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.