Caroline Davis sounds every bit like a rising star.
Alto saxophonist and composer Caroline Davis moved to Brooklyn from Chicago in 2013, and her new recording Heart Tonic is the first to fully reflect her new home. The cover, a fanciful collage of New York buildings bursting with blood red optimism and hovered over by flocks of migrating birds, may be ambiguous, but the music is clear as a bell.
On Heart Tonic, Davis uses a light, sweet tone on her horn, and the setting of the band is mostly shot through with sunshine. Pianist Julian Shore plays the bell-toned Fender Rhodes and an airy synth, for example, on the opening track, “Footloose and Fancy Free,” with bassist Tamir Shmerling using a round-toned electric. Despite these appealing elements, Davis presents a heady slice of the New Jazz—compositions requiring the band to negotiate sudden shifts in time signature and to apply a skittering hip-hop groove that still swings. The result is something quite special: up-to-the-second modern jazz that feels utterly comfortable.
The oddly catchy “Penelope” requires drummer Jay Sawyer to play a steady snare-click over which he executes impossibly complex accents as well. The melody—shared here as on every tune by Davis and trumpeter Marquis Hill—speeds up and slows down with a devilish trickiness, but it is natural and appealing. “Constructs” presents a bassline played in unison by acoustic bass and piano as an initial melody, and then the horns play a new tune that wraps around the first. Davis’s writing at its best can be compared to that of Wayne Shorter: sophisticated and compelling at once.
The soloists are strong on Heart Tonic. Hill has a dry, puckish trumpet attack. He is fluid and buzzing at once on his “Constructs” solo, where the rhythm section gives him speedy 4/4 walking swing over which to play. Like Woody Shaw, he easily assays wide intervals on his horn, so his lines dart in unusual, interesting ways. Shore gets a long space to play piano on the loping “Loss” and he shows a sweet touch with two independent hands, the left sometimes taking over momentarily or otherwise punching chords that create a syncopated counterpoint to the right that is of equal interest.
Davis does not solo on every tune, but her style deserves close attention. She is a very rhythmic player, toying with short phrases in rhythmic variation and repetition in a useful way. Her solo on “Dionysian” uses these jabbing repetitions beautifully but not monotonously—she also finds moments for flowing runs or juicy blues licks. On “Footloose and Fancy Free,” Davis is reminiscent of Steve Coleman as she finds new ways to move and cycle through harmonies, playing very tonally but with the surprise of a player who is free to go in many directions.
Mainly, however, Heart Tonic is showcase for Davis’s composing. “Air,” a thrumming ballad, finds Davis and Hill in a unison that is twin-close for much of the theme, yet it also allows them an exchange of improvised phrases at the end over the rising energy from the rhythm section. “Dionysian” is another riveting theme, with the alto, trumpet and synthesizer interacting at the start like three delicate strands of fiber. It is less a clear melody than a swirl of defined interest. “Ocean Motion” goes back to electric keyboards and bass, and the band maintains a through-composed approach to the horns, with Davis and Hill sticking to written parts while the rhythm section chatters and moves. Rogério Boccato is added on percussion, and he and Sawyer engage in a terrific improvisation at the end of the track as a synth part rises, bit by bit, to the album’s conclusion.
Heart Tonic is a mature statement from a musician who has been, perhaps, under the radar but clearly has been working out her style. It is interesting to imagine what she might do with a larger ensemble, as her sense of composition is so strong. That kind of opportunity comes along rarely, but the talent displayed on this recording merits it. Caroline Davis sounds every bit like a rising star composer who combines many influences into a sound that is organic, whole and mostly original. Keep your ears open.