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Kris Davis: Ribbons in Rhythm

On the pianist's 14th album, the macro and the micro converge, along with a diverse array of great musicians

Kris Davis
Kris Davis (photo: Caroline Mardok)

Diatom Ribbons started life as a funk record.

Kris Davis was simply relaxing with some music during the off hours of her 2018 duo tour with Craig Taborn when her regular producer, David Breskin, heard the muffled but unmistakable thump of a James Brown groove pulsing from her earphones. “You should do a funk record,” Breskin suggested offhandedly, perhaps at least half in jest. Still, the idea triggered connections that led Davis to think about what Brown had in common with Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time, or Henry Threadgill’s Society Situation Dance Band, or the Senegalese pop of Youssou N’Dour, or with Stevie Wonder, the first artist she ever saw live …

But maybe it didn’t start there.

Maybe it started with a run of recent tribute concerts that brought Davis together with several seemingly unlikely collaborators. Drummer Terri Lyne Carrington invited Davis to join her and bassist Esperanza Spalding for a series of memorial shows celebrating the life of Geri Allen, whose music was largely unfamiliar to the younger pianist but whose adventurous spirit certainly resonated with her. A centennial tribute to Thelonious Monk found her sharing the stage with JD Allen, whose molten tenor flow seems to embody the “Pyroclastic” name that Davis gave her own record label, its brawny bop muscle a world apart from but equaled in ferocity by her kaleidoscopic angularity.

Then again, could be that it all began with Davis alone at the piano in her home in Ossining, N.Y., intensely studying the scores of 20th-century composer Olivier Messiaen, dissecting his intricate harmonies and rhythmic patterns to find ways of integrating them with her own multifaceted vocabulary. Or it was prompted by the death of Cecil Taylor, or the perspective-shifting experience of performing John Zorn’s Bagatelles on marathon concerts featuring 14 different ensembles.

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Whichever narrative thread you choose to begin this particular story, all of them converge in Diatom Ribbons, Davis’ stunning 14th album as a leader. It’s the sort of project that defies simple encapsulation, weaving together players from far-flung camps across the jazz landscape, mixing and matching them in unpredictable combinations, and pursuing a panoply of ideas leading down scattershot paths.

Yet the album never feels less than wholly cohesive; Davis is a master quilter, able to turn a patchwork of colors, inspirations, textures, and voices into a single harmonious vision. The music that she shepherds into existence here is wildly diverse and compellingly rich in its fine details—and the image that forms once all those puzzle pieces are joined together is breathtaking.

“I like to use my records as a window into that period of time,” Davis explained in her cozy living room last October. “All of these ideas were marinating, and at the same time I was just starting to connect with this circle of musicians. Whatever’s coming in at that moment—the music I’m listening to, everything I’m experiencing, the people I meet—I want to use that, to try to encapsulate that somehow.”

Shaun Brady

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture, and travel. Brady contributes regularly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and JazzTimes and Jazziz magazines, with subjects ranging from legendary artists to underground experimentalists. His byline has appeared in DownBeat, Metro, NPR Music, and The A.V. Club, among other outlets. He studied filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago and continues to spend too much time in the dark.