The Carn Davidson 9 is a chord-less ensemble co-led by trombonist William Carn and saxophonist Tara Davidson.
Formed in 2010, the group has released three recordings — the most recent being 2021’s The History of Us — all of which have been nominated for Juno Awards. The group uses its seven horns as melodic, harmonic and rhythmic devices, anchored by bass and drums.
Ahead of the group’s performance at Hugh’s Room Live, Carn joined us to talk about the Carn Davidson 9’s upcoming project With Gratitude and about the creative collaboration between the band’s two leaders.
For people who don’t know what the Carn Davidson 9 is about, tell us a little bit about it. You’ve got no piano, no guitar, seven horns. There’s no chordal instrument, and this is by design. Tell us about the concept.
Tara and I have each had our small ensembles over the years — quartets, quintets — and we’ve written a lot of music for those groups, so we thought we’d try to put a group together, but something different instead of forming another large ensemble, another big band. First, we wanted to make it a little smaller, so it’s easier to book into tighter spaces. And then at the time I was listening to this great John Scofield record called Quiet, and even though he’s a guitar player, there’s a wind ensemble that accompanies the trio, and I just love that sound so much. I think there’s an oboe player, full classical woodwinds and all that. That was the starting point for the idea of the Carn Davidson 9.
Are there limitations when you don’t have a chordal instrument like piano or guitar, or does it remove some limitations?
In many ways, it opens it up. We’re very fortunate to have some of the best players across this country or even on this continent. Andrew Downing, a masterful bass player and cellist, is such a master of harmony and time. In those moments where the horns aren’t playing, and it’s just the bass and drums, you’re not really missing any of the information. He’s such a great accompanist, and he can play multiple notes at one time. If things get quiet, you’re really not missing the piano or guitar.
Tara Davidson is the Davidson in the Carn Davidson 9, and she’s also your partner. As cohabitants, how do you approach things compositionally? Do you put some coffee on and sit there writing together, or are you in separate rooms doing your own thing?
It’s more option B. The first two records, it was, “You pick four songs and I’ll pick four songs.” But the last recording, The History of Us, we purposefully came up with the concept of family. With that concept in mind, we went to our rooms and started writing. We would always call on each other, “Hey, come in here, check this out. Is this OK?” We’d ask each other for advice constantly. And then we’re working on our fourth record … which is all new music written over the past few years, a number of them written this year. The idea for this is two suites of music, and the album will be called With Gratitude. It’s about our musical inspirations. For Tara, it’s about four saxophonists: Christine Jensen, Joshua Redman, Dick Oatts and Kenny Garrett.
Something different that people don’t expect from me is that I’ve always loved Brazilian music with a passion, but with the exception of one song, I’ve never written anything with a Brazilian feel. So, I purposefully wrote a suite of music dedicated to or inspired by certain Brazilian artists like Hermeto Pascoal and Antônio Carlos Jobim. I also wrote a song for my father called “Florencio,” his name, and that’s actually a rumba. It’s all Pan-American music for me.
How valuable to be able to knock on a door and have that musical ear to help you. That must be a great collaboration and in-house resource. It seems Lennon-and-McCartney-ish.
I suppose so. We’re not that prolific, but yes. We feel very fortunate, for sure.
Is the Carn Davidson 9 always the same nine folks?
Ideally, yes. Those nine people are always the first-call people.
When you talk about those two sides of With Gratitude — the four saxophonists and the Brazilian music — do you then think of ways that they can work together, or can they each work separately unto themselves?
It’s a bit of a roll of the dice, but we’ve been very fortunate so far. On all four of our records, the music is all very different. Both of our styles are different, but somehow they complement each other. There is no pre-conceived musical idea like, “If I write this song this way, then you should write yours this way.” We just hope for the best. But I think Tara and I have been together now for so many years so we understand each other’s sensibilities and artistic leanings. It all does gel, somehow.
This interview has been edited and condensed.