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.
TJG: In a previous interview with The Jazz Gallery, you cited contemporary composers as influences, such as Berio, Feldman, and Ligeti. How do these composers influence your improvisation?
KD: Well, some of those guys use some extended techniques that I’ve practiced and that I’m interested in. And so, through practicing them and trying to use them in my improvising, it’s been a natural progression.
TJG: Could you give an example of one of these techniques?
KD: There’s this Ligeti piece that I’ve practiced and that I’m interested in, called The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Der Zauberlehrling). There’s this kind of gamelan rhythmic idea going on in the piano. It’s got this cross-fingering repetition of notes, but the hands are overlapped. I’ve explored that idea and written some music around it, and one of my solo piano CDs has a kind of exploration of that idea. So it’s just like messing with other people’s ideas and making them my own. I ended up preparing the piano and blurring the sound, but the initial inspiration, the study of other people’s music, gets the sparks going.
TJG: Your lack of emphasis on chordal playing has been written about, and it somehow makes the overall band texture feel more linear. There’s not so much simultaneity to weigh things down. What about this approach speaks to you?
KD: A while ago, when I was trying to find some other approaches, I thought I would try to avoid chordal playing. Recently, I’m back to that now, and exploring it in different ways, as an approach for orchestration and texture. I’ve been playing a lot of standards lately, and so I want to feel like I can move in and out of a harmony that’s there, without being too controlling.
TJG: Do you mean without the harmony being too controlling, or without your playing being too controlling?
KD: Just being locked into the movement of the chords within the form of the piece. I want to take an approach more sensitive to density and range, rather than being linear and locking myself into that more controlling approach.
TJG: Speaking of texture, on “Pi Is Irrational,” Mat Maneri plays a lot of double-stops and dense stuff, while you lay out almost entirely. What were some of your textural intentions going into performing that piece, and in your composition in general.
KD: I don’t feel like I always have to play. Part of thinking about orchestration is about leaving things out. A lot of times, when people are improvising, when things are really happening, I don’t want to play, because things are going on there. I fill up a lot of space with the piano: I want to create opportunities for things to happen, and then picking my spots… That’s kind of an accompanying approach. Texture and density play a big part in my composition because it provides a sense of surprise. I also think that people who don’t know that much about music do understand and hear texture. If they can’t parse out multiple levels of counterpoint, or find the music confusing, there’s something raw about the way people respond to texture and density.
TJG: How did you start working with Ingrid Laubrock?
KD: She moved to New York in 2008 or 2009. We met through mutual friends, got together and played a trio session with Tyshawn Sorey. From that session, we put a group together; we loved the experience and thought we could do something more. So we started working together and writing for the group—that band is called Paradoxical Frog. We’ve been playing for years now, we’re a part of each other’s projects. We share similar ideas about music, there’s mutual respect, we really enjoy playing together, and we’re great friends.
TJG: I see that your album was recorded at Systems Two, the studio in Brooklyn. They have kind of a legendary piano, right?
KD: That’s one of my favorite pianos, if not my most favorite, to play in the city. Almost all of my records have been recorded there. Aside from the piano, which is amazing, I just love the experience of being there and recording in that space. It’s like home for me. My first record in 2003 I did there, so it’s been over 10 years of recording. I love the guys, Joe Marciano does the mixing for me, it’s great.
TJG: Have you experimented with electronic sounds or more keyboard instruments as you expand your techniques out?
KD: [Laughs] Not really! I wish I could… I’ve got a young son right now, and that kind of time commitment is not possible for me right now. I love electronic music but it’s not something I can dive into at the moment. And plus, piano is like eating and breathing for me. It’s just something I have to do on a regular basis. It’s fun, spiritual, it’s an important part of my life.
TJG: What will you be playing at The Jazz Gallery on the 17th?
KD: I have a couple of new pieces that I’ve been working on. Some of them are quite hard, so it’ll be interesting to see how that unfolds. The set will be a mixture of some new pieces, maybe some pieces from the first record, and then some improvised things: This group started as an improvising group. I took over and started writing for it, but the band is a band of master improvisers. As much as I enjoy writing, it’s just great sometimes to play and see what comes out.
TJG: Well, we can’t wait. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us!
KD: No problem, thank you!
Kris Davis’ Capricorn Climber plays The Jazz Gallery on Friday, April 17th, and Saturday, April 18th, 2015. The group features Ms. Davis on piano, Mat Maneri on viola, Ingrid Laubrock on saxophone, Eivind Opsvik on bass, and Tom Rainey on drums. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m. each night. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. Purchase Tickets Here.