“Jazz is a collection of oral histories,” writes composer, saxophonist, and educator Caroline Davis in the liner notes of “Doors: Chicago Storylines,” her previous album. “We should strive to share more of them.” Whether those stories are as complex as an entire musical culture or as focused as a single musical gesture, Davis uses those stories to open musical doors, reframe concepts, and ask questions.
This week, Davis will be bringing her band to The Jazz Gallery for the release of her latest album, Heart Tonic (Sunnyside Records). The band features an energetic lineup of Noah Preminger on tenor saxophone, Julian Shore on piano, Tamir Shmerling on bass, and Jay Sawyer on drums, with Davis leading the band on alto saxophone. Davis has spoken with the Jazz Speaks blog several times, always bringing insight and observations spanning social, scientific, and musical realms. This time was no exception, as our conversation ranged from heartbeats and brain signals to swing and improvisation.
The Jazz Gallery: With your previous albums, “Live Work & Play” and “Doors: Chicago Storylines,” each came with a level of backstory. What are you bringing to the table with “Heart Tonic”?
Caroline Davis: A portion of the songs incorporate thematic material based on heartbeats that I’ve been studying. My dad has an arrhythmia called a “left ventricular ejection,” which affects the left ventricle of the heart. The left ventricle is responsible for blood flow to the brain–many areas are responsible for blood flow to the brain in a roundabout way, but the left ventricle is very important for that. I’ve read books upon books upon books about heartbeats. But mostly, I’ve listened to recordings of normal heartbeats and heartbeats with arrhythmias, particularly this left ventricular ejection. I would blast these recordings on my stereo to imagine having this kind of rhythm in your body. It wasn’t like I transcribed heartbeats and put them into music, but I’d sit there and write music based on what I was feeling, experiencing these heartbeats.
TJG: So you’re sitting in your space, listening to heartbeats on full blast on your stereo?
CD: Yeah, exactly [laughs]. It was intense. But I needed to feel it. I’d ask my dad, “How are you feeling, what’s going on?” He’d have difficulty describing his feelings. He’d say “I have shortness of breath,” or “I don’t feel normal.” I wanted to get a glimpse of his experience, to capture it somehow in the music. Not every song on the album that has those moments, but “Ocean Motion” has it, as well as “Footloose and Fancy Free.” Those are the first and last songs on the album. It’s like a heartbeat sandwich [laughs].
TJG: Where did you get these heartbeat recordings?
CD: YouTube, mostly. There’s also some website with some medical sounds that you can download. But they’re on YouTube too.
TJG: Was the band hip to the heartbeat backstory when they learned the music?
CD: No, they definitely weren’t. I try give the music to the band and say as little as possible [laughs]. For me, knowing the message of the music is helpful, but describing things can get in the way of doing, playing, feeling. I’d rather have a sonic environment for them to explore, rather than say things and put ideas in their head. It’s like presenting a piece of artwork to a viewer with your agenda, rather than having them experience it their own way. In my band, I want people to come with their own reading of it, to give their own personality to the music, so that their own voices come shining through.
TJG: How did your band come together?
CD: I’ve been playing with Jay Sawyer a lot since I moved to New York. He lives down the street from me. He’s a really supportive musician, and he’s a great fit for this project. Julian Shore and Tamir Shmerling in the rhythm section are both wonderful at playing swing, but at the same time, they can explore within that landscape. That area of swing can, sometimes, be very stubborn in the jazz community. Julian and Tamir offer the duality of freedom and swing that I look for when I’m trying to make a band happen. So I love that they can be open, that there can be freedom within that area. My music can be a little complicated, and I appreciate that they put in the time and energy. Marquis, I’ve known him since I lived in Chicago. I don’t think there are many trumpet players who can do what he can on the trumpet, and I love what he offers in terms of tone and the sensitivity with which he improvises. I love his tone, and he offers this fire that I really value. That’s another reason that I put Noah Preminger in this band for The Jazz Gallery show too. He brings that wild freedom, that intensity, which I love.
TJG: Speaking of the heart, I have a question about the brain. In your last Jazz Speaks interview, regarding your research at Northwestern, you said something that kind of blew my mind: “I want to explain the way the brain interprets music through music.” Could you talk to me a little more about what this could mean?
CD: Like I was explaining earlier with the heartbeats, it’s about taking a feeling from a certain organ, like the heart or the brain, and making music from it. When putting these heartbeats on full blast, listening to them, and investing myself in what they felt like, the same can be done with the brain. I didn’t try it on this album, but it’ll come through in the future. The brain is a very rhythmic organ. We can see that by looking at EEGs, which are most formally taken by putting an electrode cap on your head and measuring electrical activity in response to a stimulus. In the field of music cognition, that stimulus is usually some form of sound. I was able to see a lot of that research while doing my PhD, so my idea is to understand the rhythmic ways in which we respond to stimuli, and try to incorporate that into my music.
For example, there’s a lot of discussion about how the brain can respond to a stimulus within 250 milliseconds. There have been studies that have shown that if you put on a kind of music for a listener, within a quarter of a second, they can figure out what style of music that is. That’s incredible. You can play someone a blip of a signal, and they already know something about it. How does that work?! I’m fascinated by the brain’s ability to interpret a signal and produce an answer in such a short amount of time. I want to use those kinds of fast blips of information to provide people enough for them to have a response. That’s my idea for the future. It’s all very vague, but that’s the foundation.
TJG: It’s almost unbelievable that we can process things so fast, and pass judgements on them.
CD: It happens so quickly at the subconscious level. I believe that people are constantly interpreting on that fast level while they listen to music. It’s almost, in a sense, the way we come up with our preferences for music. How do we decide we “like” something or not? Most people decide after probably less than a minute of listening to it.
TJG: Regarding preferences and new music, you wrote a piece in DownBeat’s ‘Woodshed’ segment discussing intersections of classical and jazz harmony. At one point you say “Diminished-scale language has always been hip, even in Bach’s day.” I really like this notion of Bach trying to be hip. What is it that attracts us to new sounds?
CD: That’s a hard one to answer. At this point, we’ve all heard so much music. So much has already been accomplished. Think about Bach, think about his output as a compose. Even with all of our technology, my output will barely scratch the surface of what he did in his day, with only a paper and ink. Those thoughts drive me to find inspiration in new combinations of ideas, such as finding ways to introduce intervallic ideas or strange polyrhythms into a piece that also swings. If we can introduce these patterns for people alongside something as primal and raw as swing, that could open our listening minds. Like Bach, I certainly attempt to be hip as well. Some people are stubborn with what they like to listen to, but through listening to my music, I would hope that those people who are more closed off to experimental music or complex harmony and rhythm might find those sounds become more open and accessible in their minds.
Caroline Davis celebrates the release of Heart Tonic at The Jazz Gallery on Friday, April 13, 2018. The group features Ms. Davis on alto saxophone, Noah Preminger on tenor saxophone, Julian Shore on piano, Tamir Shmerling on bass, and Jay Sawyer on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.