Caroline Davis’ Alula – Captivity
(Ropeadope Records RMBT7282. Review by Frank Graham)
Jazz can boast of a long tradition of artist-activists engaging with social justice causes, and when the music and the message are perfectly aligned, the results can be epochal. With Captivity, the Brooklyn-based musician, composer and educator Caroline Davis (alto saxophone, juno, voice) shines a light on the shocking racial asymmetries and wasted human lives within America’s industrial-scale incarceration programme. It’s a cause that’s been close to her heart since visiting an incarcerated uncle in a Swedish prison aged 10, and with that deep connection comes the unmistakable air of authenticity.
Only Chris Tordini (acoustic & moog bass) remains from Alula’s eponymous 2019 debut, while incoming are sonic sorcerer Val Jeanty (turntables, samples) and the redoubtable Tyshawn Sorey (drums). The ten tracks meld high-wire improvisation, densely layered electro-acoustic sounds and carefully selected spoken word samples, Davis’ pithy alto invariably holding the ring as complex rhythmic patterns collapse and expand around her. A compelling soloist, her clean-toned playing combines the angularity of fellow Von Freeman protégé Steve Coleman with the earthier bends and inflections of Hemphill acolytes Marty Ehrlich and Tim Berne, and she packs a powerful emotional charge.
Opening with the striking “[the day has come]”, Jeanty’s wall of crushing buzz-saw static signals immediate unease, and samples from a reading of an 1867 speech by abolitionist Sojourner Truth appear as a call to arms. Segueing smoothly into “burned believers [for Agnes and Huguette]”, dedicated to 14th century heretics Agnes Franco and Huguette de la Côte, Davis soars in free-flight above the metronomic pulse. Both “and yet it moves (for Galileo)” and “[the malignity of fate]”are dedicated to the 17th century Italian astronomer and physicist who famously paid a heavy price for his then heretical discoveries, while the brilliantly poised free-bop of “synchronize my body where my mind had always been (for Jalil Muntaqim)” salutes a former Black Panther, incarcerated for more than half a century.
Elsewhere, the heartfelt balladry of “a way back to myself (for Keith LaMar)” reflects on the plight of a prisoner currently held on death row in Ohio. Despite significant doubts over the safety of his conviction he is due to be executed in 2027, and the piece gains added poignancy as we hear LaMar’s voice describing an unshakable faith. The penultimate “[i won’t be back, ms. Susan Burton]” harbours some of the most febrile exchanges of the set, and Sorey is in his element.
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Qasim Naqvi (modular synthesiser) makes guest appearances on “a way back to myself” and “the promise i made”, his otherworldly sounds fusing with Jeanty’s scratching to create an avant hip-hop vibe. The hymnal “put it on a poster” features another guest, Ben Hoffmann (Prophet 6), and while it may have been tempting for Davis to sign-off with an angry fusillade, she instead chooses a more reflective path.
A challenging but utterly relevant piece of work, and like the very best recordings in this field, Captivity succeeds both in landing its message and in revealing the fathomless creativity of the artists who made it.
Captivity is released on Ropeadope Records on 24 October
LINK: Captivity on Bandcamp