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.