Caroline Davis' Alula
Street Date: October 13, 2023
Label: Ropeadope

Captivity is the powerful new album by alto saxophonist, composer and activist Caroline Davis’ Alula. Her first social justice album, Captivity situates Davis’ electro-free compositions alongside the lives of eight heroes who kept hope alive through incarceration. Augmented by turntablist Val Jeanty, bassist Chris Tordini and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, as well as special guests Qasim Naqvi and Ben Hoffmann, Captivity is a vital addition to Davis’ sprawling discography that aims to reflect, interrogate and amplify the essential conversation around incarceration, the prison industrial complex, and abolition.

Throughout history, the jazz community has traditionally played a major role in contributing to social justice efforts, and has often engaged in civil rights work even before certain movements were formally established. Through coded lyrics by blues singers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, to Nina Simone’s impactful lyrics in “Mississippi Goddam” and “Young, Gifted, and Black”, to Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, to Terri Lyne Carrington’s recent gathering, “Music for Abolition”; jazz and creative musicians have always been present, creating artistic works to protest injustices and speak truth to power. Caroline Davis’ latest album stands on the shoulders of these influences, providing creative insight on the injustices present in the system of incarceration in America, and highlights the undeniable strength of those who have been, and some who are still, incarcerated. 

Davis’ first encounters with the prison system began around 10 years old, when she and her family would visit her uncle, incarcerated in Sweden. “I will never forget the look of the guards, the smell, the sound of the doors locking, and the look on my uncle’s face. With one glance he communicated an internal acknowledgement that he did something “wrong”, but also, not knowing how to exist in a society that had no interest in helping him grow and change,” she reflects.  “It’s as if he was never given a chance once he made a mistake, he was abandoned.” The system tore her family apart, and these experiences left a lasting impact on her. 

All of Davis’ recent recordings have been built around larger themes including her highly praised 2021 album Portals Volume 1: Mourning (Sunnyside), which deftly dealt with the loss of her father and Alula (New Amsterdam, 2019), an electro-jazz scientific study on the alula structure of bones and feathers on most bird wings which garnered acclaim from The New York Times, Bandcamp and more. When the pandemic hit in 2020, Davis dedicated the free time she suddenly had to learning all about incarceration, its systematic underpinnings and its history. “Making this album helped me deal with the emotions I felt in my family and to relate to others who have felt similar emotions.” 

Inspired by authors Maya Angelou, Jennifer Teege, and Rabindranath Tagore, who have written allegorical musings about birds in cages to relate to cultural and societal issues, the 2023 update of Alula still upholds the bird imagery, but now draws upon the metaphor of their potential captivity as a symbol of incarceration. The music, which ranges from soulful and spacious, to bombastic and brazen, is also inspired by the correspondence Davis has had with people who have been, or are still, incarcerated such as Keith LaMar, Jalil Muntaqim, Susan Burton, and Joyce Ann Brown “They live more richly and deeply than any people I’ve ever met.” Captivity is an engrossing sonic journey featuring virtuosic musicianship, and a rich juxtaposition of free improvisation, jazz, and electronics. Bolstered by carefully selected, impactful samples and enhanced by Davis’ empathetic approach, Captivity is a heartfelt marvel of creative expression that breathes new life into untold stories. 



“[the day has come]” is the striking opener, a fully improvised greeting that carries with it a sense of urgency. “Considering that justice is aimed towards providing all people with freedom and rights, regardless of their race, culture, age, ability, gender, sexual orientation, I wanted to open the album with a tremendous amount of energy,” she shares. The piece features a sample of a reading of Sojourner Truth’s speech from 1867, in which she was a speaker at the American Equal Rights Association first anniversary celebration. “For me, it’s fitting to start this album off with a self-proclaimed abolitionist who dedicated her life toward the rights of women and African Americans.” It glides seamlessly into “burned believers [for Agnes and Huguette]”, a pulsating driver written to honor the lives of accused heretics Agnes Franco (burned in 1320) and Huguette de la Côte (burned in 1321). The piece features excerpts from a Lorraine Hansberry speech from a Town Hall forum sponsored by The Association of Artists for Freedom from 1964, as well as a clip from Astrid Dalais’ TEDx Talk called The Beauty of Us, which speaks on the ways in which various forms of art make life colorful. “It was our intention to pose the two next to each other to highlight how these individuals pushed to keep the hope alive in these horrendous situations,” reflects the composer. “And yet it moves [for Galileo]” and it’s companion “[the malignity of fate]” were written for the incarcerated truth seeker. Accused of heresy and sentenced to life-imprisonment, Galileo’s bravery in the face of adversity has long been inspiration to Davis. 

During her time of intense study on the subject of incarceration, Davis was particularly influenced by Angela Davis with her decades of experience and dedication to prison abolition. This brought Caroline to the works of Jalil Muntaqim, a member of the Black Panther party who was sentenced to life, with the possibility of parole in 1974. She and Jalil began to communicate through letters, and the tough questions he posed pushed her to “dig deeper, and fight harder.” Putting her ideas into action, Davis donated a performance for Die Jim Crow Records’ fundraiser, as well as the Jazz for Jalil event which raised money for Jalil’s re-entry. “His activism has been a source of constant drive in my life and I return to his writings often,” she says. In 2020, Jalil was released after nearly 50 years imprisonment. The album midpoint, “synchronize my body where my mind had always been [for Jalil Muntaqim]” and “[terrestrial rebels]” were composed for him and inspired by his writings. 

The plight of Keith LaMar has been well-documented, as a large and engaged cadre of jazz musicians have been rallying for his freedom for several years. Currently sitting on death row in the state of Ohio for a crime Davis and many others believe he did not commit, the Justice for Keith LaMar campaign has been a major cornerstone in the fight for corporal justice in New York City, especially among fellow activist-creatives. A dear friend of Davis, she composed “a way back to myself [for Keith LaMar]” for him, and interspersed a talk he gave during the pandemic. When posed the question on how he lives day to day, he replied: “If you stay on the path that you will have an encounter with the most high. I’ve had that encounter, and once you have that encounter, I think your life is forever changed. In this situation that I’m in, there’s a million reasons to doubt, but there’s also a million reasons to have faith. I mean I’m still alive, that’s a fact.” 

 “the promise i made [for Joyce Ann Brown]” is imbued with lightness and lilt. Brown was wrongly convicted of murder in 1980 and fought headstrong for her freedom until she was released in November of 1989, exonerated in 1990. A victim of the system, she was blamed and served time for a crime she didn’t commit. After her horrific experience, she founded Mothers for the Advancement of Social System to help people navigate their lives post incarceration. Davis wrote this piece for her, as a way to honor this extraordinary visionary who set the stage for the important work being done today. “How did she manage to live every day with so much light? I wanted this composition to embody her spirit,” she shares. The penultimate “[i won’t be back, ms. Susan Burton]” is a moment of deep improvisation, written for another essential advocate. After being in and out of the system for almost 20 years, Susan Burton founded a nonprofit organization called A New Way of Life in 1998, which provides housing and other resources to women immediately after they are released. The album closes with “put it on a poster [for Sandra Bland]”, an emotional rumination dedicated to Sandra Bland, a victim of the criminal justice system whose death in her prison cell was suspiciously marked as a suicide. Bland is one of too many black women who have been accused of crimes they did not commit, for misdemeanors that should carry much more leniency. This composition is a hymn for the gifts that Sandra Bland gave to us.


"Saxophonist Caroline Davis assembles a variety of collaborators on turntable, bass, drums and more to shine a spotlight on the injustices of incarceration and the prison system.  " Check out this feature on the editors choice list here.


"The saxophonist and composer's work spans genres and even media; any given presentation might involve evocative dance, expansive set design, incisive poetry, or flourishing strings." Check out the full feature here.


"There’s a big, wide world of sounds and melodic patterns on Caroline Davis’ new record—but iron bars and chains inspired it: the saxophonist’s seventh album as leader focuses on incarceration." Read the full review here.


"The crossroads of jazz and social justice has been a thriving mini-universe for at least a century, thanks to Duke Ellington, Max Roach, Archie Shepp, and many, many others" Read the full review here.


"...Captivity reflects and expands on the essential conversation around incarceration, the prison industrial complex, and abolition." Check out the full review  here.


"Captivity, the new recording by saxophonist Caroline Davis is a pointedly social justice album focused on creating reflection, interrogation and amplification of the essential conversation around incarceration, the prison industrial complex & abolition. It's a very powerful project." Read the full feature on the editors playlist here.


"For a long time, “academic” has been an epithet in the jazz community, referring to music that lacks spontaneity and fire. But Caroline Davis and Anna Webber, two saxophonists and composers with deep roots in academia, rebut that negative stereotype." Check out the full review  here.


"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. " Check out the full review  here.


"Davis’ passion for the subject matter is evident across the album’s tracks. Often, her alto sounds like dulcet bird calls. Sometimes her tone sings clearly through, perhaps evoking hope for a brighter future." Check out the full review  here.


Check out this feature on the editors playlist here.


"In stunning moments of emergent sonic synchrony that demonstrate not just superior musicianship but also the power of music to enact equitable social relationships, Davis highlights the artistry of her ensemble’s comping around her through her own playing." Check out the full feature here.


"One appealing quality of Caroline Davis’s music is the juxtaposition of heft and grace, as if coaxing out poetry from all the weight the world has to give." Check out the full feature here.


"That piece was improvised in the moment and carries with it a sense of urgency." Check out the full article here.


"It’s a forceful improvised romp ingrained with a lot of energy, power, and determination. " Check out the full article here.


Check out this feature on the editors playlist in Polish here.


Read the full article in German here.


"Even someone totally unaware of the thematic content would still be captivated by the quartet's probing performances and the aural dazzle generated by Davis and company." Check out the full article here.


Check out this feature on the editors things to do in New York City list here.


"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." Check out the full interview here.


"Attaining a unique sonic project Davis sticks to her appropriately advanced musical values while getting her social justice ideas across without sloganeering." Check out the full review here.


"Reinforced by carefully selected samples, Captivity succeeds in creatively conveying its message – a heartfelt expression that delivers a compelling musical and social statement." Check out the full article here.


Check out this review in Italian here.