Innovation is Kris Davis’ Motivation

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Pianist Kris Davis with two of her collaborators on Diatom Ribbons: turntablist Val Jeanty (left) and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington

(Photo: Caroline Mardok)

Energized and inspired by her opportunities, pianist Kris Davis is gaining a higher profile and more listeners by being at the crux of multiple scenes and movements. But she’s no overnight sensation.

A native of Alberta, Canada, Davis started on classical piano at age 6, discovered jazz during high school, started gigging to support herself when she left home at 17 to attend the University of Toronto and has never stopped. Today, she eagerly books herself into projects with a vast array of groups. She has released more than a dozen albums as a leader or co-leader since 2003, and that many more as a sought-after collaborator.

Davis, 39, has earned the admiration of colleagues, journalists and fans, demonstrated through her busy performance calendar, critical acclaim and high poll placements. (She was co-winner of the category Rising Star–Jazz Artist in the 2018 DownBeat Critics Poll.)

She also has a new, prestigious and unprecedented academic post—associate director of creative development at the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice, Terri Lyne Carrington’s program—following a two-year stint teaching at Princeton and The New School. Living in Ossining, New York, with her husband-guitarist Nate Radley (they’re heard together on her 2015 Clean Feed album, Save Your Breath) and their son, Davis might be assumed to have achieved both professional and domestic security.

Still, innovation is her motivation, and the urge to explore is at her core.

“I like variety in my life,” she said with a laugh, while waiting to do a sound check before her first completely “free” concert (no written or predetermined material) with trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and drummer Nasheet Waits at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center during last September’s Hyde Park Jazz Festival. “I like each recording to be different and to then go on to the next project, which will also be different.

“I’ve always thought of music from the audience’s perspective, after having gone to so many shows, often seeing pretty much the same thing, learning what works and what doesn’t. I’m interested in keeping the audience engaged. So, if things are starting to feel stale, or just droning on, I’ll address the problem. Although sometimes the concept is to stay in one place, even maybe for a long period, and face the challenge of that. Maybe the common thread is that there’s always—and especially in my writing—some sort of larger idea or plan.”

Davis’ new album, Diatom Ribbons (on her own nonprofit Pyroclastic Records), demonstrates that, though it might not be obvious on first listen. It incorporates contrasting elements—multi-leveled synchronizations, explosive blowouts, quiet interactions, spoken-word samples of Cecil Taylor and Olivier Messiaen—and is unusually sequenced, yet coheres as a whole. “I thought of it as an Oreo cookie,” Davis quipped. “Horns on the outside, guitars around the core, piano-drums-turntables and sometimes vibes at the center.”

On this program of Davis’ original compositions—plus her arrangements of a song each by Michaël Attias and the late Julius Hemphill—the leader recruited a remarkable cast: saxophonists JD Allen and Tony Malaby, guitarists Nels Cline and Marc Ribot, percussionists Carrington and Ches Smith, bassist Trevor Dunn, turntablist Val Jeanty and Esperanza Spalding, who contributes vocals. Seldom have players from such diverse niches of jazz and rock convened so productively in various combinations on the same album.

Davis is at the center of the mesmerizing mix (courtesy of engineer Ron Saint Germain and producer David Breskin), venturing beyond conventional jazz parameters, whether she’s waxing lyrically, hammering a motif as propulsive accompaniment or reaching inside her instrument’s to plink, pluck and stroke its strings.

Named after the one-celled microalgae that reveal startling structures from both micro and macro points of view, Diatom Ribbons has been hailed in DownBeat, Pitchfork, the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere for blurring, if not transcending, genre categorization. It’s far from the first time Davis has demonstrated such audacious originality.

Earlier, she won acclaim for her duets with fellow pianist Craig Taborn, documented on Octopus from 2016 and Duopoly (both on Pyroclastic) from that same year, which also showcases her one-on-one encounters with Don Byron, Tim Berne, Billy Drummond, Bill Frisell, Marcus Gilmore and Julian Lage. Besides her unusual touring group with Carrington and Jeanty, Davis has another ensemble with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Eric McPherson. “That’s an improvising trio,” she said, “but the music often sounds composed.”

Further expanding the intersection of composition, improvisation and interpretation, Davis is due to record John Zorn’s bagatelles; she was in his troupe performing them on a 2019 tour of Europe. And she’s among the notable pianists paying tribute to Cecil Taylor on Zorn’s 2018 production of Winged Serpents’ Six Encomiums For Cecil Taylor (Tzadik). The pianist also shines on saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock’s 2018 leader album, Contemporary Chaos Practices (Intakt), cast amid an exacting studio orchestra.

After recording Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence” on her 2013 disc, Massive Threads (Thirsty Ear), in 2018 she gave a solo Monk concert at SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco.

Paul Bley, Wynton Kelly, Keith Jarrett and Andrew Hill are among the other pianistic influences she cites, but few obvious borrowings emerge from her fingertips. She sounds incontrovertibly like only herself. Indeed, “Eight Pieces For The Vernal Equinox,” her through-composed work performed by Rory Cowal on the New World Records album Clusters: American Piano Explorations, was recognized by The New York Times as being among 2018’s top 25 classical recordings, cited for its “explosive melodic movement, successfully evoking her own playing style.”

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