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Photo by Peter Gannushkin,

Photo by Peter Gannushkin,

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.


Photo by Peter Gannushkin,

Photo by Peter Gannushkin,

“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.” (more…)

Photo courtesy of

2011 was a strong year for pianist Kris Davis. Her work was featured on two head-turning releases on Clean FeedAeriol 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 “New Pilots at The Keyboard“, an article about four jazz pianists on the rise.

We took note of Kris’ work last year in performances by Paradoxical Frog (the trio she co-leads with the saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and drummer Tyshawn Sorey) and Novela, and we look forward to her first performance under her own name at The Gallery on Thursday.

Below, Kris shares and discusses examples of the work of some of her favorite pianists, composers, and improvisers. Kris speaks:


Patterns in a Chromatic Field – Morton Feldman

This is one of my favorite pieces of all time. The way the piano and cello interact as a harmonic and melodic unit is the reason I come back to this piece again and again. Because each cell is repetitive within itself, you really have a chance to get inside the sonority of the instruments and the way they interact- sometimes as a unit, sometimes as separate entities. Rhythmically, some of the sections seem to be rooted in two different pulses, which is an effect that I have tried to use in my own compositions and when improvising.

Berio Sequenza IV for Piano

I first discovered Berio a couple years ago while studying with composer Jonathan Pieslak. Berio wrote solo pieces for various instruments and, although I’m partial to the piano sequenza for obvious reasons, I also love the oboe and viola sequenzas. In this piano piece, Berio creates various tiers of harmony and density that seem to overlap, unveiling themselves in sudden bursts and spaces. Dynamics, the attack of the notes, and the sostenuto pedal all help to create these effects. There are so many levels going on. When I listen to this piece, I am constantly trying to figure out how the sound is created, but at the same time, I am completely centered in the sound.

Benoit Delbecq – Circles and Calligrams

I think Benoit is one of the most unique pianists and composers of our generation. The way he orchestrates piano preparations to emphasize or obscure polyrhythms, his touch at the piano, and the effect he creates combining these elements is definitely something to experience if you haven’t already.

Rytis Mazulis – Sybilla

Rytis is a Lithuanian composer. I first heard his piece ‘Clavier of Pure Reason’ which seems to be influenced by Nancarrow (who I’m a big fan of) and minimalism. Both these pieces begin with an initial cell, which become increasingly dense and dissonant through each passing cycle.

Paradoxical Frog

Paradoxical Frog is a collective trio I have been a part of since 2009. Ingrid and Tyshawn have both been so influential and our work as a trio has significantly impacted the way I think about improvisation and composition. This is a clip from a concert we played at the Moers Festival in 2010.

David Murray

I just saw this clip a few days ago and it blew me away. David is there, playing with the rhythm section, but also playing in his own time over the tune. He’s floating, but not to the point that it’s completely free – he’s still within the framework of the song.

Cecil Taylor

Cecil plays with such energy – it’s so inspiring! I love this clip.

Gyorgy Ligeti – Continuum

Ligeti’s music has had a HUGE influence on me as a pianist and composer. I was initially drawn to his music because, within the first few moments of listening, you know what the concept behind the entire piece is. Most of these ‘root’ ideas are concise; it could be a short pattern, a texture that reveals itself as a rhythmic idea or pulse, or it could be based on a specific technique that is explored throughout the instrument. The complexity lies in the development of that idea.


From L to R: Johnathan Blake, Kris Davis, Eric Revis. Photos courtesy of the artists.

This Tuesday, March 7th, The Jazz Gallery will present a special, one-night-only event featuring three of the most acclaimed and adventurous improvisers on today’s New York scene—pianist Kris Davis, bassist Eric Revis, and drummer Johnathan Blake.

Revis and Davis are no strangers to collaboration, as Davis has held the piano chair in several of Revis’s groups, including his trio. Last year, that group (featuring Gerald Cleaver on drums) put out an acclaimed new record on Clean Feed, Crowded Solitudes, which was recorded after a two-night run at the Gallery. Check out the Revis and Davis’s fiery interplay at last year’s Vision Festival, featuring Andrew Cyrille on drums.

Revis also has a connection to Blake—the pair are The Jazz Gallery’s inaugural fellowship recipients. They have both spent two weeks working on new music at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in Tarrytown, NY and will present this new work later in the year. Don’t miss this rare opportunity to hear such talented improvisers stretch out in a new configuration. (more…)

From L to R: Eric McPherson, Kris Davis, and Stephan Crump. Photo courtesy of the artists.

This Thursday, September 17, The Jazz Gallery continues its Fall Livestream Concerts Series with a performance by the Borderlands Trio. A collaborative effort from bassist Stephan Crump, pianist Kris Davis, and drummer Eric McPherson, Borderlands Trio’s improvisations feature pointedly unstable textures alongside earthy groove. Before tuning in to the group’s fresh, spontaneous compositions on Thursday evening, check out the prickly and patient improvisation “Flockwork” from their debut album, below: