In what was an exceptional year for solo piano albums, Kris Davis’ Aeriol Piano and Craig Taborn’s Avenging Angel were especially striking, the work of artists using the format not as a stylistic retreat, but as a way to boldly extend and heighten their sound and vision. A fascinating companion piece of sorts to Davis’ other 2011 album, Tony Malaby’s Novela, a nonet effort for which she wrote the arrangements, Aeriol Piano is both her most challenging and most accessible work.
Davis, who named the album after an early player piano, makes exuberant use of locked-in effects like the percolating minimalist bass notes on “Stone,” one of four short pieces that end Aeriol Piano in suitelike fashion. But she pushes off such scaffolding to explore space, inner and outer, free of structural constrictions. Similarly, Davis blissfully deconstructs “All the Things You Are,” progressing steadily from lucid freestanding lines that barely hint at the melody to a quick statement of it at the end.
Plenty of other pianists use prepared effects, but few attain the haunting beauty Davis does on “Saturn Return,” a stately, dark-glowing piece boasting kalimba-like lines, chiming sounds and percussive accents in addition to rumblings of the bottom-most natural notes. “Good Citizen,” which on her 2010 album of the same name was animated by splashing chords and jolting lines, here becomes a compelling, episodically shifting, classically tinged inner monologue. As she does throughout Aeriol Piano, Davis draws you in so effortlessly that the brilliance of what she’s doing doesn’t hit you until the piece has slipped past you.