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.
TJG: You’ve also said in another interview that you’ve found that compared to Chicago, New York can push you maybe a little harder. In what ways?
CD: It’s hard to really say because I’ve only been here in New York for two years but I’d say I’ve been pushed a little harder in general here. I don’t know if that’s just the result of me needing to figure out how to make more money… it’s more expensive to live here than Chicago, but I lived in Chicago and felt like I was definitely playing more shows there. But things have started to pick up here and I think, you know, I look forward to my performances maybe more here because they’re more special since there’s not as many of them. So I’m like oh, I’m really excited about this show. And I don’t get to play with my group that often but I did play with them a lot in Chicago so the other side is that I’m so grateful that I get to play with musicians who are just incredible, who I haven’t known for too long but who are just over the moon to play with. And also to play with musicians who are touring a lot is easier to do in New York than in Chicago, I don’t know if that’s because New York’s closer to Europe and it’s easy to fly out of, it’s more a mecca for jazz… but I found people are booking more tours more often and I’m finding more opportunities to do that here than in Chicago.
TJG: In graduate school, you wrote a dissertation that focused on how social networks affect our interpretations and perceptions of music. How has the intersection of psychology and jazz influenced you?
CD: I feel like I’m kind’ve stuck between a rock and a hard place sometimes because I really enjoy that kind’ve hyper-awareness of cognition and I think that really kind of defines who I am in so many ways, but I also feel like I’m running from that because I wanna let the music kinda just flow, you know, for lack of a better word, and be very present and not let that stuff get in the way. But I would say that that education in cognition and the information in how we form knowledge and knowledge structures definitely influences the way I think about albums. I put a lot of time and research into them using the principles I learned while I was doing research for my dissertation. I feel like it takes me longer than the next person to write music.
TJG: You grew up mainly in Atlanta. Is there something from the south that forms some of your musical foundation?
CD: Oh yeah, I think so. Maybe I don’t think about it as much as I should but I definitely feel connected to like the southern drawl, and I think Ornette has it in his playing. I don’t know, it feels like it’s connected to the sense of the delta blues. I was really into that as a kid. I came from Europe so we moved to the states as expatriates and my parents still don’t have American passports—the way I grew up was very European. I got into all the R&B in Atlanta, then I started playing saxophone and found out about Ornette and Marshall Allen, Shelley Caroll and the folks that were influential to me at the point. I feel like had that southern drawl before I moved to Texas and the wild west.
TJG: Since you find significance in narratives, both oral and musical, where would you put yourself looking at your own jazz narrative and where are you headed next?
CD: Hm, I’ve been trying to think about that actually. The end of a project is definitely the beginning of a new one. I don’t know, I feel like a lot of people are interested in the ways the brain works. When people find out I have a degree in cognition they assume I know a lot about music and the brain, which I do, I took a lot of neuroscience and cognitive psychology so I have that, but I really don’t know how it relates to the experience of music and I think it might be cool to find out. There are already people doing this, I have a friend named Katina Klein, they hooked wires up to her brain, these electrodes, and she’d play along with her brain activity which comes in wave form. So what you hear coming from her brain are these mumbles, I feel like this is a topic people get really excited about, and it gets me excited too. So I’m thinking something in that sense, I’m specifically interested in the neurons and how they move and what determines if people can change or affect them themselves, create new patterns, really what does a neuron look like when we change a habit. Is there a way to represent that musically? It sounds super cheesy when I talk about it but I think that would be a cool thing to do somehow.
The Caroline Davis Quartet plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, November 5th, 2015. The group features Ms. Davis on alto saxophone, 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. Purchase tickets here.