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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

Terri Lyne Carrington, Kris Davis, Val Jeanty
The trio (L to R): Terri Lyne Carrington, Kris Davis, Val Jeanty (photo: Caroline Mardok)

The title of Diatom Ribbons undoubtedly sent most listeners (at least those without a degree in molecular biology) scrambling for a Google search. Diatoms, it turns out, are single-celled algae that live in aquatic environments all over the planet. Look at them under a microscope and each one (there are myriad species) reveals an elegant interior architecture; gathered together en masse they can form enormous blooms in oceans and lakes, appearing as ornately tendrilled ribbons via satellite imagery.

Davis discovered this obscure microorganism, beautiful from both a vast perspective and under focused scrutiny, through the random viewing of a nature documentary. But she immediately recognized its resonance with her own creative approach, forever alternating between the macro and the micro. “If I’m out listening to music or just walking around the neighborhood and something grabs me as a larger idea, then I have to go home and write the notes and rhythms and always be checking back and forth to see if I’m actually accomplishing that goal. If I’m not, I have to change what that larger idea is about, so there’s always this give and take as I go through the process.”

The various threads that Davis wove together to form the tapestry of Diatom Ribbons aren’t difficult to discern, though they’re nearly impossible to unravel. On the title track, which opens the album, the exploratory turntablist Val Jeanty makes striking use of the late Cecil Taylor’s voice, philosophizing from a 1994 Piano Jazz interview with Marian McPartland. “Music saved my life,” Taylor muses as Davis hammers out a spiraling prepared piano accompaniment.

“When Cecil passed I wanted to pay tribute to him,” Davis said. “But I didn’t want to do it the obvious way, which was to just play like Cecil Taylor. So I thought I’d try to incorporate his voice.”

Later in the same tune, the tenor tandem of Allen and Tony Malaby begins to remold the rhythm into a boisterous if obtuse-angled swing, though it ultimately proves elusive, fragmenting and shifting in a way that offers both firm footing and unexpected obstacles to the soloists. Soon that funk inspiration insinuates itself, through the sinuous groove of “Rhizomes” and the blistering velocity of “Certain Cells.”

“I always try to write towards what the players represent,” Davis explained. “I want to enhance where they’re coming from, but also to push them, give them space to improvise and create on the spot with whoever’s there.”

On Diatom Ribbons that necessitated conceiving environments that could accommodate both the guitar freakouts of Nels Cline and Marc Ribot along with the lithe vocals of Esperanza Spalding; the shimmering vibes of Ches Smith with the found-sound eclecticism of Jeanty; the robust tenors of Allen and Malaby with the rough-hewn bass of Trevor Dunn. Many of these musicians had not only never met prior to the recording date, but some of them had never even heard of one another.

Perhaps the most important, and most surprising, relationship that Davis forged in the run-up to Diatom Ribbons has been the one with Carrington. The inspiration has worked in both directions: Carrington’s sprawling, politically driven new album Waiting Game includes a 42-minute improvised suite that she credits in large part to Davis inviting the drummer to play her first-ever completely improvised gig at the Stone. She returned the favor by inviting Davis to join the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice.

“Sometimes you have to fight against doing what’s been successful for you, or what people expect of you,” Carrington said in a separate interview. “I always love the musicians that go against the grain, that keep surprising you and reinventing themselves.”

The preternatural rhythmic connection that Davis and Carrington share is the gravitational center of Diatom Ribbons, and both credit it to their shared roots in the jazz tradition—even if, as Davis says, she has long since “veered off to do my own thing.” Nonetheless, she became enamored of jazz through the influence of Monk, Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, and Keith Jarrett, figures that also loom large in Carrington’s pantheon.

“The thing that really spoke to me about Kris was her time,” Carrington said. “Her time is amazing, so I feel like I can play anything and we just hook up. I also had that like-mindedness with Geri Allen, which came from having a similar language and aesthetic about what’s hip. Even though the language may be a little different, I feel that same connection with Kris. She knows tradition and I come out of the tradition. When you know the tradition, you can move away from it but there’s a part of the language that’s still there.”

“It all comes down to rhythm and how you connect with time,” Davis agreed. “I come from that jazz background, so it’s easy for me to understand that world and play it—I don’t want to say authentically, but all of that is still in there. Everything that I’ve been interested in informs how I play over these tunes.”

“We’re drawn to the people that are like us. That’s what human beings do. But that’s not necessarily good for the music.”

A piece like “Stone’s Throw” exemplifies the way that these conceptions meet on an evocative middle ground, with complex evolving forms that blur the lines between composition and improvisation, its overall structure proving evasive on initial listen. “Certain Cells,” meanwhile, is driven forcefully by a propulsive drum ’n’ bass-inspired groove that anchors borealis-like atmospherics. The deeper one delves, the more layers are revealed; on the surface, the experience is never less than infectious, reveling in the “pleasure principle” that Taylor discusses in his sampled monologue.

“There’s a lot going on throughout the record,” Davis admitted. “I found myself grabbing different pieces of things from all different genres and influences and then creating the project, along with a little bit of chaos. Maybe that’s where I’m at right now.”

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.