Caroline Davis’ previous Sunnyside album, Heart Tonic (2018), was inspired by research the alto saxophonist conducted upon discovering that her father had a heart arrhythmia. He passed away two years ago, and with Portals, Volume 1: Mourning, Davis channels her grief into a set of captivating original works that reflect on her loss and help her come to terms with a loving relationship that was nevertheless not as deep as she might have liked.
Davis’ regular quintet is augmented by a string quartet that helps to evoke the mixed emotions of the grieving process. Just as the strings begin to sound sweet (“Highlighter Hearts”), they immediately follow with a 51-second interlude of tense scrapes and creaks (“On Stone”). This kind of contrast is also present in Davis’ own playing, which can shift from crisp lines to gruff clusters of notes (“The Inflated Chariot Awaits Defeat”). Behind her, drummer Alan Mednard treats the tempo elastically, acting as a catalyst for the saxophonist’s performance. The angular quality of “Yesterday’s Seven Thousand Years” offers a good showcase for her skill at pushing rhythmic freedom to the hilt.
Aside from the album title, the album offers little information either about Davis’ inspiration or the sources for the spoken interludes, which range from The Rubaiyat to correspondence with her father. In the groovy “How to Stop a Drop of Water from Evaporating,” she repeatedly answers her father’s riddle in a falsetto voice, “Throw it into the sea,” a point that can be easily missed. Without the textual background, Portals might be a bit enigmatic but it still stands as a strong release, combining unsettled feelings of mourning with the peace that can be reached after some deep soul-searching.