Alto saxophonist Caroline Davis knows her way around a tune. Her songs on her new album, Heart Tonic, can be angular, smooth, poppy, earnest jams, or driving runs. She’s a player and a composer with a great deal of range and enchanting execution, and she leads a damn fine band, too.
Davis plays the alto sax with a sweetness that lets her more divergent choices work. The same could be said with the interplay she has with trumpeter Marquis Hill, a player who has always had the capacity to go anywhere he chooses musically and make it sound heartbreakingly beautiful. Julian Shore, who is also no slouch at playing beautifully, uses a broad palate on keys here, moving from piano to the Fender Rhodes to other assorted keyboards throughout Heat Tonic, functioning as a kind of glue to this group’s sound. Tamar Shmerling sounds as bouncy and in the clutch as a bass player, both electric and acoustic. However, Jay Sawyer’s drumming is exceptional. There’s always something interesting going on. The beat is just the beginning of Sawyer’s playing, providing a subtle complexity that’s a joy to listen to. Alongside Rogerio Boccato on “Loss”, the coolness all around on the percussion end is just one of the brilliant aspects where the rest of the band steps up appropriately.
Compositionally, it’s difficult to put a finger on what aspect of jazz this music really is. Davis has a contemporary sound– complex, varied, like Steve Coleman tunes without the labor on the listener. What Davis is doing here in these songs is making the complex, the initially seemingly atonal, and smoothing it out, making her alto saxophone have a kind a beauty to it and combining it with a band that can do the same. “Constructs” bounces about minor keys where in lesser hands, a song like this could sound overly cerebral, but here it just all clicks to where all these changes are not in the least tiring to hear for ten and a half minutes. So many musicians want to make abstract sounds for the New York scene; Caroline Davis seems to wants to make it, too, but to make it so it isn’t some exhausting intellectual exercise to get to enjoying it. This becomes even more apparent halfway through the album as more “conventional” songs make way as the album progresses, smoothing out the edges even more, while still never crossing over into actual smooth jazz territory (though this could certainly be a primer album for those who may like that cross section of jazz but may not have many Sunnyside albums in their collections).
Give Heart Tonic some time and it could very well turn into one of the highlight albums of the year, an album that’s doing so much that repeat listens not only reveal all the directions but also one’s own building affection for an album that can be exponentially more charming with each subsequent play.
Heart Tonic, the new album from saxophonist Caroline Davis, is out now on Sunnyside Records.
Caroline Davis – alto saxophone
Marquis Hill – trumpet
Julian Shore – piano, Fender Rhodes, Yamaha DX7, Roland JD-Xi
Tamar Shmerling – acoustic & electric bass
Jay Sawyer – drums
Rogerio Boccato (percussion 2, 9)
Benjamin Hoffman – organ (4, 5)
Nextbop Editor-in-Chief Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine and the San Antonio Current.