As concerts and recording sessions around the globe came to an abrupt halt, DownBeat interviewed eight artists to discuss their strategies for coping during the coronavirus pandemic. Read More
Ms. Davis is a calm and wise person who, despite her double award for Best Composer / Pianist in the annual North American Jazz Journalist’s Award, keeps her feet firmly on the ground. Teacher at Berklee College of Music, commissioned artist at the Monheim Triennale (postponed in 2021), active member of Terry Linn Carington’s or Ingrid Laubrock’s bands, she continues to be interested in others, to care, to share, to transmit.
In addition to her group Diatom Ribbons, which brings together two different musical universes she has worked with and which has been acclaimed by international critics, Kris Davis is also at the piano in an amazing quartet, bringing together the Norwegians Øyvind Skarbø, Ole Morten Vågan and the Swede Fredrik Ljungkvist. Finally, this year without a performance or a concert, is still a year of success, since a magnificent duo with his regular playing partner, the German and New York saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, has been released.
Kris Davis © Tim Dickeson
– Where do you come from, musically and / or personally?
I grew up in Calgary, Alberta, Canada and started playing the piano at the age of 6. I studied classical piano until I was 13 and then joined the high school jazz group. Shortly after, I decided that I wanted to become a professional jazz pianist. I studied the jazz tradition for many years, I did a lot of concerts playing jazz standards, and I finally landed on the improvised music scene when I moved to New York in 2001.
– You have just won the prize for the best composer and the best pianist of the year 2020 awarded by the Jazz Journalists Association. What does it bring you? What do you think ?
I am truly honored to have been elected jazz composer and pianist of the year by the Association of Jazz Journalists. The critics are passionate and knowledgeable listeners of this art form and to be recognized as an artist who has an impact as a composer and pianist of jazz is simply breathtaking and it is a confirmation. I hope that many opportunities will arise from this award and that I will be able to continue to create and present new works that both appeal to and inspire the public.
– You have also been selected for the Monheim Triennale, which was postponed due to confinement. How did you experience this period of confinement? What do the next months look like for you professionally?
For many artists, including myself, confinement has been a blow to my work. I was to play for the first time as a leader at Village Vanguard in April, with the group from my new album Diatom Ribbons . I also had to perform at Canadian, European and American jazz festivals this summer with Diatom Ribbons. All of this was canceled or postponed to 2021.
In addition to these dates as a leader, it was also planned that I would present a silent film project in collaboration with the filmmaker Mimi Chakarova at the Boulez Saal in Berlin in April and at the Monheim Triennale in July. I also canceled several tours for the Charlie Parker project at 100 , directed byTerri Lyne Carrington and Rudesh Mahanthappa . Many of these dates have been postponed to 2021 or canceled.
I HAVE ALWAYS HATED HAVING MY PICTURE TAKEN AND THAT IS WHY I DECIDED VERY EARLY TO DOCUMENT CERTAIN MOMENTS BY SOUND RATHER THAN IMAGES.
Since confinement, I have spent the past few months relaxing and spending time with my family. My son is in elementary school and I spend half the day teaching him at home and the other half practicing a little and doing exercises. I struggled to be creative during this time, so I focused on maintaining my technique by practicing classical music and applying my creativity to other activities, like cooking!
– You have participated in many exciting projects in the past two years. What motivates you so much in your artistic choices?
I am motivated by a moment and the experiences of that moment, what I learn, who I work with, what I listen to and what happens in my inner and outer world. I have always hated having my picture taken and that is why I decided very early to document certain moments by sound rather than images.
I have practically recorded one album per year since I moved to New York and I consider that these recordings are only testimonies of a certain period. Since 2018, my collaborations have grown considerably and my musical life took a major turn when Terri Lyne Carrington asked me to play with her in 2018. I have always been a fan of her game and when she asked me playing with his group in Taipei, I was really looking forward to where it could lead. Shortly after this concert, Geri Allen died and Terri asked me if I would like to play a series of concerts in her honor.
I didn’t know Geri’s music very well, but I saw it as an opportunity to learn more about her and her music. We played his compositions – studying the scores and playing the music is really the best way to get to know any work. Terri felt that there was a connection between Geri’s play and mine because both were versed in jazz as well as avant-garde and shared similar influences, from Herbie Hancock to Cecil Taylor .
During this period, I asked Terri and Val Jeanty , the DJ who participated in the concerts in honor of Geri, to play an improvised concert with me during my week at Stone in New York. It was a memorable concert, Terri’s first improvised concert in fact. After that, I decided to make an album combining this new team with longtime collaborators, such as Tony Malaby and Trevor Dunn . The result was my last album Diatom Ribbons .
IT IS IMPORTANT TO DISCUSS GENDER ISSUES IN JAZZ, BECAUSE THIS IS HOW PEOPLE BECOME AWARE OF THESE ISSUES AND THAT PROGRESSIVE CHANGES TAKE PLACE.
In addition to this work, Terri offered me a position at Berklee, where she teaches, in her new Institute for Jazz and Gender Justice . I started practicing at Berklee in September where I teach with one group on free improvisation and with another on contemporary composition. We also receive many guests every semester who discuss issues related to gender equality and inclusion in jazz.
– It’s really interesting. To what extent have you evolved on gender issues in music and jazz?
This is a question that is often addressed in interviews and in education, an area in which I am very involved. I think it is important to discuss gender issues in jazz, because that is how people become aware of these issues and that progressive change takes place. In my work, I focus on discussing gender equality with young musicians, because they are the ones who will ultimately contribute to the paradigm shift.
– Have you experienced situations concerning gender issues in your life as a musician? And now has that changed?
Of course, there is an increased awareness of gender issues, not just in music but in all areas. I think progress has been made, but again I am focusing on the younger generation to raise awareness of these issues, as I truly believe that they are the ones who will have a significant impact on change.
– You play very creative and improvised music and jazz journalists use words to describe it, words which do not necessarily speak of music but of atmosphere. Do you read the reviews? How do you find the journalistic approach to your work?
I read reviews of my albums – I always appreciate people who take the time to listen and write about their experiences with my music. In general, I find that the journalists have always supported the work.
I once heard critic Bill Cole tell a story about Herbie Hancock : Bill had criticized a new album that Herbie had released in the 60s and had written a negative review. Herbie then called Bill and asked him why he wrote a negative review. Herbie explained to Bill how difficult it is to get by as a musician and that such a scathing criticism would make it difficult for him to sell records and would make him lose part of his income. It really hit Bill and he stopped being critical after that, realizing that he didn’t want to make a negative contribution to anyone’s music career because he knew it was a hard way to go.
I THINK INGRID LAUBROCK IS ONE OF THE MOST UNDERRATED COMPOSERS OF OUR TIME
I do not know if this thought affects other critics, but I think there is an awareness of the difficulty for artists to continue to release albums, especially in our time. And if a reviewer doesn’t like it, he / she always has the option of not evaluating the project. I feel very privileged by the fact that over the years, critics have supported my work.
– You have been working for a long time with the saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock in different orchestral contexts and you are now releasing a duet called Blood Moon . What do you share musically with her?
Ingrid and I share the same musical temperament. I personally think that Ingrid Laubrock is one of the most underrated composers of our time.
– Why do you say that?
Because I believe that it has not received the recognition that should benefit a person who invented his own language and did a colossal job.
I learned so much from her: she absolutely has her own voice and a unique language as an improviser and composer. We first played in my living room 12 years ago with Tyshawn Soreyand there was an instant musical alchemy. I then knew that she would be an important musical collaborator. Since then, we have worked together in many contexts: she played in my group Capricorn Climber, I played in her group Anti-house and her orchestra project, and we started to play in trio with Tyshawn Sorey, under the name of Paradoxical Frog.
– You work, in particular on this duo, the composition and the microtonal approach of the instrument. What technique do you use for this?
I don’t really know much about microtonal approaches – I’m mostly interested in the piano’s response to microtones and I’m trying to figure out how to frame or accompany them on an instrument that can’t instantly go into microtones (but who can if the piano is tuned this way, like on a recording made recently with Hafez Modirzadeh ).
– In Blood Moon , there are slippery sounds and strange sound layers which are not usual with a duo of saxophones… where does it come from?
Ingrid uses microtones in her compositions, as we can hear in her song “Blood Moon”. I think she wrote this piece because she always takes into account the players for whom she writes: we have experienced this kind of sound (microtones on the saxophone with the piano) for many years when we improvise, by finding a means of framing the microtones when we are accompanied by the piano and something that resembles our unique language as a duet.
– On the technical level, what do you remember from your meeting with Benoît Delbecq?
I continue to use the piano technique prepared in my work – I love the variety of textures it allows and Benoît is the person who made me discover this possibility (with John Cage).
I also like the fact that it creates found or unexpected sounds.
“SOUND FINDS” HAVE BECOME IMPORTANT IN MY CONCEPTUAL APPROACH AS IMPROVISER
Certain forms which fall under the hand of the pianist have a certain sound, for example, when you place your hand in the C position and the fingers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 play the notes C, D, E, F, ground. If you prepare one or two of these notes that I just mentioned, you suddenly add an unknown to the gesture depending on the materials you use.
This can produce a percussive sound, a harmonic that gives the impression that you are jumping an octave up for that note.
The addition of this unknown element when I improvise corresponds to my conceptual approach to improvisation in the sense that I can make music from anything, and discover music in this “sound find” is really what improvisation is.
– It’s almost like improvising in improvisation! You are talking about the essence of this music: surprise, the unknown, the unexpected, the disconcerting. Do you agree ?
Yes. As an improviser, I always try to really improvise, to do something that I have never done before. As an experienced improviser, it becomes more and more difficult because you end up developing a lexicon of ideas and sounds. It is important to develop your own language, but there is a delicate balance between personal language and the use of language that is really improvisational in nature. This is why “sound finds” have become important in my conceptual approach to improvisation.
– Do you think there is a community of spirit, a sorority between Mary Halvorson, Ingrid Laubrock and you? There are many bridges between the three of you.
Mary, Ingrid and I have been playing together for 10 years now in various projects, and the three of us work together in Ingrid’s group, Anti-House. We all come from different backgrounds and experiences, but yes, I think we share a community of spirit, as composers, improvisers, craftswomen and risk takers. There is a feeling of mutual admiration and support between the three of us, which is both refreshing and comforting. I think it takes a while to find your “people”, especially in New York. I was in New York for 8 years before meeting Ingrid and Mary Halvorsonand when I started working with them, it was a trigger. I felt a sense of acceptance and support that continues today, even if we play with other people and develop new projects.
– What music do you listen to for fun, at home or on the go?
I listen to a wide range of music, from Andrew Hill to Anderson Paak. From Boulez to Cecil Taylor, from Scarlatti to the birds of the Amazon rainforest. When you asked if music works as a universal language, I think it absolutely is IF your ears and your mind are open to it. Organized sound is universal – even random sounds are universal because we, as listeners, have the ability to organize it in our mind. John Cage talks a lot about this.
AMERICA IS FULL OF WONDERFUL, PASSIONATE, INTELLIGENT, CREATIVE AND GENEROUS PEOPLE. PEOPLE WITH HEART AND COMMON SENSE.
– As we speak, there is this pandemic going on – and New York has been hit hard – and also (again) protests in the United States against the overtly racist policies of Trump and his cronies. What is your position as a citizen? Are you afraid of the future?
My heart is broken. Disappointed.
America is broken. It has been for a long time.
All these terrible events only reveal the failure of the system. Racism. Misogyny. Lack of respect for all human life. Indifference to the health of our planet. I consider myself an optimistic person, but I have a lot of trouble keeping hope these days.
In my experience as a foreign national, America is full of wonderful, passionate, intelligent, creative and generous people. People with heart and common sense.
When I moved to New York 19 years ago, I knew I wanted to stay there for good. Since living in the United States, I have slowly learned for myself how deeply rooted racism is in American history and culture, especially as a jazz musician who works with many Blacks and Métis . I discovered that fundamental human rights are not respected in the United States.
Yes, it is indeed a dark period for the United States. I hope real and lasting change will eventually happen by lifting the veil on the ugliness that characterizes America.
KRIS DAVIS, ‘DIATOM RIBBONS’
Kris Davis, 39, has spent years as her generation’s powerhouse pianist in waiting. No longer. On “Diatom Ribbons,” her skills as a composer, band assembler, system builder and improviser — a musical auteur, basically — come fully into focus. Ms. Davis builds her compositions on crooked patterns and splintered loops that somehow become a kind of magnetic touchstone, bringing together wildly diverse musicians in tangled unity.
by Seth Colter Walls
Aided by Nels Cline, Marc Ribot, and Esperanza Spalding, the New York pianist and her band mix lyrical song form, turntablism, and avant-garde strategies in unusually fluid fashion.
Not long after Cecil Taylor’s death, the Tzadik label crafted a tribute album involving six pianists. To find Kris Davis among their number was likely little surprise to fans of contemporary jazz, given that her live performances at New York venues like Roulette and the Stone have long shown off her melodic and percussive mastery of post-Taylor pianism. But she is not just a star soloist. One recent, notated composition of Davis’ was included on an exciting set of contemporary classical pieces performed by the pianist Rory Cowal. She is also an adventurous collaborator, working in a wide variety of ensembles.
That range is one of the principal delights of Diatom Ribbons, Davis’ latest release on her own label. (Yes, she’s an impresario, too.) Wilco’s Nels Cline appears on several tracks, and sometime Tom Waits sideman Marc Ribot also shows up on a couple. Both of those guitarists hold firmly established identities in the contemporary jazz firmament, though it’s not often that you’ll find them on an album that also features two guest spots from Esperanza Spalding (working only as a vocalist here). Davis’ organizational insight holds that all of these artists contain multitudes, and that it shouldn’t be so unusual to hear them grouped together.
That the stylistically diverse results flow so well, over the course of an hour and 10 tracks—all but two composed by Davis—is also partly due to a band within the band. The album gains a sense of unity thanks to a trio of players that shows up regularly amid the comings and goings of guest stars: veteran drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, rising-star DJ Val Jeanty, and Davis herself on piano.
The trio’s collective attack sets the pace during the first minute of the arresting title track, which opens the album. First Davis, on a prepared piano, plays riffs full of metallic timbres while Jeanty samples spoken—but highly musical—phrases from Cecil Taylor himself. Carrington settles into a groove not long before Taylor’s line, “For me, music saved my life”—a construction that inspires Davis to introduce new percussive figures. Soon after, Jeanty retreats for a bit, making room for a bassist (Trevor Dunn) and a pair of tenor sax players (JD Allen and Tony Malaby).
There’s a lot going on here, including melodically captivating soloing, an intergenerational shout-out, and various experimental textures. But instead of being a jumble, it’s a triumph. Spalding’s voice gets the spotlight on the next track, “The Very Thing” (written by Davis associate Michaël Attias). But Jeanty again provides crucial work during this performance, attaching delicate trails of whispery turntablism to some of Spalding’s highest notes.
Carrington, Jeanty, and Davis also construct the head-nod feel at the outset of “Rhizomes” (with the help of onetime Xiu Xiu drummer Ches Smith on vibraphone). But Carrington is soon ably shifting into rock-adjacent territory before Cline enters with an energetic solo of lightly distorted tones.
That covers about the first 16 minutes of the album. There are plenty of highlights yet to come, including “Corn Crake,” the core trio’s standalone number, during which Jeanty samples oration from the French modernist composer Olivier Messiaen. But no matter how unusual the compositional structures may seem, there is a consistent, songful style at the heart of most performances.
The major exception to this rule is “Golgi Complex,” a short tour through a chaotic complex of motifs. But even here, Davis pursues a variety of approaches: The composition is presented twice on the album, with the original, more forbidding version sequenced second, after another variation that has an air of funk-indebted swing. Even when Diatom Ribbons ventures into unapologetically avant-garde territory, there is a clear desire to make each choice communicate. When expertly realized by such a vibrant cast of collaborators, this suite of strategies brings several of Davis’ skills—as a player, composer, and bandleader—to a new, heightened state of expression.
by Giovanni Russonello
The prolific musician has started a nonprofit and taken a leadership role at Berklee College of Music. On a new album, “Diatom Ribbons,” she continues to make her point clear.
OSSINING, N.Y. — Since moving to New York in the early 2000s, the pianist Kris Davis has released close to an album a year under her own name, rarely with the same group twice, while also becoming one of the most trusted side musicians in avant-garde jazz. Her signature style, based in miniature gestures, has a peculiar appeal: Rarely does such serrated, asymmetrical music — often diced up into odd time signatures, or improvised freely — feel this fun to listen to.
Last year she tied for the top spot in the “Rising Star Artist” category in DownBeat magazine’s critics poll, a good gauge of who’s next in line. And she has stepped up her work as an impresario and educator: She recently formed a nonprofit organization, which now houses her record label, Pyroclastic Records, and this fall she took on a leadership position at Berklee College of Music’s new Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice.
In all of these roles, Ms. Davis, 39, is fighting for fringe music, guiding it toward a more engaged — and maybe even accessible — future. But her best arguments on its behalf have always come directly through the music. On Friday, Pyroclastic will release “Diatom Ribbons,” Ms. Davis’s latest album and the one most likely to catch on with a broad jazz audience.
“It was a little bit of trying to throw a wrench in things and see what happened,” Ms. Davis said last month over lunch near her home in northern Westchester, explaining how she assembled the unusual band featured on the album. “I never like to bring in a piece and say, ‘This is the finished product.’ There’s more to be done, in terms of the composition and the collaboration, that for me brings the piece to life.”
The record is both a refinement of Ms. Davis’s strengths as composer and bandleader, and an expansion on them. Its motley group of musicians — often from opposite ends of the jazz world, some of whom hadn’t even heard of each other before the session — include two saxophonists, two guitarists, a bassist, a vibraphonist, a turntablist, a drummer and Esperanza Spalding on occasional guest vocals. They play in various configurations across the 10 tracks, almost all Davis originals.
And “Diatom Ribbons” puts her rhythmic, pattern-based style of avant-garde playing into a direct conversation with funk grooves, played with prismatic nuance by the drummer Terri Lyne Carrington — a marriage that, in retrospect, seems like it was destined to occur.
Uniting musicians from such different artistic backgrounds, never establishing a standard ensemble size, Ms. Davis forced the group members to listen to one another harder, and to place their traditional instrumental roles into question.
For Ms. Davis, it was the interdependent nature of improvised music that first drew her to jazz. In junior high school, inspired by a passionate music teacher, Kevin Willms, she and her friends gathered at each other’s houses on weekends in Calgary, Alberta, to play and listen to records, as if they were starting a rock band.
“When I joined the jazz band in junior high school, it just opened another world,” she said. “Oh, we can make music together? Oh, we can actually improvise?”
She went on to study music at the University of Toronto, playing almost every night on the city’s humming jazz scene. Even at relatively buttoned-up gigs, she found ways to push boundaries without losing people’s attention.
“I would take it way out,” she said, remembering her weekly solo-piano engagements at the Toronto Marriott. “It didn’t matter. Everybody was just like, ‘Oh, she’s into it.’ It’s meaningful, it has intent, so people would always respond.”
After graduating, Ms. Davis moved to New York City in 2001. She found a community there of other recent music-school grads, and a mentor in the saxophonist Tony Malaby. When he invited her to “bring some structures” — that is, small musical phrases or devices — into a rehearsal that the band could mess around with, it unlocked a new way of understanding composition: as a form “of influencing improvisation and directing it in a specific way,” she said, but not controlling it.
“I was immediately struck by how she would interact with ideas, getting them really fast and then turning them into her own expression,” Mr. Malaby, who appears on the new album, said in an interview. “Then the thing that’s amazing about Kris is, she was able to put that down on paper in a way that never felt caged or framed. She could catch the essence and the vibe and the purity of improvisation, and then be able to catalog it as a place to start from.”
“Diatom Ribbons” draws its name from the tiny, single-cell algae known as diatoms that live in waterways around the world and produce half of our breathable oxygen. Looked at through a microscope, their individual structures are beautifully patterned; seen from far-off, in satellite images of oceans, their sprawling formations are just as striking.
It’s clear why Ms. Davis would be drawn to these little life-forms. Much of the music on “Diatom Ribbons” is built on phrases of just a few notes, which she then moves around between keys or positions on the piano. Often, miniature hammering patterns are rejiggered and replanted in various places across a measure or a track, becoming the foundation for an expansive, ensemble-driven piece. While Ms. Davis focuses a lot of energy on crafting short, isolated bits, she vests her notes with a particular sensitivity and awareness. There is always a reassuring continuity within this ostensibly hectic music: a sense of rolling forward and building out, as if everything were connected.
The secret to all this, really, is great rhythm. Perhaps the most essential quality to Ms. Davis’s success, her rhythmic sensitivity comes largely from the influence of Cecil Taylor, she said. (On various tracks on the new album, the turntablist Val Jeanty cuts up excerpts from interviews with Taylor and the French modernist composer Olivier Messiaen, an equally strong source of inspiration for Ms. Davis.)
“He’s playing free, but there’s rhythm in everything that he’s playing,” Ms. Davis said of Taylor’s music. “There can be rhythm, even when it is abstract or visceral. It still can be rhythmic.”
Ms. Carrington sensed this immediately in Ms. Davis during their earliest performances together: first when she invited the pianist to join her band for a gig in Taipei, then when Ms. Davis returned the favor, bringing Ms. Carrington and Ms. Jeanty together in an unorthodox piano-drums-turntables trio, for a wholly improvised set at the Stone.
“The way she was playing, it just made the whole band come together,” Ms. Carrington said. “Even if we were not playing something in the same rhythm at the same time, it would still work together.”
Struck by Ms. Davis’s ability to unite different musical ideas, and therefore a wide range of musicians, Ms. Carrington hired her this year to join the Berklee institute as a full-time instructor and assistant director.
“It’s not traditionally a school that focuses on ‘improvised music’ and more contemporary playing and writing,” Ms. Davis said. “So that’s my focus: to create a community there for the students, and also for the faculty.”
Jazziz – To The Outer Reaches. Kris Davis looks to discover the piano’s full potential. – Ted Pankin
At 7 a.m., 90 minutes before our scheduled interview on Christmas Eve morning, Kris Davis sent an email: “bad night of sleep — call you when I’m up — around 9:30.” We were supposed to speak the previous night, but she emailed me before the appointed time to say that a second consecutive day of recording an orchestral album with saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock at Manhattan’s Power Station left her too punchy “to do you much good.” When we finally connected at 9:30 sharp, Davis explained that she’d been up most of the night soothing her 4-year-old son through serial nightmares. It was our second rescheduling moment of the week. Six days earlier, we postponed our first scheduled interview when Davis awoke in the morning with a stomach virus her son had picked up at school. In that instance, too, we spoke the next morning, after which, Davis told me later, she treated herself to a rare “day off” that entailed practice, exercise and hanging out with her son. Between our conversations, Davis had pursued her customarily industrious schedule, which included a commute from her Ossining, New York, home to Manhattan to teach piano and guide the Herbie Hancock Ensemble at the New School; a two-hours-each-way drive to teach jazz piano at Princeton; and two long rehearsals with Laubrock. The day after our second talk, she led a new trio with Eric Revis and Johnathan Blake at a John Zorn-produced evening at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium, then worked three consecutive nights as a sidewoman, first in saxophonist Jure Pukl’s quintet at the Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village, then in a quintet assembled by Revis to play a newly commissioned suite over two nights at the Jazz Gallery in midtown Manhattan.
Davis hadn’t exactly been slacking off before our first chat. On December 7th, she drove to New Haven for a free-improv concert with trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum, followed by four collectively improvised sets over two nights at Manhattan’s Jazz Gallery with Borderlands Trio — a cooperative unit with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Eric McPherson — in support of their new album, Asteroidea (Intakt).
“The last three months I’ve been gone a lot,” Davis said. “I was home just a few days in November.” That month’s itinerary included a week in Vancouver to premier a new orchestral piece with that city’s world-class NOW Orchestra, a few two-piano concerts in Poland with prepared-piano specialist Benoît Delbecq, and a week-long workshop at Maryland’s Towson State College. September and October found Davis doing “shorter tours over a weekend period, Thursday to Sunday, and then teaching Monday through Wednesday.”
Somehow, Davis carved out time in 2016 and 2017 to debut and develop her own label, Pyroclastic, on which she released her 12th and 13th albums as a leader or co-leader. The 13th, Octopus, comprises six far-ranging piano duos with Craig Taborn culled from three concerts on a 12-date U.S. tour in October 2016. Their association gestated when they first made music together, on Davis’ 12th album, Duopoly, a tour de force on which, over three days in May 2015, she recorded two duos apiece — one composed, one improvised — with guitarists Bill Frisell and Julian Lage, pianists Taborn and Angelica Sanchez, drummers Billy Drummond and Marcus Gilmore, and reedists Tim Berne (alto saxophone) and Don Byron (clarinet).
Throughout both albums, Davis incorporates prepared piano, minimalism, post-Webern serialism and jazz standards with conceptual rigor and musicality. She also deploys the stylistic flexibility, harmonic and rhythmic erudition, quick-witted lucidity, impeccable chops and empathic conversational attitude that established her as someone to watch since she moved to Brooklyn from Canada in 2002. “Kris can obviously play any kind of style or idiom, but she doesn’t wear it on her sleeve,” Berne says. “You don’t get the sense that, OK, now she’s playing jazz, now she’s playing free. It’s all part of the same thing.”
“Kris’ statements are well thought-out and clear,” Sanchez says. “She comes up with interesting shapes. She’s really good at experimenting and pushing herself to find other spaces. She’s a sincere, honest musician, and that’s rare these days.”
Sanchez was teaching improvisation and composition at the Banff Center for the Arts when she met Davis, just past her second year at the University of Toronto, in the summer of 2000. Born in Vancouver and raised in Calgary, Davis received classical training from age 6 and became enamored of jazz at 12, when her ability to read music and play scales gained her entry into her middle-school jazz band.
“Playing classical music, I was alone all the time,” Davis recalls. “Jazz became the focus when I discovered how much fun it was to play music with other people.” Her teacher introduced her to Miles Davis’ Four and More and Keith Jarrett’s Live at the Deerhead Inn, and she began to transcribe their solos, along with others by Bill Evans and Bud Powell. By the end of high school she was gigging in local restaurants, playing piano for the school choir and teaching theory to 10th-graders. As an undergraduate in Toronto, she says, “I had a gig every night for two or three years, playing with cabaret singers, doing restaurant gigs.”
Meeting Sanchez and Banff faculty-mates Tony Malaby and Dave Ballou introduced Davis to the notion of free improvisation. “We’d been working on playing in a more open way, and we were there to share it,” Sanchez says. “She hadn’t felt that kind of energy first-hand. You could tell she had the fire and desire to search, and I knew I’d see her later on.”
“I’d only played standards up to that point, and it was completely new and foreign and confusing to me,” Davis says. “I hadn’t composed either, so I didn’t really have that mentality. But after leaving and having a year to think about the experience, I wanted to explore it more.” She elaborates: “Monk was an innovator and everyone I was listening to was an innovator. They all had their own ways of learning from the past, synthesizing the material and then creating their own way. Something about that — exploring unknown and maybe less charted territory — intrigued me. I thought it might be fun to try and explore another way of thinking about the instrument.”
Directly after graduating, Davis moved to Brooklyn, where she reconnected with Malaby and Sanchez. A Canada Council grant enabled lessons with Jim McNeely, whose ideas on “non-functional harmony” inflect her rather mainstream 2002 debut, Life Span. That record, Davis says, reflects “a mentality of playing jazz, playing standards, coming from people like Kenny Wheeler, who is a big influence on Canadian artists.” But you can hear her consciousness transforming on 2006’s The Slightest Shift and 2008’s Rye Eclipse, both venturesome quartet sessions with Malaby, and on the turbulent 2005 recording Fiction Avalanche, by the collective RIDD Quartet, with saxophonist Jon Irabagon, bassist Reuben Radding and drummer Jeff Davis.
“As I played more with Tony, everything changed,” Davis says. “We talked about a more textural and abstract approach, using the extremes of the piano, thinking of the piano more as a linear instrument than a harmonic instrument. I’m a visual person to the extreme, so ideas about playing like a painting, or thinking about my role as a voice or an orchestra or a bass player, or playing compositionally when you’re improvising became modular concepts that I could see. That transformed the improvisation.”
Also transformational for Davis was a summer 2005 trip to France spent studying prepared-piano concepts and techniques with Delbecq. She describes the sojourn as “another step in trying to explore the outer reaches of what could be accomplished on the piano, or how I might use the piano differently within an improvisational setting.” Both were enamored of the polyphony-oriented, West African- and Balkan-inspired piano études of the Hungarian composer György Ligeti. “The idea of taking from different genres and using it for another purpose made a big impact,” Davis says. Then Sanchez introduced her to the work of Austrian composer Thomas Larcher, who alters the harmonics of piano strings by applying gaffer tape and rubber wedges, and she analyzed his procedures.
“I never plan out my preparations,” says Davis, who makes particularly effective use of gaffer tape, which, when applied to the strings, imparts a tamped-down, one-dimensional sound. “I know what they sound like, but I want to be surprised and create. Whether I like whatever I started inside the piano or not, I’m going to commit to it completely and find music in it.” As an example of that principle, she mentions her association with Laubrock and Tyshawn Sorey in the outer-partials-oriented trio Paradoxical Frog, whose eponymously titled debut CD was a highlight of 2009. “Often when you’re playing free-improvised music with people, there’s the feeling, ‘If I stop, you’re going to stop,’ but it never feels like that with them,” she says. “You feel everyone has your back, and you can do something completely off the wall, and we’ll still be in this zone we’ve created.”
Also in 2009, Davis, then 29, introduced her prepared-piano investigations on Aeriol Piano, a solo recital of great originality, and convened bassist John Hébert and drummer Tom Rainey to make Good Citizen, on which she refracted language culled from Ligeti, Monk, Morton Feldman, Cecil Taylor, Paul Bley and others into her own authoritative voice.
Stephan Crump admired Paradoxical Frog and Aeriol Piano so much that, according to the bassist, he called Davis in 2014 to meet for informal duo sessions “to get to know each other and see if there was chemistry.” Over time, McPherson entered the mix, and each member agreed that on-the-spot improvisation (Crump calls it “spontaneous composition”) should be the group’s m.o.
“Whether she’s playing the piano wide-open or with some of her preparations, Kris clearly has a powerful sense of orchestration,” Crump says. “By playing with the harmonics on the strings, she essentially creates different sections of her instrument, almost as if you had an orchestra with a woodwind section, a string section and percussion.
“I’ve listened to Aeriol Piano a lot. The second piece, ‘Saturn,’ blew my mind, the way she structures it and organizes it, the power and magnetism of her rhythmic sense, the fact that she has her own voice on the instrument. The album opens with ‘All the Things You Are,’ and I love how obliquely it deals with the core of the tune. There’s power to that, and concept, and deep caring about the collective statement and collective development.”
Paradoxical Frog also drew in Revis, whose latest release, Sing Me Some Cry (Ken Vandermark plays tenor sax and clarinet; Chad Taylor plays drums), marks his third leader recording with Davis. He toured that quartet last spring in Europe, and a trio with Davis and drummer John Betsch in the summer.
“She’s a virtuoso, but it takes a back seat to what she’s achieving musically,” Revis says. “There’s her sense of lyricism — she approaches it from left field, but it makes total sense. She has some fire behind her. She gets a very pointed sound from the piano. She has dynamic range. She always gets to the essence of what you’re trying to convey.” He recalled a show at Amsterdam’s Bimhuis. “They give you a choice of grand pianos, and she said, ‘It would be great if I could have two of them, so I could prepare one.’ She’s always adding something from day to day. This incredible sonic template opens up. We did a gig in Switzerland, and there was this horrendous upright piano. I apologized. She said, ‘No, no, this is great!’ There’s no gradation of quality that she has problems with. It speaks to her as a person.”
Asked about this occasion, Davis demurs. “Eric just means a piano that’s not a stellar instrument, like you often find on tour,” she says. “But I don’t mind playing pianos that aren’t perfect.” She recalled one venue on the tour with Taborn that generated Octopus where the pianos were “funky.” “We found what worked, and used it,” she says. “It was fun.”
About collaborating with Taborn, she says, “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.” She cites his 2001 trio album, Light Made Lighter, released a few years after her first record, as “a big influence,” particularly the opening track, “Bodies We Came Out Of,” a short form 5/8 tune built around a bassline, and an abstract reading of “I Cover the Waterfront.”
“We share a lot of the same aesthetic, I think, in using jazz language and classical music and free music,” Davis says. “Craig influenced me in being so free with the standards, pushing and pulling the time, and also on how to write very little and stretch it out and use the material to create a whole piece.”
Davis’ tours with Taborn and Revis (with whom, in the spring, she will play duo for 10 days in Japan) augur future encounters outside the nurturing circle of musicians she bonded with — and with whom she continues to play — during her 14 years in Brooklyn. Her January itinerary, for example, included a duo with Ambrose Akinmusire at The Stone and tributes to the late pianist Geri Allen, with drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, at New York’s Winter Jazz Festival and Harvard. In July she’s booked to tour with Carrington and tenor saxophonist David Murray, assuming the role Allen played with those two musicians on the 2016 CD Power Trio.
“I never knew Geri, but she did have an influence on my music — feeling it was OK to be a woman in jazz and continue on this path,” Davis says. “When I was in my teens, I looked to Geri and Renee Rosnes in particular to know that it would be possible to have a career as a female jazz musician. Often at workshops or in schools, musicians approach me and ask for advice. I tell them: Just focus on the music, and making good music, and finding good people you feel you can have a musical relationship with. Some people who made a big deal about being a woman in jazz got penned into a certain corner in the way that people think about them, and I think it limited what they could access. I never wanted to be part of that scene. I wanted to be free to make music with the people I liked making music with, so that’s the direction I took.”
She notes that all her students at Princeton and The New School, even at recent workshops, are male. “More women need to be teaching jazz in these academic institutions, so people know women are out there doing this,” she says. “I think I surprised some of my students who thought I was a guy because my name is Kris. They tried to talk to me about some of the woman musicians they know, and they could name one person — Geri Allen.”
Our conversation occurred at the peak of #MeToo, a moment when female musicians were publicly testifying about the trauma of absorbing various levels and degrees of misogynistic remarks, inappropriate and offensive workplace behavior, and sexual assault from their male peer group. “I didn’t have those experiences,” Davis says, distinguishing herself from other unnamed friends. “I never felt excluded. I didn’t experience cutting sessions either. Maybe at one point I thought I might have to do the school of hard knocks, but I navigated away from those situations and ended up playing with certain people. I know it doesn’t have to be that way to make great music and find a community. Now it never comes up. Maybe it’s because I’m further along in my career.”
Davis’ husband, guitarist Nate Radley, was about to return from Sunday morning shopping with their son. “It’s hard,” she responds when asked about balancing motherhood and a career that has always involved late nights and demands increasing travel. “Last year, [my son] and my mom came with me on a solo tour in Europe. We didn’t make it to the end. We all got sick.”
The Best of Friends
One of the many dimensions of Kris Davis’ longstanding friendship with fellow pianist Angelica Sanchez is their mutual obsession with finding new composers and musical ideas to draw upon and experiment with in developing their own musical productions.
“Many times a year Kris will call and say, ‘Give me something to listen to that I’ve never heard,” Sanchez relates. As a recent example, she mentions having recommended several works by the German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann, who “writes things that sound very romantic, and then the next piece will be super avant garde and in the stratosphere.”
Sanchez continues: “We compare notes. It’s about the search. There’s never an end to it. It’s never ‘Oh, I couldn’t find anything this week.’”
Davis elaborates on their mutual listening. “I want to be inspired,” she says. “Sometimes I get stuck. I don’t have a ton of time to go deep and search. I just want to find things I resonate with, not necessarily for focused listening. I rely on a few people for help with that, and Angie’s one of them. She always gives me a great list. Lots of piano music.” As two examples, Davis mentions Thomas Larcher and Alexander Scriabin, the turn-of-the-20th-century Russian composer who, she says, “totally changed my life when I first moved to New York.”
Trombonist Ben Gerstein is another of Davis’ helpful friends. “He’s so pure about the music,” Davis says. “He just sent me all this Scarlatti that I’ve been playing at home. He’s into slowing things down to half-speed and checking out how things sound at different tempos, different rates. He sends me bird calls, nature sounds. Receiving those things in my in-box in the middle of trying to get through all the work and day-to-day stuff makes me so happy. It completely clears my mind, and I’m in that zone, listening to the music, especially through Ben’s ears or through Angie’s. It’s the best.” —TP