By Michael J. West | Published October 2023
The avant-garde trades heavily on being just that: ahead of its time. It flatters the listener that we are being let in on the music of the future. That mythology is increasingly hard to square with Kris Davis’ music, though, as Diatom Ribbons Live At The Village Vanguard makes clear. For all its freshness and innovation, Davis’ music is precisely and unmistakably the sound of today. It helps that Davis’ Diatom Ribbons quintet comprises fearless, best-in-class players like drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, guitarist Julian Lage, bassist Trevor Dunn and electronics guru Val Jeanty. This bunch can make anything, from the breathless rocker “Kingfisher” to the skewed quasi-ballad “Brainfeel,” sound ultra-modern. But Davis’ material also does a lot of that work for them. With its disparate, slow-moving parts, “Endless Columns” moves from spacey eeriness to solid groove, especially in its middle portion when Carrington, Lage, Dunn and Jeanty meld together to pave the way for a surprisingly melodic Davis solo. “Bird Call Blues” does it one better, with experimental vocals and musique concrete building up to steady-swinging post-bop. Their contemporariness is all the more impressive considering that the quintet deeply mines the progressive jazz tradition in their Vanguard stand (the recording comes from two nights at the club in May 2022). It features covers of Ronald Shannon Jackson, Geri Allen and Wayne Shorter (freewheeling versions of Shorter’s “Dolores” close each of the album’s two discs). Jeanty also includes speaking samples of, among others, Sun Ra (“V.W.”) and Paul Bley (“Bird Call Blues”). Has time finally caught up with the avant-garde? Is the future now? Perhaps it’s just that Davis has the acuity and focus to root a farsighted vision firmly in the present.