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Caroline Davis always does her homework. As a grad student at Northwestern University in the early 2000s, the alto saxophonist instituted an oral history of nearby Chicago’s jazz scene, which years later evolved into her acclaimed 2015 album Doors. In early 2019, driven by the sudden passing of her father, and armed with a doctorate in music cognition, she started writing the compositions that became Portals, in which she tackles the emotional, intellectual and physical effects of grief.
From that somber foundation Davis has built an elegant monument to memory and resilience, and to the complexities of loss and acceptance. But like many similarly inspired works throughout the ages, it also proves paradoxically uplifting, even joyous. Credit goes in large part to her compatriots — including trumpeter Marquis Hill, cellist Mariel Roberts, pianist Julian Shore, and the protean violinist Mazz Swift — as well as Davis’ distinctive style; greatly influenced by the late Lee Konitz, she has a bittersweet tone and a fluent but gritty technique that pays no mind to surface sheen or empty theatrics.
Much of Portal’s success stems from Davis’ unfussy, bracing compositions and her writing for string quartet. Rather than using the strings to merely color, Davis fully integrates them into her existing quintet, where they play a variety of roles. On “Hop On Hop Off,” for instance, they underscore the opening motif which, played as a round by alto and trumpet, recalls 18th-century Shaker songs. The strings later adopt that repetitive motif — which itself recalls Steve Reich’s minimalist works — as the piece reaches its climax.
Recorded in late 2020, when there was plenty to mourn, Portals opens with a gathering storm of musicians’ voices reciting a brief meditation by the ancient Persian poet Omar Khayyam. Other short narrative segments, spoken plainly by the instrumentalists (rather than actors), could have proved intrusive, but here they provide context and intriguing mystery. Davis has transformed the most intimate of sorrows into a work of universally accessible insight and often searing beauty. Among the year’s most ambitious and gorgeously rendered concepts, it gets better with each hearing.— Neil Tesser