Saxophonist Caroline Davis Takes Humanity’s Pulse


Saxophonist Caroline Davis’ new album, Heart Tonic, is informed by her study of the heart.

(Photo: Courtesy of the Artist)

Caroline Davis has become an expert in matters of the heart, physiologically speaking. The title of the New York-based alto saxophonist’s new release, Heart Tonic (Sunnyside), has a strong literal element to it, as the album draws extensively from the realm of cardiology. Indeed, the surging sounds of such tracks as “Constructs,” “Dionysian” and “Ocean Motion” evoke a complex—and imperfect—circulatory system hard at work.

A Singapore native with a Ph.D. in music cognition from Northwestern University, Davis modeled the compositions on the album after the beat of the human heart. Hearts with the condition known as “arrhythmia,” to be exact.

“For this album I spent a lot of time listening to normal and abnormal heartbeats,” Davis said. “Trying to see how that can evoke tension-and-release on a very [instinctual] level. That scientific approach influences the way I write and practice music, but when I’m performing I just try to feel my way and be intuitive.”

Davis’ father, Michael Ansen, suffers from ventricular ejection arrhythmia, a condition that can cause dizziness, fatigue and chest pain. While he researched the cycles of digestion, movement and sleep for a possible cure, Davis examined the musical nuances of the human heartbeat and circulatory system, reflected in Heart Tonic’s pulsating energy, almost like the sound of blood coursing through the body.

“You can hear those processes in the music,” Davis said. “Sometimes, I listened to these arrhythmic heartbeats at full volume for 10 minutes at a time to immerse myself in that feeling; trying to understand what it feels like to have an arrhythmia and then remove myself from that—process it—then write music on piano or saxophone.”

Heart Tonic embodies influences outside of the medical field as well, including the most famous composer of Europe’s Baroque period and a celebrated American jazz saxophonist who, as a child, imagined the vacant lot next to his home to be “a spacecraft or a B-17 bomber during World War II.”

“I’ve been going back to the source of voice-leading and harmony, the main source being Bach,” Davis said. “That sense of functional harmony and voice-leading has informed my writing now more than ever.”

On Heart Tonic, Davis’ interpretation of Wayne Shorter’s “Penelope”—her quintet delivers the song’s luxurious melody at an Afro-Cuban-esque medium-up tempo—culminates in the sound of a rocket blasting into outer space.

“‘Penelope’ is a beautiful, ethereal and wanting song,” Davis said. “I wanted to give it a little fire. I didn’t change the chords at all—that’s not possible in a Wayne Shorter tune. I only changed it rhythmically and in the tempo. Wayne Shorter’s writing is perfect; I wanted to honor that.”

Heart Tonic reflects New York in its bustling excitement and atmosphere,” said Davis, whose other current projects include the quartetMaitri; the saxophone/bass/drums group Pedway; a trio that includes trumpeter Ron Miles; and Alula, with pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Greg Saunier.

“These recurring, circadian rhythms that happen in our body all the time are not connected musically, but they are conceptually. The recurring rhythms in the music, these polyrhythmic structures that are all interconnecting—that relates to my concept of how the heart works, always pumping in this cyclical fashion. We have no idea of what’s inside of us, but it’s keeping us alive.” DB

  • 23_Village_Vanguard_Joey_Baron_by_Michael_Jackson_copy.jpg

    “Bill Stewart has nothing to prove,” Baron says. “I aspire to that ethic.”

  • 23_Charles_Lloyd_1_by_Dorothy_Darr.jpg

    “At this point in my life I’m still looking for the note,” Lloyd says. “But I’m a little nearer.”

  • McBride__Kahn_copy.jpg

    ​Christian McBride and writer Ashley Kahn meet for a DownBeat Blindfold Test hosted by New York University’s Jazz Studies program.

  • Samara_Joy_%C2%A92023_Mark_Sheldon-4639.jpg

    Samara Joy brought fans to their feet in the middle of her Newport set!

  • 20170912_CeramicDog_EbruYildiz_29-2_copy.jpg

    Ceramic Dog is, from right, Shahzad Ismaily, Ches Smith and Ribot.