A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Matthew Sprung

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Here in New York, the talented altosaxophonist Caroline Davis is bringing the history of Chicago jazz to life. She will be bringing her quartet, which also includes Julian Shore on piano, Tamir Shmerling on bass, and Jay Sawyer on drums, to The Gallery next Thursday, November 5th, coinciding with the release of her new album, Doors: Chicago Storylines.

Born in Singapore, Caroline moved to Atlanta, then Texas, and settled for a time in Chicago where she studied music cognition and received a Ph.D. from Northwestern. She became entrenched in the Chicago jazz scene and put together her quartet and got the chance to feature with the great Von Freeman. Caroline moved to New York just two years ago where she’s been getting on the circuit. You can catch her at Fatcat with Billy Kaye every Monday at 12:30am. Jazz Speaks spoke with Caroline over the phone recently about her upcoming album. 

The Jazz Gallery: This show is technically a release show for your new album, Doors: Chicago Storylines. How did you come upon the idea to weave spoken stories through the different compositions on the album?

Caroline Davis: So, for this album I tried to come up with the idea… I just moved here from Chicago two years ago. When I was going to school there at Northwestern as a graduate, we had to come up with our own class to teach. So I taught mine on the history of Chicago jazz and I went through all the time periods that I could find information on starting with Louis Armstrong in the 20’s… Nat King Cole was a big part of the 40’s. But when I got to the 80’s and 90’s there was such a lack of information. So I got as many [jazz] articles  from that time period to show the students but in order to get a better idea I actually invited a bunch of people from that time to talk about where they played, who they played with, and really what the scene was like. It was so cool, the kids were super excited about it. They were like, ‘we should do this for every decade’ but I reminded them we could only get, you know, people who are still alive. If I could get Louis Armstrong I would. I had the idea in 2007 and I really wanted to honor these cool stories and make connections to the people and the history of that time in Chicago so I started to interview these people, which was from 2012-2013 and I wrote all the music then based on these stories, so that’s kind of the long answer about the album.

TJG: Did you try to translate each individual narrative into its own song or did you take everything you heard about the scene over that twenty year span and try to paint that bigger picture?

CD:Well, I have this story. There’s this one area of town on Lincoln Avenue that used to be really populated with clubs in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I heard this theme in my head when I first heard a story from Art Davis, and he’s on a track where he’s walking up and down that street and being able to first go into one club, then he crosses the street and into another club, then down the block to another. So I took that and got this theme, kind of dramatic. And some times it was just certain phrases, like Von Freeman at The New Apartment—I used to go to that jam session every Tuesday night. He would always say this phrase, “Where my horses at?” so I took that and looked at it as a grouping of five notes. So I took the literal phrase and transformed it and looked at it as melodic, where those five syllables became the five-note beat and for the melody too and looped it, more specifically.

TJG: Doors has oral narratives focusing on the Chicago Jazz scene from 1980-2000. What differences or similarities have you noticed between those 2 decades and the following 15 years up until now?

CD: Yeah, there were inherent differences between those times. The people I talked to had connections to an earlier time and previous generation of players. Those older jazz musicians, Johnny Board for one, I felt like they were more connected, you know? Some of them played with guys like Louis Armstrong and it’s so crazy. These guys have these more old school connections to the distant past, which I felt disconnected to. But because I got to talk to these people and connect with them, now I feel more a part of that. Whereas the people in the 90’s were more active, I feel more connected to them personally, like Ted Sirota, the drummer of the band Sabertooth who still play at the Green Mill, one of the most well known jazz clubs in Chicago. I would go to see them on Saturday nights. It’s nice to see the older musicians go through the same stuff I’m going through, to make that connection and see that similarity.

TJG: You’ve stated Von Freeman as one of your main influences. What’s your experience with him?

CD: I think the strongest thing for me about Von was his individuality and how unique he was as a musician. Like, every time I heard a recording or went to see Von, you knew it was him, it couldn’t be anybody else but him. I could pinpoint him on any recording. He had that grit and that dirt that I hear from a lot of tenor players that come out of Chicago. Clifford Jordan, Eddie Harris. Even Johnny Griffin, who was very polished, still had that sound. But Von still had that unique sound but wasn’t polished at all. I would question, you know, what is this sound that he’s playing right now? Then I’d go back and listen to the tapes or my own recordings, there were things I’d never heard before, ways he would improvise, I’d never heard before, maybe Steve Coleman and Greg Warren, definitely influenced by Von. He didn’t really give me much advice personally. He was very encouraging and invited me up to the stage before the jam session would start. He did that with me one time and I thought that was a huge honor, you’re featuring, and to get to play with him is really a once in a lifetime experience. So I wouldn’t say I necessarily got advice, he gave me like, oh, you should work on your timing. It was more watching him, how he interacted with the crowd. Even the way he shook my hand. He would take your hand and massage it sort of – he had such good, supportive vibe.


Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Unlike other 22-year-olds fresh out of college and wondering what to do next, María Grand has a full schedule and a full mind of ideas. The tenor-sax player has an impressive breadth of experience having played alongside Steve Coleman, Roman Filiu, Doug Hammond and more.

María has performed at The Jazz Gallery before but next Thursday, October 29th, will mark the first time she brings her María Grand Quartet to our stage along with David Bryant on piano, Pablo Menares on bass, and Craig Weinrib on drums. In addition to jazz, María feeds her artistic appetite through painting and writing poetry which can be found on her website. Jazz Speaks sat down with her recently in a downtown Brooklyn cafe, where María sipped an herbal tea, having confessed to have recently given up coffee.

The Jazz Gallery: So you have your first lead show at The Jazz Gallery next week. How does it feel and is this your first time leading a quartet?

María Grand: It’s good, yeah. I’ve lead a quartet before but this is the first time in a while. I would say in the last year I’ve been mostly concentrating on being a sideman. I’ve played with a trio before because I didn’t really want to have a harmonic instrument, you know, a piano, because a lot of times with a piano you can feel boxed in. But the thing about David [Bryant] is it’s the complete opposite. He’s very tasteful and has such a great ear that I never feel boxed in. He really knows how to comp.

TJG: That’s great. Can you tell us anything about the set list you’re preparing for the show?

MG: There’s no set list. I never do a set list unless I had to for certain reasons. I like to have the freedom to be able to pick a song in the moment and not predetermine what song I’m gonna play. I like to mix and match songs, to start one song then mix in another, that way they can morph and transform into each other—a lot of people do that, but it’s hard with a set list. I actually might play the same song twice so the first time is just going to be a piece of it, the second time will be the whole thing.

TJG: In an interview you gave to TJG earlier this year, you compared your music to, “a window into our internal weather.” What’s your internal weather been feeling like in preparing and composing for your quartet?

MG: Well I’m really excited about this show because I’m free to choose the direction I want to go in. Even though it’s a great honor to play with the people I have gotten to play with, I’m excited about be able to follow my own ideas and just go wherever I want to go this time. We might do a standard or two but not in the traditional way—but I’ve been composing for this using orchestration and thinking actually about how to use different colors. I think of different instruments as having different colors, you know, and there’s really infinite ways to use the instruments and combine them. Maybe the upper register of the piano might go well with the lower register of the tenor saxophone. So I’ve been thinking about these things in terms of the orchestration.

TJG: You’ve had some great mentors since moving to New York – Steve Coleman, Roman Filiu, Doug Hammond. Have you received any similar or overlapping advice from all these guys?

MG: Well, Doug really stresses melody and the ear. I would say I’ve heard the same thing in a similar way coming from Steve. A lot of people don’t talk about melody because we don’t really have the words to describe it. We lack the nomenclature, so you have to just feel it. Different people have different approaches to studying it. Doug’s advice was to use melodies and told me to actually learn one song each day. We were recently talking about it and he said you don’t have to learn the song to memorize it but you have to understand its melody. So when you create a melody you don’t want to be stumbling. You want to be able to have a clear idea in your head and to say that idea right away. Steve told me a similar thing, he said to learn melodies from all over the world and see how they are constructed.

TJG: That’s great advice. Speaking of traveling the world, are there any defining characteristics about New York that have influenced you?

MG: New York is great because of the incredibly high technical level of everybody. Most people can fly around their horns, you know, even at jam sessions. But it’s the combination of players that are both such highly technical players and also extremely creative, trying to do something new, that’s extremely rare to have in the same place. You mentioned Roman Filiu before and he’s an example of being very accomplished technically but also being really creative and always striving to do new things. The stimulation of being around all these players influences me all the time.

TJG: While you’re improvising, do you feel like you’re leading, reacting, or having more of a dynamic back-and-forth conversation?

MG: I think it’s a dynamic conversation but there’s definitely a leading aspect to it. Basically if you want to take the music somewhere you should act on it. But every time you play it’s different. It might be one time where you play and it’s a very dynamic conversation between two players, or another time one person is clearly leading. It’s always a conversation unless you’re playing alone. Even then, a lot of great players have a conversation with themselves, a kind of an internal dialogue, within their own improvisations. I think it’s many different layers—everybody is interacting with everybody at the same time. I think I read a Coltrane interview where he said he taught his cousin to listen to specific things in songs, first the bass, then the drums, then the saxophone, so it’s really a conversation between each instruments regardless of who’s “leading” the conversation. It’s a matter of common understanding and common vocabulary. You have to understand the other players and they have to understand you.