Kris Davis: The Pianist as Chameleon

Kevin Whitehead

By Kevin Whitehead

on 12.19.13 in Spotlights

Nowadays, many jazz musicians either lead or play in several bands over the course of a single year, but it wasn’t always so. Can you picture Coltrane in 1963 leading other groups on the side? His quartet kept him busy enough (and allowed for occasional guests or subs). The reason for this is partly economic. In the ’60s, a nightclub stand could go on for weeks. Now, engagements are much shorter; if you want to come back soon, you need a new combination.

But diversification is also a creative decision. Your partners change how you play; different situations call for different tools. Look, for example, at four different albums that Calgary-reared New York pianist Kris Davis appeared on in 2013. She plays all the positions around the diamond: leader (Capricorn Climber for quintet), side-person (on the Eric Revis trio’s City of Asylum), member of a co-op (LARK), and solo recitalist. Varied settings let her reach all her strengths, as improviser and composer, active pianist and sometimes silent partner.

After moving to New York in 2001, Davis recorded a string of small group albums for Fresh Sound and Clean Feed, before Ben Ratliff’s ringing endorsement in the New York Times two years ago raised her profile. She once resolved to stop playing chords and concentrate on lean and linear developments, but it’s not an iron rule on the solo Massive Threads. On the bangy title track, relentlessly pounded heavy chords evoke the old factory-loving Italian futurists. (In any setting, she likes motorik repeated figures.) “Ten Exorcists” is for two overdubbed pianos that sound like more; it’s a post-minimalist exercise in crisscrossing rhythms, piano choir as drum choir.

But more often, there’s a surprising airiness and clarity about her playing, even in dense arrangements. “Desolation and Despair”‘s brooding, bottom-dwelling romantic harmonies are leavened or complicated by isolated, clacking high notes far above. On “Leaf-Like” her hands are similarly independent; each speaks in a distinct voice, with a different touch, feel and timing. It’s almost as if two pianists are at work.

For the airiness, Thelonious Monk is a touchstone. But where other pianists evoke him via bonky clusters, Davis zeroes in on the space he left in the music — the poignant silences. Fred Hersch once recorded “Five Views of Misterioso,” which reframed Monk’s skeletal melody in the context of John Cage’s or Morton Feldman’s spare piano pieces. Davis takes a similar approach to “Evidence,” starting with a softly elliptical episode that highlights the Monk line’s built-in hesitations; the unstated pulse rolls freely behind the stops and starts. But then there’s a mechanistic, stuck-left hand bit. “Dancing Marlins” ends with a stuck right, repeating a message/melody/figure like an S.O.S.

Her lean playing becomes starker in a band. Eric Revis, a bassist with impeccable cred after a decade and a half with Branford Marsalis, has been mixing it up with all sorts of adventurous folks of late. City of Asylum is for his mostly improvising trio with Davis and drummer Andrew Cyrille, a grand master of rolling tom-tom patterns played with mallets. He’ll let logrolling momentum build and then stem it with a few clamps of the hi-hat.

This is one of those rare trios where piano, bass and drums are equal partners; the focus is on more than just piano and rhythm. If anything, the pianist is the accompanist here, sometimes waiting until bass and drums have established the mood or environment before entering, as on “St. Cyr.” She bangs out a lot of chords on that one, although overall she does think rather like a horn player, weaving her line through bass and drums. But again, she’s not strict about it: at one point on “For Bill Taylor,” she rummages through various chords that fit under a bass ostinato; later she sets up the spontaneous ending with still another repeated figure. On the hypnotic title track, an upper-register bass figure and Davis’s top-of-the-keyboard clacking function like West African mbiras, over Cyrille’s soft tom patterns.

The interplay is even more intricate with LARK — a telepathic improvising collective with trumpeter Ralph Alessi and Davis’s frequent allies, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and drummer Tom Rainey. On LARK, the pianist deploys a range of tactics. Piano is variously both line and anchor — a horn and repository of grounding repetitions. Sometimes she’s the bass player with her left hand, and then adds chords with her right. Sometimes she’s the band’s second percussionist. You can hear all those approaches on the 19-minute “Nit-Splitting,” which slowly builds to an explosive finish where piano shoots off fireworks. Elsewhere, Davis may evaporate — narrowing or attenuating her line until it disappears, only to resurface in another register, with a fresh idea. (The interplay between the horns can be astounding, too.)

Kris Davis the composer is represented by last winter’s Capricorn Climber, for quintet including Laubrock, Rainey, and bassist Trevor Dunn. The music ranges from the jazzy momentum and snaky melody of “Big Band Ball” to slow and atomistic pieces (“Dreamers in a Daze,” “Bottom of a Well”) where Mat Maneri’s precisely microtonal viola is a floating, ethereal presence. With either saxophone or viola out front, the ensemble can pivot between a feeling of jazz or of chamber music, though more often the sound is suspended between, on the balance beam. The feel is loose, but there are many specific arrival points, as on “Pi Is Irrational” — moments when the players have to hit their precisely off-kilter marks, and the composer’s voice asserts itself. And snaking through it all is that sly, spry piano, nimbly light on its feet.