Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Kris Davis: Duopoly

JazzTimes may earn a small commission if you buy something using one of the retail links in our articles. JazzTimes does not accept money for any editorial recommendations. Read more about our policy here. Thanks for supporting JazzTimes.

The premise: Take pianist Kris Davis. Pair her up with eight respected players with whom she has never previously recorded. Limit the instrumental categories of Davis’ partners to four: guitarists (Bill Frisell, Julian Lage), drummers (Billy Drummond, Marcus Gilmore), reed players (Tim Berne, Don Byron) and other pianists (Craig Taborn, Angelica Sanchez). Have Davis do two pieces with each partner, one composed and one freely improvised. Record it all live-to-two-track with no rehearsals and no editing. Make a video of the session. Include a DVD.

The results are mixed. There are some nice moments. On “Prairie Eyes,” the cries of Frisell’s Telecaster guitar are like omens. They loom in a darkening sky. On the improvised piece, Frisell’s sonic world is enveloping and self-contained, but Davis finds ways into it by carefully placing quiet, lingering piano notes.

More often, Davis’ decisions take the form of sporadic gestures: jolting chords, quick tremolos, isolated single stabs, frenetic little cycling figures, splashes. What she plays injects harmony and prods her partners, but is rarely interesting in itself as pianistic content. In a duo album by a pianist, this is a limitation.

Some of these two-way interactions sound more like technical exercises than aesthetic realizations (for example, the improvisation with Lage). Some sound uncomfortably busy and crowded (“Fox Fire,” with Taborn). Some are simply unattractive (both pieces with Berne, alto saxophone shrieks and expletives hurled randomly upon jagged piano chords). And the monochrome, split-screen, fixed-camera film of the sessions adds little to the experience.

Still, there are moments. Davis and Taborn dare to improvise a piece so full of silence it risks stasis, but becomes a shared, mysterious dream. Duopoly would have been stronger if the composed tunes had included more standards, to provide known reference points for the freewheeling duos. “Eronel,” with Drummond, is a clever, barebones Monk abstraction. “Prelude to a Kiss,” with Byron, is ethereal and mesmerizing. A mellifluous clarinet occasionally glances off the song.

Purchase this issue from Barnes & Noble or Apple Newsstand. Print and digital subscriptions are also available.

Originally Published