“A freethinking, gifted pianist on the scene, [Kris] Davis lives in each note that she plays,” writes the pianist Jason Moran in his Best of 2012 list for ArtForum. “Her range is impeccable; she tackles prepared piano, minimalism, and jazz standards, all under one umbrella. I consider her an honorary descendant of Cecil Taylor and a welcome addition to the fold.” In an article entitled “New Pilots at The Keyboard,“ Ben Ratliff of The New York Times adds, “Over the last couple of years in New York one method for deciding where to hear jazz on a given night has been to track down pianist Kris Davis.”
The Canadian-born pianist had an exceptionally strong run over the past couple of years. Her work was featured on two head-turning releases on Clean Feed in 2011: Aeriol Piano, her own solo album, and Novela, the eponymous release by a band led by Tony Malaby for which she also did the arrangements (they performed here recently). Aeriol Piano received several year-end accolades. Ben Ratliff of The New York Times listed the release as one of the Best Albums of 2011, and also profiled Kris in the aforementioned article. (If the interview below isn’t enough, you can read a previous guest post on Jazz Speaks here.). Kris also released two albums with Paradoxical Frog, a trio she collectively leads with the reedist Ingrid Laubrock and the drummer Tyshawn Sorey, which landed on year end lists from The New York Times, NPR, and more. Her most recent release is Capricorn Climber (Clean Feed), which The New York Times describes as “an engrossing lesson in ensemble flux, carried out with finesse.”
We’re thrilled to be presenting Kris as the first of our 2012 – 2013 Jazz Gallery Residency Commissions artists this Friday and Saturday. As a part of this program, the pianist used our space for a few weeks in April to compose, develop, and refine new work for a trio with the bassist John Hébert and the drummer Tom Rainey. We caught up with Kris about half way through her residency to ask her about her time in our space and how things were unfolding. Without further ado, Kris Davis speaks:
How’s the residency going so far?
Well, I’m halfway through, and I think I’ve written most of the music now. It’s for the trio with John Hébert and Tom Rainey. There are six or seven pieces; fairly arranged and involved compositions. So, I’m almost done with those and the rest of the residency will probably just be fine tuning, rehearsing with the band, and practicing the music…getting ready to go. You know, because I can’t play any of it yet! [laughs]
How have you been using your time in The Jazz Gallery space thus far?
I’ve been here probably two times a week – usually Mondays and Fridays – for four or five hours [at a time]. It’s nice because the piano’s great and it sounds really good in here.
When you aren’t in residence here, where do you usually work?
I do a lot of work at home; I have a grand piano there and a space that’s just dedicated to the music, so the rest of the week I’m just working there. And sometimes I go to IBeam, which is the place where I usually rehearse with the band, since it’s closer to my house.
Let’s talk a bit about the collaborators in your trio. How did you go about deciding to work with bass and drums – and John and Tom specifically – for this project?
I’ve done one trio record before with Tom and John. That was a couple of years ago, and I wanted to do another one, and I’d actually booked a tour for that band for the first week of May. So when the residency came along, it seemed like a really good opportunity to write some music, tour with it, come back here and play the concerts, and then record. So it just kind of fell together timing wise.
Can you fill us in on your backstory with the band? When did you meet these musicians and what other projects have you done together?
I met Tom six or seven years ago. We played a session and that was it for a couple of years, and then I think the next time we played we did a gig with Tony Malaby and Eivind Opsvik…I think it was at the Tea Lounge. And, for some reason, when we played that day, it was just [clear to me that] Tom is amazing and we have a really good connection, and musically it just felt like we’re in the same place. So I asked him to do the trio record really soon after that. Since then we’ve played together a lot in different projects; he plays in my quintet and in Ingrid Laubrock‘s band, Anti-House, and he just did a standards record which I played on, so we’re doing a lot of collaborations in different groups.
And then John…I played with him off and on in a lot of groups as a sideperson. I’d never played with Tom and John together before, but I just thought that that would really work. I remember putting it together on a whim and just really going for it; writing a couple of pieces and doing that record, Good Citizen (Fresh Sound).
[Stream Good Citizen via Spotify]
How does the music you’re working on now compare with the music on the last album?
My concept for that record was that I was trying to write a bunch of short pieces, pop-like tunes almost…not that the material was pop-like, but the sureness of the ideas. Everything was kind of compact and I tried to make the improvising fairly short and have a lot of different pieces.
The next record is pretty different, I think. In this music that I’m writing, things are much more drawn out and composed. There’s lots of improvisation, but it’s kind of approached in a different way.
The trio isn’t my most natural group to write for; I like having the voice on top, a saxophone or a trumpet to help balance the melodies out. After I was just on tour with Ingrid’s band and I really wanted to…there’s a couple of pieces where I end up improvising on these bass lines and things, and I just really connected with that and had forgotten how much I like doing that as a pianist. Some of the newer pieces are more like written forms that I blow over, or that John blows over, or Tom blows over, and then those [elements] change and evolve throughout the piece. There are also lots of different sections within many of the pieces. That’s more of the concept I’m going for this time, instead of just completely free, or a written part [juxtaposed against] a completely improvised section. This time it’s more forms and things in time.
You said earlier that you’ve written most of the music at this stage of the residency and that you’re fine-tuning it now. What is that process like for you?
Some things are outlined; maybe there’s just a bass line that I came up with using my left hand and a [melody or contrapuntal] line with my right hand, and now I want to avoid doubling the bassline. So a lot of times it’s filling in that third voice with the left hand, and [determining] how I want the left hand to interact with the trio and the basslines. Or [in some cases it’s] fleshing out the harmony of the melody lines, or those sorts of things.
How much do you specify [notationally] for the drums?
Not very much! [laughs] I have pretty specific ideas about it, but they are usually more descriptive things than [things I’ve] actually written out.
So you communicate those ideas verbally?
Yeah. It’s more of a direction that I want it to go in that’s not hand-written into the piece somehow, but it’s more conceptualized to help lead the music to a certain place, certain landing spots. Other times there’s a lot of rhythmic [interpretation]…like he’ll end up playing the line of the bass or piano rhythmically. There’s a new piece where I wrote out an actual drum part, but I didn’t want him to play those specific rhythms; I wanted something completely different against that. But I actually went through and wrote that in this time. There’s a couple pieces like that.
What have you been listening to lately? Are you listening to music right now?
No. [laughs]. I’ve been going out to see things; I went and saw the ICP (Instant Composers Pool) on Thursday at Roulette. I like the music – it’s not the direction that I personally want to go in, but I was happy to go hear something completely different, and just enjoy that for what it was. And then I went to see Matt Mitchell‘s trio, just to hear another piano trio – that was really nice.
Are there other things that have been inspiring you lately?
I had about five weeks of playing every day, with my quintet first and then Ingrid’s band, because I was on tour with both of those groups. Playing every day for five weeks – your own music and other people’s music – really gets you into a different headspace. I was really thinking about this project coming up as I was playing in those other projects, and trying to figure out what I wanted it to be, especially since Tom plays in both groups and John plays in Ingrid’s band. I think I got a lot of ideas just from playing so much.
What are some of your favorite places to grab a bite or a coffee in our neighborhood?
Num Pang – 1129 Broadway (at 26th St)
Stumptown Coffee – 18 W 29th St (at Broadway)
(Unnamed) Juice Cart – 31st & Broadway [“I got a fruit salad from them earlier today that was awesome”]
“There’s a really good Korean BBQ place on 32nd, a few stores in. They have a white piano in there…”