‘Octopus’ by Craig Taborn and Kris Davis Review: Diving for Deep Listening

Live recordings of the jazz piano duet offer insights into the roots of the players’ technique.

‘Octopus’ is the new album from jazz pianists Craig Taborn and Kris Davis PHOTO: PETER GANNUSHKIN

By Martin Johnson
The Wall Street Journal

Piano duet recordings are rare in jazz compared with trios or solos, yet they offer huge rewards. A duet of artists with contrasting styles—say, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock or Cecil Taylor and Mary Lou Williams —enables listeners to find surprising common ground between the performers and appreciate the idiosyncracies more. Duets pairing pianists with similar approaches—as on the albums featuring Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan or the one with Muhal Richard Abrams and Amina Claudine Myers —offer insights into the roots of their technique and often take listeners into unexpected sonic territory. The latter is the case with “Octopus” (Pyroclastic, out Friday), a splendid document of live recordings featuring pianists Kris Davis and Craig Taborn.

With their lean, restrained and abstract music, both Ms. Davis and Mr. Taborn often remind me of the painter Paul Klee in their embrace of the modern trends that recently preceded them. In addition, their style is bright but not sunny, like the flavor of a Sancerre. “Octopus” consists of two compositions by Ms. Davis, three by Mr. Taborn, and two covers—the Carla Bley jazz standard “Sing Me Softly of the Blues” and Sun Ra’s “Love in Outer Space.” The recording opens with Mr. Taborn’s “Interruptions One,” a spare, lyrical piece in which both pianists skillfully interact with silences as capably as they do with each other. The proceedings heat up a little on Ms. Davis’s “Ossining,” which is named for the town in the Hudson Valley, a region where she and many other musicians now live. The pace quickens and each pianist layers cluster over cluster, with Ms Davis playing prepared piano in parts to exhilarating effect. Their reserve gives Ms Bley’s composition a wistful air; they find a soulful edge with the music of Sun Ra.

“Octopus” is compiled from concerts in Ann Arbor, Mich.; Columbus, Ohio; and San Diego, when the duo toured following the Ms. Davis’s 2016 album, “Duopoly” (Pyroclastic), which featured duets with Mr. Taborn and such other jazz luminaries as guitarist Bill Frisell, clarinetist Don Byron and saxophonist Tim Berne. One stop on the tour, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, can be found on YouTube, and the variance is instructive. There are elements of the compositions found on Octopus, but many are taken in substantially different directions. Both pianists are restless improvisers with enormous arsenals of ideas.

Ms. Davis and Mr. Taborn, as well as many of their contemporaries, are elevating jazz beyond the limiting continuum of accessibility and abstraction. Long rhythmically intense stretches of “Octopus” are easy to grasp, yet so too are the austere sections. It’s music that is defining its own terms rather than shoehorning itself into categories like tradition and avant garde. The audience gets it; the enthusiastic ovations that punctuate the recording border on ecstatic.