Caroline Davis’ Alula Soars High Above Prison Walls

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Davis says, “I wouldn’t call myself a jazz musician; my music is more about crossing boundaries.” Her band Alula, from left: Chris Tordini, Davis, Tyshawn Sorey and Val Jeanty.

(Photo: John Rogers)

A rigorous intellectual, Caroline Davis makes intensely visceral music that mines everything from the cardiology of the human heart (Heart Tonic, 2018) to the anatomy of flight (Alula, 2019) to the shapeshifting nature of grief (Portals, Volume 1: Mourning, 2020). On Captivity, her incendiary new release with her band Alula, the superb alto saxophonist and composer transmutes her alchemical mix of art and science into a cry for justice for incarcerated heroes who’ve soared above prison walls by keeping hope alive.

And those walls come tumbling down, hard, pummeled by the sheer force of the electro-acoustic music that proclaims “The Day Has Come,” the opening call to arms, which samples speeches by former slave, abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Sojourner Truth.

“I wanted to open the album with a tremendous amount of energy,” Davis recalled, speaking by phone from Brooklyn, where the peripatetic Singapore-born artist settled after spending her formative years in Chicago. “That piece was improvised in the moment and carries with it a sense of urgency.”

Davis has long composed and improvised music informed by gender and racial equality. But her art and activism didn’t really meld into a singular force until the pandemic turned her into a de facto prisoner. During lockdown, she began writing to Jalil Muntaqim, a Black Panther who spent decades behind bars before his late-2020 release. She also exchanged letters with, and visited, unjustly accused death-row prisoner Keith LaMar, who has languished for years in solitary confinement. Now she’s on a mission to rally her troops to the cause.

Davis organized a fundraiser to help Muntaqim transition after his release, played at Free Keith LaMar benefit concerts and is donating a portion of Captivity’s sales to Critical Resistance, the reform group started by Angela Davis decades ago. Captivity also pays tribute to the legacy of three Black women — Joyce Ann Brown, Susan Burton and Sandra Bland — whose hope and resilience transcended their incarceration.

During conversation, Davis discussed everything from her late-blooming embrace of the saxophone to the evolution of Captivity, which was recorded live during the pandemic with turntablist Val Jeanty, bassist Chris Tordini, drummer Tyshawn Sorey and guest collaborators Qasim Naqvi and Ben Hoffman.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Cree McCree: You went all the way back to Galileo and the “Burned Believers” of the Middle Ages — was that part of your original agenda when you started conceptualizing Captivity?

Caroline Davis: I had people in mind throughout time who were incarcerated for long periods and still kept hope alive. I also had an uncle I was really close to who spent 12 years in prison, when my grandmother didn’t visit him at all. Seeing how the whole system affected him really started coming into focus during the pandemic.

McCree: Was turntablist Val Jeanty responsible for integrating all the spoken word?

Davis: Yes. Some, like Sojourner Truth and the Lorraine Hansbury speech, she already had in her repertoire of sound samples. Except for Sandra Bland, and the Jalil and Keith LaMar material, which I gave her, Val chose what to use. She’s an incredible sound artist.

McCree: Captivity is credited to Caroline Davis’ Alula, which is also the title of your 2018 album. What does “alula” mean?

Davis: Alula is this little set of hidden bones and feathers that helps birds take off, glide and land. It only pops out when they need to do those things [laughs], and that was like a metaphor for my music. Most of what I do is acoustic and I wanted to more fully embrace my electronic voice with a hidden structure that lets me fly.

McCree: When did you first find your voice on the alto saxophone?

Davis: I came to it kind of late. I grew up listening to gospel and classic R&B and first started trying to play my saxophone to En Vogue and Boyz II Men. I didn’t start playing the kind of music I’m playing now until I was out of high school. I wouldn’t call myself a jazz musician; my music is more about crossing boundaries. But when I was in my 20s, I started checking out Charlie Parker and transcribing John Coltrane.

McCree: What about Albert Ayler? I was sure I heard Albert Ayler speaking through you.

Davis: Albert Ayler was a visionary who helped shape the sound of the saxophone, but I wouldn’t say he influenced my music. For me, especially on this album, Archie Shepp is much more of an influence.

McCree: The Last Poets were contemporaneous with all of that and really jumped out at me as an influence when I listened to the album, so I was surprised you didn’t reference them.

Davis: I just don’t have a very personal connection to them. I’m good friends with Brian Jackson, who worked with Gil Scott Heron, and I know they’ve been active in the 2000s, collaborating with Wu-Tang Clan. But I only had an opportunity to reference a certain number of people and the majority have been connected to me personally.

McCree: What’s the most important thing you’d like listeners to take away from this album?

Davis: A sense of hopefulness through the darkness. If someone’s listening to the whole record, starting with Sojourner Truth and ending with Sandra Bland, whose words were taken from her self-made video series, I hope people hear the hopefulness in the hymn that I wrote for her. Because even though we live in dire circumstances, especially for black and brown people, there’s a lot to be hopeful for in terms of what we can do. I want people to feel empowered to move forward, even in the places of darkness. DB



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