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Photos courtesy of the artists.

On Thursday, November 15, the next edition of The Jazz Gallery Mentoring Series kicks off at The National Jazz Museum in Harlem. This edition features pianist Kris Davis mentoring saxophonist David Leon. Throughout November, the pair will play in four different configurations, from duo to quartet. The ensembles will feature many of Davis’s regular collaborators, including drummers Tom Rainey and Tomas Fujiwara, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, and bassist Michael Formanek.

Like Davis, Leon is an improviser of enthusiastic versatility and catholic taste. He leads his own post-bop quartet, performs with the collaborative trio Sound Underground, and frequently convenes groups for free improvisation. A native of Miami, Florida, and a graduate of the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, Leon has won an ASCAP Herb Alpert Award for jazz composition and performed at the 2017 Newport Jazz Festival. Sound Underground has just released their third album as a group, which you can check out below.
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Kris Davis and Ingrid Laubrock. Photo by Peter Gannushkin.

This Saturday, The Jazz Gallery welcomes saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and pianist Kris Davis back to our stage for two sets of new music. Laubrock and Davis have been close collaborators for many years, playing in each other’s projects—Laubrock’s Anti-House and Davis’s Capricorn Climber—as well as co-led groups like Paradoxical Frog. Despite this regular collaboration, the pair have played as a duo relatively infrequently before now. This show at the Gallery is the beginning of a new duo project that Laubrock and Davis will record this fall.

It is rare to find musicians of such sensitive interplay and instinct for risky exploration—this performance is not to be missed. Before coming out to the Gallery, check out Laubrock and Davis performing Laubrock’s work at the 2017 Moers Festival with a host of other acclaimed improvisers and the EOS Chamber Orchestra Cologne.

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Photo by Peter Gannushkin, courtesy of the artist

Photo by Peter Gannushkin, courtesy of the artist

Pianist and composer Kris Davis is a strong and unique presence on the New York jazz scene, and her projects have run the gamut from solo piano to large ensembles with organ and a clarinet quartet. You can check out the archives of Jazz Speaks to see more about her work with this particular venue over the years.

Davis’s latest album Duopoly, the first release on her own label, Pyroclastic Records, is a series of duets with musicians including Bill Frisell, Craig Taiborn, and Marcus Gilmore. Just a few days ago, Duopoly made it on The New York Times’ Best Albums of 2016 list. On Friday and Saturday this weekend, Kris will be playing at the Jazz Gallery with Eric McPherson (drums) and Stephan Crump (bass). We caught up with Kris on the phone, and talked about the ever-changing concept of the jazz piano trio and what happens when a prepared piano is added to the mix.

The Jazz Gallery: In discussing Duopoly, you mentioned that you organized the order to allow for these “phantom duets” to rise, between any two neighboring duo partners. Sometime with your work with prepared piano, it feels like the core identity of the piano is being amplified. I was wondering if that idea, of a sort of “phantom piano”, resonated with you, when you’re doing solo work?

Kris Davis: I don’t know if the “phantom” relationship is really there. Nice try, though!

TJG: Thanks! It’ll stay there for me. I am wondering what you would respond to that.

KD: I mean, yeah, it’s like having access to a secondary instrument, a percussive instrument. A piano is percussive anyway, but just having the preparations there makes it a sort of matching texture to the drums and allows it to interweave in between what’s going on with the drums. For me, especially with this group that we’re playing with on the weekend, that’s something that I’m interested in exploring more. Sometimes prepared piano gets lost, especially with drums, so it’s really nice that Eric is so sensitive about that, and it’s easy to try and explore actual pulse and the relationship between the two instruments with him. That’s why I’m excited to play with this group. It’s sort of a unique situation, especially as a piano trio.

TJG: How would you describe the uniqueness of this trio as opposed to other trios you’ve played with in the past?

KD: Well, we’re improvising. That in and if itself is not anything new, but we’re not playing compositions, or we’ll make them up on the spot. In the past when I’ve used piano preparation with other groups, I use it more as a textural effect. In this group it’s more about the actual interplay of rhythm between the prepared piano and percussion that’s going on, and also with Stephan, who plays more groove-based vamps and pulses. So this group is much more rooted in one pulse, whereas other groups that I play with, there are sort of multiple levels of things going on. Here, with the preparations, the piano creates a textural, rhythmic background. And then outside of that it can also be used as a soloist, as something that creates texture, and also like a singing voice. These are some of the images that come to mind, and that’s how I approach playing. The piano is more of an orchestral instrument for me than the traditional jazz piano approach – comping in the left hand and soloing in the right.

TJG: If the function of the piano changes in a setting like a trio, which is so set in our imagination, how do the other two band members work out within that dynamic?

KD: Usually, or in the jazz piano tradition, the piano is sort of the lead role and the bass and the drums are accompanying. That’s not necessarily true for this group. We’re equal voices. The piano can be behind everything, and the drums and bass can be at the forefront. And they do that often, maybe more so than what people are used to. The preparation of the piano sort of holds that back, and allows the piano to be underneath what’s going on with the bass and the drums. So they really take a leading role along with the piano, and sometimes more than the piano.

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Photo by Peter Gannushkin, http://downtownmusic.net

Photo by Peter Gannushkin, http://downtownmusic.net

This Friday, June 3rd, The Jazz Gallery is proud to welcome pianist Kris Davis and her band Capricorn Climber to our stage for two sets. The group is made up of many of Davis’s longtime musical partners, each of whom is an adventurous band leader in his or her own right—saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, violist Mat Maneri, bassist Trevor Dunn, and drummer Tom Rainey.

Before coming out to the Gallery for these two exploratory sets, check out Jazz Speaks’ interview with Davis from last spring, and one of the standout tracks from the group’s eponymous album, “Pass the Magic Hat,” a track that Nate Chinen of the New York Times described as “…an engrossing lesson in ensemble flux, carried out with finesse.”

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Photo by Peter Gannushkin, http://downtownmusic.net

Photo by Peter Gannushkin, http://downtownmusic.net

Kris Davis is an explorer at the piano—exploring different ways of playing the instrument and different ways of situating its sound in a composition. Her playing has both orchestral breadth and the utmost delicacy, a truly kaleidoscopic palette.

Next month, Davis will be releasing a new record on Clean Feed called Save Your Breath, featuring four bass clarinets and rhythm section. This weekend, however, Davis returns to The Jazz Gallery with another one of her acclaimed groups—the quintet Capricorn Climber. We caught up with Ms. Davis by phone to talk about her approach to writing for and playing with this group of adventurous improvisers.

The Jazz Gallery: In an interview with the New York Times, you mentioned that you’ll often “try to write as little as possible,” in the sense that you’re looking for certain ideas or sounds, but you don’t want to control your bandmates. In that sense, what form do your compositions take?

Kris Davis: Well, there’s a lot of interweaving between improvisation and composition. Composition is often a catalyst, a spinning-off point for where the piece has the potential to go. So I try not to plan that too much; I hope that the other musicians will come up with the shape of the piece, though that’s not always the case. Sometimes part of the writing is the shape, more so than the actual harmonic or rhythmic or melodic material. Sometimes I do write a lot. There’s a lot of material. But I try to find ways to weave spontaneity into the piece.

TJG: Could you give us an example of how that might look in one of your pieces?

KD: There are a bunch of pieces on my record, Capricorn Climber (Clean Feed, 2013) that utilize different shapes, different forms, to provide a chance for the musicians to do some shaping themselves. One of the pieces, the title track, has twelve to fifteen little fragments, and between them there’s improvising among the musicians. Everyone’s open and free to do what they want, but the viola’s supposed to stick with creating kind of like an E pedal, almost, a high E texture behind the lines. He comes in and out of it, with these different suggestions to help give direction to the improvising without getting too specific. The written fragments keep building up to this climactic point, a planned part of the piece, and it’s supposed to be about a 10 minute arc to get to that place. Everyone plays a unison melody to bring it back down, and then there’s a second section that’s completely written out, a sort of slow-moving string trio sound. The drummer Tom Rainey and I, meanwhile, are doing a sort of drum n’ bass thing, with prepared piano, super active and rhythmic. To connect all those parts together, the piano hooks up with the horn lines intermittently—a connection between two separate worlds.

TJG: So is it a similar process on “Pass The Magic Hat”? We hear a lot of counterpoint, yet we also hear freedom, especially in the second section.

KD: The second section is completely written out, for the viola solo, where he’s just playing over the form. But the form is actually just a slow blues, which is probably hard to hear if you didn’t know that ahead of time. The form is completely set, and so are the parts. It’s this one line, but the direction is that the accompanying musicians grab parts of those lines. We’re not playing the entire line, but rhythmically, it’s staying pretty set. I’m just trying to get away from finding obvious ways of playing the material. How can we make it a little more elusive? That’s kind of the main idea.

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