Listening to Caili O’Doherty’s Padme, it’s hard to believe she’s a young jazz pianist and composer still finding her way. Her music is equally hard to believe for the lay listener, other than it’s vibrant, dense, and incredibly layered, deeper than the deepest ocean, with a world of stories at her fingertips.
Even the title of her debut album is deep. Padme in Sanskrit mantra means, lotus flower. The lotus flower “begins growing at the bottom of a muddy pool, emerges and blooms on the surface of the water during daylight, and then closes and sinks below the surface each night, to bloom clean the next day,” she explained in a press release. “To me, it embodies the idea that each person, despite the conditions they start from, can hope to realize their dreams.”
The classically trained O’Doherty, 23, extends that lotus flower meaning to worlds outside her own through all original music she imagined in the nine instrumental tracks. The original music graces the temperatures of Africa, Latin America, Europe, and parts of the U.S. — all places she’s lived, absorbed, and translated into jazz form.
Her appearance belies the hidden depths of her music. At first sight, O’Doherty’s cute, slender, impossibly young. What could this young, pretty girl understand of the suffering and the revolutions of other, more underprivileged cultures? A lot, if you just listen.
A strong, but unusual songwriter, the Sugar-Hill-Harlem-based O’Doherty won an ASCAP Foundation Young Jazz Composer Award and two DownBeat awards in 2009. Lately, she said she has tried to write her songs as a lyricist first to get the feel of the music, then tosses the words aside for the final showcase. She even sings her lyrics to the songs, which will become instrumentals. In some cases, like “Ode To St. Johns,” the instrumentals feature a pop of wordless vocals.
This unusual songwriting technique gives O’Doherty’s instrumentals on Padme that heft in the layered depth and emotional density. The listener can almost hear a voice trying to say something in those overflowing lines of sax (Caroline Davis-alto, Ben Flocks-tenor), trombone (Eric Miller), violin (Alex Hargreaves), guitar (Mike Bono), and the core rhythm section of O’Doherty on piano, drummers Adam Cruz/Cory Cox, and bassist Zach Brown.
The hidden depths of Padme can be found in the daring use of space and dark colors of “Prayer Song,” featuring drummer Adam Cruz and a framework of moody sax. As on many of the other tracks, everything seems in danger of falling in on itself with so many instrumental voices warring for clemency until O’Doherty lightly makes a path for each musician to worship properly, stretching out the thought patterns that initially come on strong. “Prayer Song” manages to be meditative, stirring, and emboldened, all at once, with pockets of true revelation — tenor Ben Flocks arduously wraps around the premises in a drunken disturbance, questioning the holy mention, as O’Doherty tries to (at the 5:07 mark) maintain a semblance of order through an accessible, but veiled, R&B gospel rap.
The opening salvo of the title track gives O’Doherty a broad range of attack. She encompasses an ease of rhythm, a contrarian timing that leaves the entire movement slightly unsettled and ready to bolt. But beyond the technical phonics, it’s truly an original song that rocks — “Stumptown” too — the socks off today’s arm’s-length, tissue-paper jazz.
“Tree Of Return” gives a good example of O’Doherty’s thoughtful outreach. This is an artist not given to cute displays alone, or simply sounding sweet. In “Tree Of Return,” she thinks about West Africans docked for a life of slavery.
The song — rife with Hargreaves’ violin spectacle, a showcase of O’Doherty’s lyrical offbeat piano quality — tells the story of people from Ouidah, Benin, West Africa, slated to board slavery ships long ago. These West Africans would circle an old tree three times with the hope of coming back to their roots one day. She wrote the song after traveling to and learning about the Gate of No Return slave port there.
The song itself makes the listener feel what it must’ve been like for the Africans about to leave the only home they ever knew, somehow capturing the sights and sounds in a kind of quiet chaos, the panic inexorably rising to the surface in incredible waves, overlaying a dense sense of disquiet and strength. “We tried to imitate cries with the horns to express the deep sadness of the story, but also it’s [a] very joyful outlook of a terrible, terrible situation,” O’Doherty said in an EPK for the new album.
Also in the EPK, trombonist Eric Miller marveled, “In every single element, incredibly innovative, creative, and beautiful. She has an incredible sense of harmony and chord progressions. It’s very clear that she’s been studying composition for a long time, and the compositions themselves are through-composed in nature, meaning that there are several different sections to them and they really tell a story.”
The Berklee-trained musician was once a part of a summer jazz workshop band led by drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and the Global Jazz Institute with director Danilo Perez — both Grammy artists. O’Doherty has shared her gifts with underprivileged middle school students for the Berklee City Music program, as well as performed at orphanages, children’s hospitals, prisons, and women’s shelters. She also volunteers by continuing to teach whenever she can, notably at the Jazz at Lincoln Center’s early-childhood jazz education program WeBop, and the Stanford Jazz Workshop, where she is also a faculty member.
“When you’re very clear what you’re doing it all for, it gives everything a bigger purpose,” she added, from the press release. “I’ve seen how music can be a vehicle for social change and healing. I strive to incorporate those ideas in my daily life.”
Caili O’Doherty’s currently touring in support of her new album, Padme.