An oceangoing organism with one brain and eight independent neuron-bearing links is the perfect image to invoke for a rather intense collection of piano duets. Taborn’s guest appearance on Davis’ 2016 album Duopoly excited both players enough to prompt a U.S. tour last fall, the source of these recordings. The opening “Interruptions One,” written by Taborn, gets across quickly and beautifully why he and Davis wanted to do more work together. They begin by passing notes back and forth to each other, slowly adding depth and velocity until they’ve built to a tremolo-laced peak that suggests a large tree full of four different types of birds all singing at the same time. Then Taborn starts up a slinky 7/4 repeating riff, which Davis punctuates with offbeat chords. Both pianists gradually fade into silence; these birds have flown.
It’s Davis’ turn to hold down an odd-metered pattern on her composition “Ossining,” establishing a 5/4 beat with a prepared-piano line that sounds a little like water trickling over a shallow, rocky streambed and prompts an adventurous solo from Taborn. The album’s remainder––Davis’ aptly named “Chatterbox” (I wouldn’t want to wager how many thousands of notes are played during its 10-minute span); an abstract take on Carla Bley’s “Sing Me Softly of the Blues”; two more Taborn-penned “Interruptions”; and a triumphant run through Sun Ra’s “Love in Outer Space” –is often dense, dissonant, percussive and not always easy to comprehend fully. But every sudden unison or smoothly executed break into half-time reminds the listener that what’s happening here is far from random; this music is governed by a fierce joint intelligence from start to finish. MAC RANDALL
Kris Davis & Craig Taborn’s “Octopus”: A continuation of sorts for Davis’ 2016 album “Duopoly,” which paired her expressive piano with a variety of composers from the front edge of jazz, this album is drawn from live performances with a like-minded fellow pianist from that recording. Offering a selection of bracing originals as well as takes on songs by Carla Bley and Sun Ra, the album is full of tangled, unfettered interplay (“Chatterbox”) and far-reaching sonic ventures (the prepared piano pulse to begin “Ossining”), but reaches a high-powered peak with Taborn’s piece, “Interruptions Three.”
I’ve written quite a bit about New York-based pianist Kris Davis in recent years, taking note of the versatility that enables her to not just blend in naturally in disparate contexts but make them better. She recently released a stunning collection of duets with fellow pianist Craig Taborn called Octopus (Pyroclastic), which blends rhapsodic reveries, driving rhythmic journeys, and harmonic explorations. Last year at the Green Mill, Davis provided simpatico contributions to an equally agile and shape-shifting quartet led by bassist Eric Revis, often binding hurtling tempos and convoluted structures with quiet authority. Somehow I missed 2017’s Asteroidea (Intakt), a trio session with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Eric McPherson, until recently, but since then it’s been blowing my mind with each listen. The music on it is all improvised, but its rhythmic snap and locked-in precision are unmistakable. Davis emphasizes the percussive side of her playing, mixing shattered-glass runs with hypnotizing riffs—which she bangs out with preparations that land somewhere between Conlon Nancarrow’s player-piano constructions and John Cage’s sonatas, crafting it all on the fly alongside the flinty, heat-producing grooves and angular counterpoint of her dazzling partners. Still, as malleable as her playing is, she has a clear identity. On Massive Threads (Thirsty Ear), her most recent solo recording, her playing is marked by a blend of postclassical contemplativeness, Monk-ish angularity (she delivers a wonderfully halting version of “Evidence”), and stark polyrhythms articulated through discrete right- and left-hand figures.
Piano duos have been around for a while but recent iterations – Kaja Drachsler-Eve Risser: Craig Taborn-Vijay Iyer; Kris Davis-Benoit Delbecq – have served as a reminder of the richness of the format. As for Davis and Taborn, They exploit the full orchestral possibilities of the two instruments all the while keeping firmly but flexibly within the time-honoured tradition of percussive playing. Taking a leaf from the Cecil Taylor copybook, the expected roles of lower and upper register are often inverted so that the right-hand figures provide rhythms that often ripple and slur into tremolo while the left creates curt, sharp melodies that are sometimes akin to the bass in a doo-wop ensemble.
However, it is when the players interlock a series of intensely drum-like stuttered phrases on Davis’ ‘Ossining’ that both the carefully weighted attack and listening skills of each hit a peak. The two players overlap rather than collide, and as an example of both polyrhythmic nous and ultra precise attention to detail the piece is thrilling, as if Davis and Taborn are in a post-Reichian fashion, phasing in and out like changing breathing patterns in the same body. Each contributes original pieces, but the choice of standards is also spot-on. Carla Bley’s ‘Sing Me Softly Of The Blues’ is handled with appropriate afterglow sensitivity, while Sun Ra’s ‘Love In Outer Space’ soars like a true hosanna. Although lacking the profile of some of their peers, Davis and Taborn are two restlessly creative figures who have make an important contribution to the lexicon of their instrument. This a fine calling card.
In jazz, the duo is perhaps the most underappreciated, and least commercially viable, of any combo setting. Consider all the classic trios, quartets, quintets, and sextets throughout the music’s history. Even septets, octets, and nonets get more love. Big bands, too. Solo performances, especially from pianists—for whom it’s right of passage—can be memorable events, and enhance a career. (See Keith Jarrett.)
And although duos have made a comeback in recent years, two musicians playing together on the same instrument remains rare. Not that it’s without precedent, of course. Two drummers? Check. (Milford Graves, who else, with Andrew Cyrille.) Two bassists? Check. David Holland and Barre Phillips recorded Music from Two Basses in 1971 and William Parker conspired with Stefano Scodanibbio ten years ago. Two pianists? More common, sure: Marian McPartland, most famously, played with many of her luminous guests in the long-running NPR program Piano Jazz, and the first Blue Note album, back in 1938, was a duo of the boogie-woogie pianists Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis, enthusiastically reimagined by Jason Moran and Robert Glasper at Town Hall four years ago.
But no two pianists have played with the kind of freedom and grace, abandon and emotion as Kris Davis and Craig Taborn on their new album, Octopus (on Davis’s label, Pyroclastic Records). Davis, 38, and Taborn, 47, are among the most respected pianists working today: rock stars in the jazz world, if you will (if the former remains more “indie”).
Davis, from Vancouver but New York based, has made a name for herself mainly on small European labels, while Taborn, a Minneapolis native, came to New York in the 1990s, mainly as a sideman, with musicians such as James Carter, Roscoe Mitchell, and Tim Berne. He’s now part of the esteemed ECM crew and his 2017 release, Daylight Ghosts, was cited by many critics, including this one, as one of last year’s best.
Octopus, a live recording, came out of Davis’s 2016 album, Duopoly, where she gathered an impressive group of musicians—clarinetist Don Byron, guitarist Bill Frisell, drummer Marcus Gilmore—for a series of, yes, duos. One was with Taborn, about whom Davis, in her liner notes for Octopus, writes: “From the moment we started playing I felt instantly transported and free within the music, and had the sense we could go anywhere. . . There was a feeling of deep listening, a dynamic sense of push and pull, and yet it strangely felt like a conversation we’d been having for years.”
Davis and Taborn felt there was more to say. So in the fall of that year, they, along with sound engineer Ron Saint Germain, took the show on the road, to twelve cities throughout the U.S.
As Davis suggests, it is a conversation—and, I’d add, a collegial debate—and an intellectual one for sure; it’s perhaps no coincidence that five of the concerts were on university campuses and another at the Kennedy Center.
Seven pieces from the various dates—at the University of Michigan; UC San Diego; and the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State—were selected for Octopus, three composed by Taborn, two by Davis, plus a Carla Bley tune, and another by Sun Ra, all of which offered ample space for free improvisation.
If two thinkers in dialogue—and Davis and Taborn are the deepest of thinkers musically—sounds like a potentially long afternoon at the 92nd Street Y, this encounter, on the contrary, is full of engagement and daring. One will bring up an a thought or a phrase and sometimes repeat it, and the other might elaborate on it, or change direction. The interplay also recalls the physical as much as the cerebral, as if it were in a sporting context. At times they’re in opposition, whacking ideas back and forth, sometimes at a frenetic pace—as on Davis’s prolix “Chatterbox”—while other points are played as if the two are doubles partners, one taking to the net, the other intuitively drifting back to cover the baseline. It leaves plenty for the highlight reel.
Taborn’s three “Interruptions” pieces fuse the free-expressionism of Cecil Taylor (and his disciples) with an edgy tenderness that suggests Don Pullen — someone, Taborn told me early last year, whose work has been important to him.
“Ossining,” by Davis—who recently moved to that Westchester town from Brooklyn with her family—is a blisteringly rhythmic piece over the first half of its eight minutes, the two trading staccato figures, that transitions into something quieter and lyrical.
The duo’s cubist reworking of Carla Bley’s “Sing Me Softly of the Blues”—as lovely as its title implies—segues, medley-like, into Taborn’s third “Interruptions” piece, where they volley short phrases to and fro in the stirring final quarter.
The album ends with a good old-fashioned ballad, “Love in Outer Space,” which Taborn selected from the catalogue of Sun Ra, that good old-fashioned futurist himself. It’s a gorgeous piece already—whether in Sun Ra’s vocal single version or his extended instrumental—and their rendition, slowed down here, the drama heightened, is ravishing. What opens as almost childlike, with Taborn in the highest of registers, progresses to a triumphant finale.
You can rack your brain at times figuring out which pianist is which—on this song and throughout the set—but, well, you needn’t. It’s an intellectual exercise, true; it’s also, simply, beautiful music.
Davis—whose 2013 Massive Threads was as good a solo piano album to come out so far in this young century, maybe bested only by Taborn’s Avenging Angel from two years prior—was at the Stone last week, where she led a variety of trios, quartets, and sextets. In her 17 years in New York, though, she’s probably most often played in the narrow, claustrophobic downstairs basement of the Cornelia Street Café. It’s an endearing spot, sure, but there’s this other downstairs basement, a few blocks away at 178 Seventh Avenue South. She’d be a worthy headliner there, even if only one grand piano fits.
Pianist Kris Davis’ 2015 self-released Duopoly CD/DVD set paired her with eight first-time partners and generated several ongoing collaborations. But while Davis has also toured with pianist Angelica Sanchez and drummer Billy Drummond as a consequence, it is the chemistry with fellow pianist Craig Taborn that has resulted in the first issued documentation of these extended encounters. It’s an eye-catching combination as both are among the most in-demand practitioners on the scene. Selected from three different fall 2016 concerts, the program encompasses five originals as well as two covers.
Entitled Octopus to reflect some concertgoers’ perception that the pair functioned as a single multi-limbed entity, there are times when at least three minds seem to be at work. One such juncture comes during the opening “Interruptions One”, when Taborn’s grounding chording anchors simultaneous independent sparkling runs from each of the principals. That precedes a simply dazzling shimmer of clipped and rolling notes and a rich tapestry of ringing overtones. While the challenge for two players on the same instrument is often to stay out of each other’s way, the feel here is of a meeting of minds in which the instrumentation is irrelevant.
The only thing that separates them is Davis’ occasional singular use of preparations and insistent Morse code repetitions and Taborn’s characteristic groove figures, which surface in slow motion towards the end of that first cut. But elsewhere, like “Interruptions Three”, they pass rhythmic phrases back and forth between them almost quicker than the ear can register. Fireworks erupt on Davis’ “Chatterbox” as sweeping staccato attacks and pealing tremolos jostle with intricate unisons. A chiming melody stands in sharp relief amid the lapping pianistic waves on “Sing Me Softly Of The Blues/Interruptions Two”, where fleeting blues inflections apart, they dress up the Carla Bley tune as if trying to smuggle it through customs. But there’s no disguising the glorious lilt of Sun Ra’s “Love In Outer Space”, even though Davis hits a repeated note like she’s hammering down a particularly stubborn nail during the warmly enveloping conclusion to a terrific set.