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)

“She’s like a sponge, very open and always checking out what’s coming around the corner,” Malaby said of Davis during a phone interview.

The two met at Canada’s Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, where he was teaching in 2000. He recalled that he was “blown away by how fast she got the lessons and was able to execute them, adding her personality as well. She’s got great time, great energy and ideas, always making the right decisions in the moment, pushing the envelope with forward motion and harmonic advances.”

Malaby first recorded with Davis on her 2003 album Lifespan (Clean Feed) and has kept doing so ever since. “I’ve always had sessions at home, which Kris came to,” Malaby continued, “and in the early 2000s, we’d talk about how we wanted to improvise differently than what was common then. We wanted to get away from the lengthy energy burnout style, and also away from the ‘downtown’ attitude of making fun of jazz. We wanted to bring more real jazz feel into improv.”

On Diatom Ribbons, Davis teamed him up with Allen and Carrington for the first time. He characterizes the album as “really thick, and fun. There’s so much happening, a multi-layered environment with Kris’ [accompaniment], Terri Lyne’s grooves and the DJ’s special contribution that’s great to blow over and through. I feel free to do whatever I want, knowing Kris is there to cover me, to make me sound good. I really trust her.”

Carrington has a similar view of Davis. The two musicians have a strong kinship that began to develop when Carrington invited Davis to perform at concerts in honor of pianist Geri Allen (1957–2017) and was further solidified via subsequent collaborations.

In an email, the drummer wrote, “Kris’ sense of rhythm and mine are connected, whether we’re playing in time or not. We’re like-minded; the time between us feels solid and elastic simultaneously.” That sense of flexible time is illustrated throughout Diatom Ribbons, especially on “Sympodial Sunflower” (a lovely piano/drums duet), “Corn Crake” (a trio piece with Jeanty on turntables) and “Stone’s Throw” (a quartet number with Ches Smith on vibraphone and Trevor Dunn on upright bass).

“This is what makes it cool for me, and I hope for Kris, too,” Carrington wrote. “I don’t approach her like I’m just laying down a groove for her to play over. I like creating tension with the groove, and knowing when to move away from it or dig in deeper. Harmony affects rhythm, so what I do really depends on what she’s playing. I try to think texturally as well, so I may play against what she’s doing, for counterpoint. I’m not trying to be challenging. Instead, we find each other’s frequency, to have a dialogue and make music that’s fulfilling.”

Carrington’s drumming is consistently powerful and definitive, even when it’s sonically subtle and diffuse; Jeanty’s use of samples and effects is imaginative and compelling. The two tenors roar together on the title track, and they blend achingly a 12-minute rendition of Hemphill’s “Reflections.” Spalding’s voice, gracefully crooning Attias’ lyrics on “The Very Thing” and intoning Gwendolyn Brooks’ words on “Certain Cells,” balances the Taylor and Messiaen audio clips that Jeanty triggers and manipulates.

Dunn is impressive throughout, Smith effective with unflashy contributions. And, as one might expect, Cline and Ribot steal thunder for the rave “Golgi Complex,” while Ribot rips it up on “Golgi Complex (The Sequel),” and Cline rocks out ringingly on “Rhizomes.”

The question is how Davis thought to bring all these folks together.

“They’re all people I work with,” she explained. “[The album is] representative of my musical life. When we did the sessions in 2018, I was playing in all these different communities, and feeling like, ‘All these people need to meet.’ I thought there could be some really cool things going on, if we could make music together.”

They have, and so cooperatively that Davis’ unique ways of holding them together while expressing herself—with piano preparations, suddenly emergent figures, warm, crisp or crashing chords, lustrous note sprays, high-register filigrees, artful emphases and thoughtful runs resulting in evocative passages—sometimes are subsumed. Which is, after all, a composer’s, rather than a soloist’s, concept.

“Yeah, for Diatom Ribbons my compositions are my contribution,” she acknowledged. “I’m in there playing, but there are many people involved, and I wanted to create frameworks for them to come together.”

That Davis is a big-picture thinker with a wide, penetrating overview is a strength she brings to her new role at Berklee. When Davis spoke with DownBeat, she just had started there, teaching improvisation and composition ensembles, planning outreach to Boston-area middle schools and beginning to compile a series of Real Books focusing on the works of women composers. “The job was created for me,” Davis said, “and we’re still figuring out all it encompasses.”

But Carrington, founder and artistic director of the institute with a mission to “recruit, teach, mentor and advocate for musicians seeking to study jazz with gender equity as a guiding principle,” has a vision for their future. “Kris is a brilliant and important artist of her time—and for certain is unconventional. So, my goal with inviting her to join us is to unleash some of her creativity in support of the work we are doing, and to bring her style of creative process to our students. I find it very inspiring, so I feel strongly that they will, too.

“We are encouraging students to look at improvisation through a different lens than they may be used to, which is exciting. Personally, I feel it is important (for the students) to strike a balance of free improvisation, traditional jazz language/vocabulary and connection to rhythm (groove/funk/head-nod elements—whatever you want to call it). Kris is masterful with that balance as her discography, especially Diatom Ribbons, displays. I’d like for our institute to carve out our own little cutting-edge corner of jazz education at Berklee.”

Davis is up to that task—and several others. In early November, she led a Berklee student quartet at Dizzy’s Club in Jazz at Lincoln Center. She was back in Chicago to engage in probing and frolicsome duets with Taborn: One of their forays was a mash-up of Eric Dolphy’s “Hat And Beard” and Conlon Nancarrow’s “Study For Player Piano, No. 9”; they also delved into Sun Ra’s “Love In Outer Space.”

She has acquired staff to help with her Pyroclastic label, which in addition to issuing Davis’ own works has released recordings by bassist Chris Lightcap, reedist Ben Goldberg and pianist Cory Smythe. At press time, the pianist was looking forward to engagements with Carrington and Jeanty, musing about recording with them, and also collaborating with other artists, including poets and dancers.

And she spoke of larger ambitions: “I want to see gender balance. I’d still like to see some of the older, more established players reach out to younger women and include them in bands, because we know that’s how you get your start, being mentored by someone a little older and established. I’d like to see some structure for artists to be able to make their music and not go bankrupt. I want to make a positive impact on the jazz community.”

Toward that goal, Davis is well on her way. DB

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