Kris Davis – 20 Questions

Interview conducted via e-mail.

Jazz 

To me, jazz means improvisation and innovation. The search for self-expression through sound, and a reflection of the here and now. I also like Wayne Shorter’s definition of jazz: “I dare you!”

The meaning of tradition

If music is a delicious soup and you’re the chef, studying musical traditions deepens your flavor profile. Your soup will only be as rich and subtle as your understanding of each ingredient and its unique properties, and how different ingredients work together to create new flavors.

Understanding musical traditions allows us to intuit which ingredients to put in (and which to leave out), and how much of each is needed. How will the flavors of certain ingredients blend together? How will our own personal taste and memories of other soups we’ve eaten affect our process of creation? What new and exciting ingredients could we add from other parts of the world and other cooking traditions? What recipes have other musicians created to achieve their distinct flavor?

Choose whom to have dinner with from “the other side”

György Ligeti – I would love to pick his brain about his compositions, particularly his piano etudes.

Most important 20thCentury artist 

György Ligeti

Music and social consciousness

Speaking about social consciousness is something still very new to me. I didn’t grow up around activism and I came up at a time when discussing gender disparity as a woman was commonly viewed as a tactic to gain attention. That view, in and of itself, is a great example of the cyclical struggle. Talk about the issues and receive unfounded criticism and societal silencing or erasure vs. don’t talk about them and allow gender disparity to continue unabated.

The women musicians whom I looked up to came up being viewed – and viewing themselves – through this lens. They wanted to be treated as equals with their male peers, gain recognition solely for their music. I think about how these women are important contributors to the art form and were in an impossible situation – and how they have paved the way for the change that is taking place right now.

We live in a very different time now, and discussions around privilege, race, class, gender, patriarchy and sexual orientation are becoming more commonplace. It’s easier to talk about all these issues because we’re talking collectively; in the case of gender disparity, the burden of speaking up no longer falls squarely on the shoulders of only a few women musicians. The culture is shifting and younger generations are educating themselves, speaking up and looking to change the culture, demanding it be more inclusive. It’s a very exciting time and change feels imminent.

I believe the music is going to change. To a layperson, the word “jazz” conjures a mental image of a jazz musician stereotype, including what the music sounds like. When we become more inclusive and diverse – in our bands and in the music, we allow to shape our own creative worlds – exciting new possibilities inevitably arise. There might be another word for the music that is yet to be spoken (or written) that doesn’t provoke stereotypes or preconceived ideas. But the word “jazz” still works to me because it has always meant improvisation and innovation, and the possibility of creating something unique and personal.

A thing that irritates me

People who have a lot to say but no interest in taking action.

My greatest artistic triumph 

Sustaining a music career after becoming a mother.

Terri Lyne Carrington

Terri is one of the most inspiring people I have ever met, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to work with her and learn from her. She’s always searching – striving for greatness. Rather than putting limitations on the music, she remains excited and open to trying out new ideas. She’s one of the hardest working people I know and strives for a more equitable world every day. When Terri sent me an email in 2017, I had no idea how my life would shift. She said, “I’m a fan,” and I wrote her back: “Wait, I am a huge fan!” As a young person, I remember hearing John Scofield’s Flat Outand Herbie Hancock’s Gershwin’s Worldand loving how she helped shape those albums. We’d been playing together quite a bit in a variety of contexts when she asked me to join the Jazz and Gender Justice Institute she started at Berklee College of Music in 2019. One of the things I love about touring with Terri is being part of what we call the “mom tours.” Because we’re both balancing motherhood and life as a musician, we usually book short tours so we can get back to our sons. Touring with other mothers is a new dynamic for me. I so appreciate that we both understand the struggle of striking a balance between these two important roles.

John Zorn

I met John Zorn in 2017 when I went to see Sylvie Courvoisier and Mark Feldman play his bagatelles at The Stone. Shortly after, I started playing his bagatelles with Mary Halvorson, Drew Gress and Tyshawn Sorey. John has become a friend, a mentor and a constant source of inspiration. He is one of the kindest, most selfless people I know – a musician who puts the music and the community above all else. He has done more for the creative music scene in New York than anyone I know, establishing The Stone, creating his record label Tzadik and giving musicians countless opportunities to play and launch their careers. He is a champion for creative music and a real force. I feel so fortunate to continue learning from him.

Pyroclastic Records

In 2016, I launched Pyroclastic Records in hopes that I could grow a modest label to support a whole community within the creative music scene. I wanted to provide artists concrete opportunity: They could retain their own publishing and create a licensing agreement, affording them ownership of their masters without plunging into personal debt to produce and release a project. Because of streaming, I could see that the old model of making money from selling CDs was waning. I knew I needed to develop a new model, so I created a nonprofit to support the work of the label. We’ve been steadily growing, releasing 5-6 albums per year.

If I could do it all over again, one thing I would do differently…

I wish I wouldn’t have been so afraid to reach out to musicians I admired and that I hadn’t been so fearful of rejection.

My biggest personal influence

My mother. She taught me to trust my intuition and that life is short, so dream big and don’t be afraid to take risks, help others in need and treat people the way you would like to be treated.

Artistic disappointment  

There was a point in my late 20s and early 30s when I saw a lot of my peers advance in their careers and I felt like I was stalling, that things might not work out for me as musician in New York. I learned later, part of the reason I wasn’t getting called as a side person for gigs is because I was married to another musician; because we played together a lot, people assumed we came as a “package.” That was difficult because he was getting all sorts of opportunities for gigs, and my opportunities were limited to gigs where we both got the call.

The upside was, because I wasn’t given many opportunities to play as a side person, very early on I became a band leader, developing and shaping my ideas as a composer, as well. But I desperately wanted the opportunity to be a side person so that I could learn by playing other composers’ music. Around this time, he and I parted ways and I focused on broadening my musical experiences by starting a master’s degree in classical composition. People started calling me for all sorts of things, telling me they’d wanted to call me before, but thought it would be inappropriate to ask me to play a gig. This was a real turning point for me. I became acutely aware that I needed to establish my own collaborations and musical community separate from my partner’s. I also think this learning experience is particularly important to share with young women musicians who might face similar issues as they forge their own paths as artists.

Favorite jazz club

I consider The Jazz Gallery my second home (many musicians do). Artistic Director Rio Sakairi is one of the most caring, hardworking people I know. She understands musicians and the jazz ecosystem in New York City. Because of this broad, layered understanding, she has been able to create a space, unlike any other, where musicians feel valued and supported.  The Gallery is a space where musicians can take risks and try new ideas. There’s no expectation of staying in a certain lane when it comes to jazz; I absolutely love that, and I know the Gallery’s audiences love it too. The Jazz Gallery spirit is all about the artists. The board regularly issues grants to artists at every stage of their career, providing all kinds of ongoing support. Rio and her staff were among the first venue personnel to translate their in-person community to a remote-access one when the pandemic hit, all while providing resources and direction for artists in need of financial assistance. The Jazz Gallery is a pillar in the community and I am in awe of its ability to bring people together.

Practice and study

My “Karate Kid” moment: One of the best things I ever did was study with the late Gary Williamson, a great pianist in Toronto. He was known for teaching a technique developed by classical pianist Leopold Godowsky. The first step is to learn how to drop your hands on the piano by using the weight of your arm and gravity. Gary told me only one third of his students really figure out how to do it; I was determined to be among those who do. I worked on it every day for a year. Every time I came back for a lesson, I would attempt the “dropping” for Gary to see. He would inevitably reply, “Nope, sorry. Try again next week.” Finally, after a year of practice, I dropped my hands on the piano and felt it happen. That next lesson, Gary confirmed I had figured it out. I was in Toronto last November and hoped to connect with him, but learned he’d passed away. By coincidence, I’d emailed him a few months earlier and he sent me a wonderful email explaining how the technique had made its way to Canada, subsequently influencing many pianists who came out of Toronto.

 Gary’s email:

“Re technique: I thought I might recall some of my teacher’s (Darwyn Aitken) comments about the lineage of his teachers.

Darwyn was originally from Timmins Ontario and although he played gigs in Toronto, he was to a great extent a frustrated classical pianist. In the mid to late 60’s he found David Saperton’s name in the NY telephone book, and went to his address and knocked on the door. He was greeted by “an old man with a shake and a wheeze” who invited him in. There were 2 pianos tail to tail in studio, and Darwyn was invited to play. He chose one of Leopold Godowsky’s near-impossible transcriptions of the Chopin Etudes for the left hand alone (4 staves of music!!!). Saperton commented, “that was very nice. It’s too bad no one ever taught you how to play the piano”.

Saperton had studied with Godowsky, and later married one of his daughters. He became George Gershwin’s brother-in-law when Frankie Gershwin married Leopold Godowski II (the co-inventor of Kodachrome).

According to Darwyn, Saperton could not reach a 10th, so his eventual mastery of Godowsky’s works and performance of other difficult works was phenomenal.

But I digress.

Darwyn started taking weekly lessons on Sundays with Saperton. This was necessary, because Darwyn was working 6 nights a week at the Inn on the Park with Chicho Valle’s latin band, so he would leave the gig at 1 a.m. Sunday, drive to NY, have a lesson, then drive back to T.O. in time to get some sleep and get back to the gig Monday at 9. He wrecked several cars, and eventually lost his house refinancing for more cars. (He couldn’t fly because of some ear/mastoid problems)

I studied with Darwyn beginning in 1973, and couldn’t believe his technical abilities. His lessons were so cheap, I took him to task – tripled the rate he was charging, and told anyone who would listen that he was the best piano teacher in the country. His teaching business flourished, he bought a Steinway grand (to replace a Baldwin upright) and he quit playing with Chicho.

For more info, you should google Leopold Godowsky, David Saperton, and Jorge Bolet (“The Presence”), Saperton’s most famous student.

 jorge-bolet.webs.com/ has some interesting stuff, including photos of Godowsky with Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein.

 Darwyn’s last word after every lesson was “ENJOY!”

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