Getting to the heart of it with Caroline Davis

Pianist Rob Clearfield, left, joins alto saxophonist/composer Caroline Davis at the California Jazz Conservatory’s Rendon Hall on Tuesday to play her heartfelt music.

Many a musician has sought to plumb the depths of the human heart, but few have delved more deeply into the muscle’s mysteries than New York alto saxophonist Caroline Davis. Making her Berkeley debut Tuesday at the California Jazz Conservatory’s Rendon Hall as part of the school’s Way Out West series, she’s playing music from her 2018 album Heart Tonic (Sunnyside), which features tunes inspired partly by close listening to recordings of arrhythmic heartbeats.

Her investigation wasn’t launched by mere curiosity, though. With a Ph.D. in cognitive science and music from Northwestern, she knows all about chasing down data. Davis started looking into arrhythmia when her father was diagnosed with the condition, and she found herself seeking out recordings of irregular pulses. Not every tune on Heart Tonic draws on those beats, but “a lot of that music I wrote came from my interest in what those heartbeats sounded like on a rhythmic and melodic level,” she says.

“It wasn’t a direct transcription, but I did sit and listen to arrhythmia. I was very intuitively drawn to melodies, but also to complicated rhythms and shifts in time. It brought me back to idea about rhythmic cycles I heard about through Steve Coleman,” the alto saxophonist, composer and MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship awardee who has influenced dozens of leading improvisers (including Berkeley High alumni Ambrose Akinmusire and Jonathan Finlayson).

On the album Davis assembled a stellar quintet featuring rising stars like trumpeter Marquis Hill and pianist Julian Shore. Her thick, pliable, almost tenor-like tone is captivating, whether she’s a sinuous line over an eerie organ drone or broken field sprinting across a stuttering groove. For Tuesday’s performance she’s presenting the music in a stripped-down duo setting with Paris-based pianist Rob Clearfield, a colleague from her formative years on the Chicago scene.


Davis also performs a five-night run at San Francisco’s Black Cat from April 10-11 with her quartet featuring Clearfield, bassist Josh Thurston-Milgrom and drummer Hamir Atwal. From April 12 to 14, she performs with her indie-soul alt-rock quartet Maitri with Ben Hoffmann on vocals and keyboards, bassist Sam Weber and drummer Jay Sawyer.

Born to a British father and Swedish mother who met in college in upstate New York, Davis spent her early childhood in Singapore. After her parents split up she settled with her mother in Atlanta, where she gravitated to the city’s flourishing and interwoven R&B and gospel music scenes. By high school she and her mother had relocated to North Dallas, which gave Davis the opportunity to study privately with saxophonist John Murphy, a longtime University of North Texas faculty member. An inspirational summer stint at Litchfield Jazz Camp sparked her love of improvisation, and by the time she enrolled at Northwestern for grad school she was determined to keep playing.

Davis feels that she came of age musically in Chicago, a scene rife with free jazz devotees. It was an improvisation practice that suited her needs. “I didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse with bands, so I gravitated to more avant-garde situations, which was a really wonderful way to develop an intuitive way of improvising,” she says. “I met a lot of fantastic musicians, like Von Freeman, Fred Anderson, and Phil Cohran,” who played and recorded with Sun Ra from 1959-61 and helped found Chicago’s AACM. “There were all very important to my development.”

After earning her doctorate she started writing more original music, which culminated with her excellent 2012 debut album Live Work & Play. For several years she divided her time between teaching and playing with an array of positions at different universities, though by 2013 she had settled in Brooklyn and decided to focus on playing music rather than studying its effects on the brain.

“I was teaching music and the brain at DePaul, and aural skills at North Western,” she recalls. “Then I took over upper-level music theory at Northwestern and started teaching music cognition. But I slowly quit all of those jobs and moved to New York, a long slow transition over five years. I was still teaching at DePaul via Skype until 2015. I know a great deal about music theory, but my heart lies in how music affects the brain and the interaction between music and cognitive thought, how we organize it in our conscious mind.”

So far, following her heart, or someone else’s, has taken Davis to some very interesting places.

Recommended gig


Shhhh, it hasn’t been publicized, but the brilliant Berkeley tandem of pianist/composer Myra Melford and clarinetist/composer Ben Goldberg performs 3 p.m. Saturday at Maybeck Studio with drummer Hamir Atwal and bass great Michael Formanek, a major force in adventurous jazz for some nearly four decades.