"I've been mostly reading about the basic structure of the heart, the chambers, ventricles, and valves, and how they are compromised when you have an abnormal heart beat," Davis says. "These abnormalities can last for seconds or minutes or years."
Jazz saxophonist Caroline Davis’s latest album, Heart Tonic, hits close to home. The album ruminates on her father’s recent diagnosis of heart arrhythmia and matters of the heart, in general. The well-traveled and well-read New York City composer, who was born in Singapore and earned a doctorate in music cognition from Northwestern University, talks about listening to Michael Jackson as an infant, her musical influences and the inspiration behind her new record.
Davis performs at The Jazz Estate on Friday, April 20, at 8 p.m.
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What are your earliest memories of music?
There’s a funny photo my mom showed me, where I’m wearing headphones as a 6-month-old baby. I think she said they put on Michael Jackson for me. My eyes were wide open. Maybe that memory lies somewhere in my subconscious memory, but I do remember dancing a lot to MJ’s music as a little girl in Singapore. We listened mostly to R&B and the good pop music that was being made during the ’80s – Steve Winwood, Earth Wind & Fire, Whitney Houston.
When did you start playing an instrument?
I was about 12 and living in a pretty poor neighborhood in Atlanta, Ga. My band director’s name was Mr. Lee, and we were a mess, but he gave me the initial push to be better every day. Things got a little better when my mom moved us out to North Dallas, and I had a great teacher there who had more resources and played recordings for us. The level was just a little higher, and that really pushed me.
How would you describe your style of jazz?
Describing music is a hard thing for me in general. I don’t really know how to answer that question. My writing is influenced by a host of musicians: Wayne Shorter, Steve Coleman, Stravinsky, Bach, Iannis Xenakis, Matt Mitchell, Anna Webber – there are so many.
You received a doctorate in music cognition from Northwestern. Do you find yourself approaching your instrument with an academic mindset?
Not at all, I try to keep that analytical mindset outside of the expression that comes so naturally to me. It can get in the way.
Tell me about the inspiration behind your latest record Heart Tonic.
The heart (physically and metaphorically) was definitely one, but the musicians who surround me in New York have been a huge influence. I just heard a couple incredible groups this week: Sam Ospovat, Matt Mitchell and Kim Cass, they were really reaching on this music that was challenging and beautiful. And Angela Morris, Devin Gray and Dustin Carlson, painting pictures with sounds and textures. Heard Joel Frahm and Ryan Kisor playing in the front line at Smalls the other night, lighting a fire for the world to experience. I’m lucky to be here to experience all of this different music.
What did you learn about the heart during your research on your father’s condition?
I’ve been mostly reading about the basic structure of the heart, the chambers, ventricles and valves, and how they are compromised when you have an abnormal heart beat. These abnormalities can last for seconds or minutes or years It’s just all fascinating to me. My dad’s condition is in the left ventricle, and we as a family still have a lot to learn. For now, he’s focusing on keeping his biorhythms at bay, working to normalize his day-to-day rhythms to see if that can help his condition.
What can people expect from your performance at the Jazz Estate?
I’ll be playing with some local Midwesterners for this show: Russ Johnson on trumpet, Rob Clearfield on piano and Quin Kirchner on drums. We’ll play a lot of the music from the record, and some other covers that I love by Wayne Shorter, Bobby Hutcherson and Billy Strayhorn. Looking forward to playing that room again, as it has been many years, but it’s one of my favorite places to play.