This sax player on way to the top
Tara Davidson releases album
Plays in quartet at Senator this week

GEOFF CHAPMAN
MUSIC CRITIC

Tara Davidson's career in jazz was signposted as a teenager when her music-loving family (her dad is a music teacher) took her to hear legendary players Illinois Jacquet and Dizzy Gillespie in New York.

She started playing jazz seriously at age 16, a promising career helped by encouraging teachers, playing in the school band at a junior high school in Brampton and in the stage band of the renowned Mayfield Secondary School and, especially, taking lessons over a five-year span from great Canadian saxman Mike Murley.

Now, just eight years later, she's getting serious recognition of her own, playing this week at The Senator (through Sunday) and releasing her eponymously-titled debut CD.

Davidson's bandmates are bass Mike McClennan, drummer Jesse Baird and pianist Laila Biali sitting in for keysman David Braid, who's playing down the road at the Montréal Bistro with Murley's combo.

"Mike Murley has been a huge influence. Learning from him has been fun, he's very encouraging.

"Others to whom I listen are always changing Sonny Rollins, Joshua Redman, (Europe's) Stefano DiBattista, Kenny Garrett and (Canada's) Seamus Blake and I'd have to add Stevie Wonder and Sting," she said in an interview before this week's gig. "Jazz just has a great appeal for me."

After attending the University of Toronto Faculty of Music ("it was a cool program where you practised performance and met slightly older players"), Davidson joined the U of T jazz performance program and then things really began to happen.

She was invited to play with the IAJE Sisters in Jazz Sextet (the IAJE is a large organization concerned with jazz education that held its annual convention in Toronto a year ago). That led to performances in New York, Washington and venues in Europe.

"It felt like winning the lottery. It was a tremendous learning experienced and I'm glad the IAJE set up the opportunities," she said.

A member of the Crossings Quartet, pianist Laila Biali's Octet and the Chris Hunt Tentet, Davidson is also a co-founder of the all-femme quartet Without Words, which has performed throughout Canada and at Peru's jazz festival. It released its debut CD last month and will be back in Peru and Brazil this spring.

Davidson knows that a record with nine original compositions by her carries risks, but to these ears it's a very promising stop on her journey to the top.

"It's a part of pushing myself, though perhaps it's not as accessible as standards — but standards can be really hard to do well, too. My material is new, it's different and hopfully it's fresh."

Doubling horns is definitely an asset. "Alto just seemed to fit for me, the size is physically right, as I discovered at age 12. Tuning a soprano sax is a bit of a pain, but it's not restricting. I love playing it, and I also love the voice of the tenor."

The new disc is certainly interesting, as she works out on alto and soprano saxes. The music features strong, winding lines and themes that are developed well, like the charging "Wait And See," and she makes sure her comrades play major roles.

Her saxophone tones are very appealing, sounds that grow on you as she ruminates in brooding tones on "Anastasia's Picture" and "Out In The Open" (with long-lined overdubbing) and more fiercely on tracks like "Battle Scars" and "Anticipation," though there's always a sense that abrasive provocation stays in the background as the improv flows effortlessly around a cool centre.

"I Remember Jan" is an impressive example of her skills.

For now, Davidson just wants to keep active. "I need to really keep busy playing. I'm proud of my group but I want to get to the point where I can just play and travel. I'm also looking at projects beyond jazz, such as a funk band."

Additional articles by Geoff Chapman