the way the brain interprets music through music. I’m trying to figure out a way to do that, but I’m still learning a lot more about neuron response.
I have a couple friends who are working on projects where they write music based on the response of the brain. A friend of mine has played a piece where they hook up electrodes to her scalp and she’s interacting with her brain; the sounds that are emanating from her brain– we can hook up a system that measures the response of the brain and turns that into sound, and then it powers that through a speaker, and she’s playing along with that, which is really cool. I’m really interested in that kind of thing—she had a really good time doing that piece.
TJG: You have a longstanding relationship to Chicago, and you moved to New York more recently; could you talk about your relationship to the cities?
CD: Chicago was an incredible place to live and make music; there’s such a rich history of improvisers and saxophone players who are from Chicago and who go back there a lot. I was actually back there two weeks ago and was like, wow, this place is so amazing. I go back fairly often, not as much as I used to, but about three or four times a year to play gigs and connect with the people who are there. A lot of my friends still live there, and I love the community.
The reason I moved to New York was because I wanted to live here, and I think there really isn’t a better jazz scene in the world. And many people know that, because they come here for that purpose, to hear jazz. It pushes me really hard, I get pushed more intensely by living in New York than I have anywhere else. I feel like the next saxophone player’s already waiting, and playing incredibly, and I have to live up to that standard, play to a higher standard.
TJG: You’re also a teacher. Has that affected the way you compose or perform?
CD: Actually, recently I’ve been noticing how the simplicity of music can affect a student. So I guess I’ve been trying to incorporate more simplicity in my music, in rhythmic and harmonic ways. I think people can handle really complex rhythms better than they can complex harmonies, and I’ve learned that through really young students. I was teaching at the Litchfield Jazz Camp last week, and prior to that I was teaching at the Stanford Jazz Workshop. It’s really fun to interact with beginners to jazz, these twelve- and thirteen-year-olds. They haven’t played jazz that long, and so they’re just trying to understand it at the basic level. I learn so much about myself from that; I find myself explaining myself at a certain level and the kids are like, “what are you talking about?” so I have to go back and explain that part of it. I was explaining the modes of a major scale and some of the kids didn’t understand how minor and major scales were related, so I had to go back and explain relative majors and minors… you just have to step back so they can understand everything before you can go forward to the more complicated thing.
I think teaching in general is very helpful to musicians. You can work with newcomers and people who don’t know a lot, and you find better ways of explaining yourself. That helped me know myself better.
The Caroline Davis Quintet plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, November 5th, 2015. The group features Ms. Davis on alto saxophone, Philip Dizack on trumpet, Julian Shore on piano, Tamir Shmerling on bass, and Jay Sawyer on drums. Sets are at 7:30 & 9:30 p.m. $15 general admission ($10 for members) for each set. FREE for SummerPass holders. Purchase tickets here.