Which comes first, the pianist or the composer? Even on Kris Davis’ exceptional 2011 solo album, Aeriol Piano, the answer was elusive, the ingenuity of her writing and arranging seizing as much attention as her playing and improvising. On Davis’ new quintet recording, Capricorn Climber, the Brooklyn-based artist is so geared toward group interplay and an overall group sound, it’s even more difficult to sort out the sides of her individual talent.
Among new-school pianists, Davis is one of the least disposed toward stepping out, as engaging a soloist as she has proved herself to be. And even when she is taking the lead, she largely acts as facilitator, enhancing the overall sound with sharp accents, classically tinged lines and percussive rumbles. The band boasts two other exceptional soloists in tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, a frequent partner of hers, and viola ace Mat Maneri, who is new to their circle and plays something of a wild card with his wired lyricism. But Laubrock and Maneri also exercise restraint to serve the group aesthetic.
Capricorn Climber is dreamier, more reflective and more playful than Rye Eclipse, Davis’ sometimes hard-edged 2008 quartet album. The quintet, featuring bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Tom Rainey, alternates between wide tonal brush strokes and brisk melodies, free-floating effects and knotty inventions. Building on the brilliantly inventive Rainey’s melody statement on glockenspiel, “Trevor’s Luffa Complex” moves in rapid fashion from minimalism to Ornette-ish lines to free expression. Two of the songs, highlighting Laubrock’s ease in shifting from a classic tenor sound to guttural modern outbursts, come off as mini-suites with their sudden shifts in mood and compositional strategy. Our awareness of the power being held in reserve adds to the impression the album makes.
Union is the second album by Paradoxical Frog, the collective trio teaming Davis, Laubrock (featured on soprano saxophone as well as tenor) and another inspired drummer, Tyshawn Sorey. Boasting compositions by all three members, the album is in some ways a stripped-down companion piece to Capricorn Climber. Playing a deeper inside game than they did on their more assertive debut, the trio makes its most compelling statement with the droning minimalism of “First Strike,” a transfixing piece out of the new-music songbook of LaMonte Young and Morton Feldman, on which Laubrock sustains a long single tone on tenor. “Second Strike” achieves power through elegance.
Offsetting such spatial effects, the trio engages in clipped, swinging phrases on the title track and a lively stop-start attack on “Fear the Fairy Dust.” Sorey’s spare use of trombone or melodica adds color and dimension to two tunes. Cerebral music like this isn’t always fun to listen to. That Union is speaks to how much Davis, Laubrock and Sorey enjoy not only their group concept, but playing in each other’s company.