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Caroline Davis and Rob Clearfield’s Persona: Anthems (Sunnyside)

A review of the album from the saxophonist and keyboardist group

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Caroline Davis and Rob Clearfield's Persona, Anthems
The cover of Anthems by Caroline Davis and Rob Clearfield’s Persona

Saxophonist Caroline Davis and keyboardist Rob Clearfield’s Persona, much like the 1966 Ingmar Bergman film inspiring the group’s name, is bent on exploring themes of convergence and identity. The co-leaders capitalize on the bonds they formed during their shared days in Chicago, but their album isn’t bound to any single scene or tied to a particular aesthetic. It’s a mind-melding affair, subsuming identities.

A trio of Davis originals introduces and establishes this artistic merger from different angles. “People Look Like Tanks,” inspired by the work of artist Carlo Zinelli, captures the painter’s struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder by juxtaposing developmental threads against an insistent piano tether. “Bots,” a far lengthier work, deals in plaintive wonders. And “Anthem,” a playful and pronounced miniature, toys with choppy rhythms and dissected thoughts. In each instance, Davis and Clearfield, along with bassist Sam Weber and drummer Jay Sawyer, find ways to wrap themselves into the fabric of the music while still maintaining a form of self-determination endemic to the art.

The deep-seated drive and sense of abandon found in Eric Dolphy’s “Miss Ann” offers a sound alternative—a rambunctious and raw style that suits the group—but originals remain the focus throughout. Clearfield’s “A Soothing, Melancholy Breeze,” a classically inspired duet for the leaders, lives up to its billing, and his rolling “Green” contains some of Weber’s most inspired work. “Anthem (reprise)” offers an electrified twist on the title track. And the staid-turned-spiritual “Secrets” and twisting “Lithe” take things to the finish line.

Although the manner by which these four fold themselves into the compositions is of prime importance here, of near equal weight is the way they continually shift the balance between calculation and impulse. It’s a crafty aspect of Persona’s work that keeps everybody vigilant.

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Originally Published

Dan Bilawsky

Dan Bilawsky has been involved in jazz journalism for 15 years. His work has appeared in JazzTimes, JAZZed, and All About Jazz, among other outlets. In addition, he’s penned liner notes for artists on Red, Capri, HighNote/Savant, Ropeadope, and other respected imprints. A band director with 20 years of teaching experience, he holds degrees in music from Indiana University, the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, and Five Towns College.