When discussing a jazz musician’s art we tend to focus mostly on their musical heroes or formal training. But a player’s surroundings also play a powerful role in the forging of their sound. Think of the blaring Manhattan sirens and car horns in John Coltrane’s music, the cool Pacific surf in Chet Baker’s soft voice and balladic trumpet, the brawling, beer-soaked roadhouse swing of Count Basie. And so it is with tenor saxophonist Catherine Sikora, whose deep, fiery, and contemplative music has been indelibly impacted by the craggy rock formations, mythic ancient stone structures, and mist-shrouded mornings of her native County Cork, Ireland. “My music was definitely shaped by the landscape I grew up in,” says Sikora, who doubles on soprano and flute. “I was very isolated as a child, and I spent a lot of time walking by myself along the quiet country roads and the beautiful cliffs by the coastline.” She also cites her lifelong love of poetry as having a deep affect on her music, counting T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats among her chief inspirations. “Besides the imagery that certain poems suggest to me, the forms of poems—their meters, structures, rhythms—offer ways to develop lines and phrasing,” she explains. “I find I use the same mental space reading poetry as I do when I’m playing.” Sikora took flute lessons early on, but after she’d pestered her parents enough they gave her an alto saxophone when she was 16 and she taught herself to play. Sikora’s search for a heightened level of musical expression next led her to Berlin, and finally in 2000 to New York, where she put aside performing for several years to study under acclaimed saxophonist and educator George Garzone. “[Garzone] literally opened my playing right up,” says Sikora. “His approach let me find my own way, it’s what really steered me toward free playing.” Before taking the plunge into total freedom, however, Sikora played standards gigs and joined the Astoria Big Band and urban-noir octet the Poma-Swank. But soon after she formed the improvising units RX Trio (now defunct) with pianist Jeremy Bacon and drummer Tim McLafferty, and Beasts At Play (ongoing) with drummer Ziv Ravitz. It’s the heated sparring of the latter that Sikora likens most to another of her passions—boxing. Both groups made strong waves on the downtown scene, where Sikora further developed her gutsy, probing sound and for a time performed with the renowned collective Burnt Sugar. Currently Sikora is involved with several exciting projects, and recently toured Europe with Elliott Sharp’s Terraplane. She leads her own exemplary trio with bassist Francois Grillot and drummer Bob Hubbard, which she maintains is rooted in free playing but more reliant on structure, groove, and melodic awareness. The saxophonist also performs in several duos, including the twosome known as 22, which is comprised of Sikora and trumpeter and bass clarinetist Matt Lavelle, and an unnamed pairing with her old cohort Jeremy Bacon on piano. But perhaps foremost among her contemporary twosomes is Clockwork Mercury, a group consisting of Sikora and her life partner, the bassist, vocalist, and poet (and fellow boxer) Eric Mingus. “Playing with Eric is the purest, most focused concentration of sound and melody,” says Sikora. “I always feel like I’m all ears when we play together. Which is the pinnacle of playing, really.” The pinnacle of playing is exactly what Catherine Sikora has been striving for—and attaining—since the day she first picked up her instrument. Each of her performances and recordings resonates with the vibrant, beautiful, and life-affirming proof.