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.
TJG: How long have the three of you been playing together?
KD: It’s been almost a year now. We’ve done a few concerts–Korzo, Cornelia Street, and now the Jazz Gallery. We’re going to record for Intakt Records on the Sunday after the gigs, and then we’re also playing at The Stone in February, so we’re playing a bit more and just trying it out. I’m excited about the project because it’s different–it’s improvisation which I do all the time, but with a different way of approaching it. I really like the way the guys approach it. They’re coming from a different angle from some of the people I play with. It’s fun to explore the piano trio in all these different settings.
TJG: What would you say is the main difference in the approach?
KD: I guess it’s coming more from a jazz tradition, in a way. Some of the other groups I play with are maybe more textural, or compositionally based. But with this group, it’s more from the jazz tradition, and mixing that with the piano preparation and my weird approach to improvising. It’s kind of an interesting mix.
TJG: Do you have any legendary piano trios in mind as you play with Eric and Stephan?
KD: Well, Eric played with Andrew Hill for a long time, and he plays with Fred Hersch, in both of those groups with John Hébert, who’s the bass player in my other trio. Those approaches are more rooted in swing and the jazz tradition. Especially Fred Hersch—a certain kind of way of playing standards and harmony. I feel that Eric is very sensitive to the way that those guys play and allows them to have the space to create, and he’s also very supportive and interactive at the same time, and that’s what I feel when I play with him, too. Stephan plays with Vijay Iyer, and with a bunch of different groups, and he’s so supportive and a great listener. In Vijay’s group, there are a lot of different explorations there, one of which is that it’s very rhythmic and polyrhythmic, and Stephan has that in his playing. It’s fun, when we’re creating these vamps and moods, that we can visit those places. And the combination is interesting, too–Stephan is more specific about the way he does it whereas I’m more reactive, in a way.
TJG: What do you mean by specific and reactive? I’m curious.
KD: Well, I feel like Stephan, particularly through his playing in Vijay’s trio, is really based in specific polyrhythms or chant-like things that are sort of well explained. For me, although I’ll write these things and practice them, I’m more about the feeling of playing a polyrhythm, but not necessarily actually playing a specific polyrhythm, if that makes sense. It’s more like the spirit of what that creates for me than it is exact mathematical approach.
TJG: Yeah. And, this is in abstract question, but could you maybe describe the feeling or spirit that you have in mind?
KD: Well, sometimes it’s just about space. Space and time, and placing those things, and how they fit within what the other person is doing. So sometimes it’s just a matter of really staying with something for a long time and establishing that sound and letting it go for a while before it turns into something else. There’s the tendency to want to establish something, but then move away from it. So this group especially really stays with that idea and develops it over a longer period of time.
TJG: Where does your interest in polyrhythms come from?
KD: Well, I don’t have an interest in polyrhythms necessarily. It’s just the sense of sort of feeling off kilter when you hear a polyrhythm. Especially if things are taken out of it, you don’t necessarily know what the rhythm is. I like skewing the rhythm so that it’s not completely obvious. So it’s really the relationship between these two rhythms against each other and how they interact with each other. I don’t go about it in a mathematical way when I’m improvising. It’s more just the relationship between the two rhythms, it’s a conversation.
TJG: Is there a repertoire, set list or anything of the sort, for the upcoming shows at the Jazz Gallery?
KD: No, we’re completely improvising.
TJG: Do you have any guidelines going into it?
KD: Nope. I mean, we’ve been playing together for a little bit, so we have a sense of what we sound like as a group and what we might go for. And I sort of have an interest in and feel free to develop the preparation side of things for the group, so I have that in mind going into this. Incorporating that more is just something for myself that I want to explore and improve on and develop, so I know this is the opportunity for me to do it, and this group is perfect for that. So that’s the only preconceived idea that I have coming into this. But nothing in terms of the actual material and what we’re doing, and what Stephan and Eric might do and how they might react. And even with the preparations, there’s a chance that they won’t work at all and then I’ll be in the moment and trying to figure out what works. So it’s a plan but it may not happen that way. I’ll be in the moment and listening.
TJG: Since you’ve been doing duo work for a while, does it feel like a big transition to play with a trio?
KD: Not really a transition, but, if anything, it’s just refreshing. You know, the smaller the group, the more work you have ahead of you, in terms of just keeping the ball rolling and keeping it afloat and the music going. So as you add more people, there’s more space to allow the other players to do things, and it takes a bit of the pressure off. So if anything, it’s just a relief and with that relief comes fun. People often feel that pressure about the trio, but when you’re coming from duo, you’re adding one more, so it’s a lot more than what I’ve been working with lately.
TJG: Before we wrap up–I saw that you were on Nate Chinen’s list for the New York Times’ best albums of 2016. That’s awesome, congratulations!
KD: Yeah, thank you!
TJG: Any thoughts about that?
KD: Only that this is my first album on my own label, and it’s just exciting that it can be supported.
TJG: That’s very cool. Was it jarring to be listed in the same article as Beyoncé?
KD: Well, we know they’re different reviewers, but it is funny when I send it to my family and they’re like “Oh, you’re up there with David Bowie!”
TJG: Kris, thanks very much for the chat. We’re excited about the upcoming shows.
KD: Yeah, of course, thank you.
Pianist Kris Davis plays at The Jazz Gallery on Friday, December 16th, and Saturday, December 17th, 2016. Ms. Davis will be joined by Stephan Crump on bass and Eric MacPherson on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $25 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.