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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: Mimi Chakarova)

If we zoom out further, we can discover one more starting point for the album, a much earlier one. Shortly before moving to New York in 2001, Davis attended the Banff International Workshop in Jazz & Creative Music in her native Canada. There she met Malaby, who introduced her to the world of avant-garde jazz and free improvisation. He became a key mentor and collaborator after she moved to the States, but recognized from their first meeting her ability to synthesize her influences and reimagine them through her own very specialized lens.

“She asked to learn a certain piece of mine, so I showed it to the group by ear,” Malaby recalled, referring to an ensemble he was leading at the Banff Workshop. “Kris immediately got it and then turned it into something else. She’s always been able to absorb material and bring it into her own world.”

In recent years that’s led Davis to forgo, at least on record, the foundation of a steady working band in favor of project-based collaborations, a concept that’s reached a culmination on Diatom Ribbons. On 2016’s Duopoly she engaged in improvised dialogues with a variety of partners including Bill Frisell, Don Byron, Tim Berne, and Julian Lage; she focused in on one of those pairings, with fellow pianist Craig Taborn, for her followup, the mesmerizing Octopus.

Those intimate outings were preceded by Save Your Breath, featuring the eccentric octet Infrasound, which coupled the rhythm section of Davis, organist Gary Versace, guitarist Nate Radley (Davis’ husband), and drummer Jim Black with four clarinetists. Before that came Waiting for You to Grow, commemorating the birth of Davis’ son, with trio mates John Hébert and Tom Rainey; the captivating solo album Massive Threads; the vividly textured quintet session Capricorn Climber; and Union, the second album by Paradoxical Frog, Davis’ collective trio with saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and percussionist Tyshawn Sorey.

“The thread for me has been the challenge of each project,” Davis said. “There are so many musicians in New York that it can feel like you have to specialize, just choose a direction and go deeper into that. The challenge is to reach outside of your comfort zone and the people you feel comfortable with to incorporate everything going on at that time in terms of influences.”

Davis is hoping to pass those values on to a new generation of musicians through her work at Berklee. The Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice aims to promote gender equity and inclusivity in the jazz arena. Like Carrington before her, Davis has long resisted identifying her career with her gender, avoiding “Women in Jazz” festivals or all-female ensembles.

She even remembered an initial reluctance to meet Laubrock, who has since become one of her most important collaborators and closest friends; the two have a new duo album set for release on Intakt in 2020. When Laubrock originally moved to the city, Davis resisted calls from male collaborators like Malaby and Rainey to play with this newcomer.

“I was like, ‘Oh god, they want me to play with a girl,’” Davis laughed. “So I reluctantly asked her to come over and play, and I set up a session with Tyshawn. We improvised for an hour and I just remember thinking, ‘Holy shit. This is really cool.’ Ingrid is so unique, and we all became dear friends right after the session. It’s funny how that works with music. Forget your biases and try some things. Every time I do that, I’m never disappointed.”

The aftereffects linger, even this long into her career. Despite the exciting possibilities offered by her collaboration with Carrington and Jeanty, Davis briefly hesitated to continue with them as her core trio for fear that their lack of Y chromosomes would influence others’ perception of the group. “I was slightly worried that we were going to be pigeonholed,” she said.

“It just creeps in. It’s the right thing for the music, but there was a little moment there of ‘How is this going to be taken?’ As I’m getting older I’m seeing the bigger picture: I know my music’s solid, so I’m not having any kind of crisis about gender relating to the music for myself. But I do see in my students so many women coming up and asking how to navigate it all.”

“Forget your biases and try some things. Every time I do that, I’m never disappointed.”

Davis also brings a unique stylistic perspective to the Berklee faculty, which is far more focused on the straight-ahead path than on the avant-garde. In addition to her work with the Institute, she’ll lead a free improvisation ensemble and a composition ensemble. She sees the pursuits as inextricably linked, as the creative music world proved to be more accepting in the early stages of her career than the more traditional jazz field.

“The straight-ahead scene was more difficult,” Davis recalled. “The improvised scene is just different. There’s more gender balance and more diversity. In a way I feel like I’ve benefited from that, which is something that I want to pass on as I contribute my ideas to the Institute.”

“Berklee could use more musicians and artists like Kris,” said Carrington. “She’s the perfect person to help with my goal of inviting more women into the music that didn’t necessarily come up studying the language of jazz and embracing them as improvisers.”

Forming human connections has become central to Davis’ career, whether as an educator, a composer, or an improviser. The unexpected chemistries and surprise discoveries that can arise from new relationships are what seem to thrill her in every aspect of her work.

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

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.