The music of pianist Kris Davis is characterized by its duality. Although often tagged as “cerebral”—and her output is complex and progressive, often as tied to contemporary classical as it is to jazz—Davis’ music is just as much a visceral experience. A similar duality is present in her personality: A soft-spoken modesty comes across at first, but it’s inner confidence and self-possession that make the lasting impression. These qualities have helped make the Calgary- bred Davis, 33, one of the more highly regarded composer-improvisers on the New York scene.
On the heels of a quintet album released March 18—Capricorn Climber (Clean Feed)—Davis put out two more albums this fall: Massive Threads (Thirsty Ear), her second solo piano disc, and the all-improvised LARK (Skirl), documenting a collective with saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, trumpeter Ralph Alessi and drummer Tom Rainey.
Set for release next year is Waiting For You To Grow, the second album by her trio with Rainey and bassist John Hébert. The title refers to her writing and recording the music while pregnant with her first child. Balancing creative work with new motherhood, Davis then finished composing an album-length suite for an unusual octet—four bass clarinets, guitar, piano, organ, drums—that she will premiere in January at Roulette in Brooklyn, then record in the studio.
Davis has recorded eight albums as a leader in a decade. That’s in addition to two albums with Paradoxical Frog, her collaborative trio with Laubrock and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. Davis’ drive stems in part from the way she first pursued her life in music, having left Calgary at 17 to study jazz piano in Toronto. “I’ve always had a commitment to working hard,” she said. “That comes from when I first left home—I had this fear: ‘Am I going to be able to do this and make it?’ That has stuck with me.”
Once in New York, Davis didn’t take long to develop a soundprint marked by a horizontal, line-oriented method rather than one that’s vertical and chord-centered. Early jazz influences had included Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett, followed by such mentors as saxophonist Tony Malaby. Lately, she has been drawn to modernist composers. Her first solo album, Aeriol Piano (Clean Feed), included prepared piano à la John Cage. There’s a piece on Massive Threads based on György Ligeti’s étude The Sorcerer’s Apprentice; another had her musing, “What if Morton Feldman played Monk?” Her upcoming trio album includes a number titled “Berio,” after Luciano. She said, “The discipline of learning to play Ligeti or Berio makes you relate different physically to the keyboard—and that can open up new approaches.”