Kris Davis: Diatom Ribbons

Cross fertilization has been at the heart of jazz since its inception when African rhythms met European instrumentation. That stylistic melange is taken to another level in the cultural melting pot of New York City. Being based in the city since 2001, it’s little surprise that Canadian pianist Kris Davis has developed an ever-expanding list of associates. But Davis refuses to recognize boundaries, so she has found a way to incorporate their diverse backgrounds on Diatom Ribbons, the third release on her own Pyroclastic imprint, without diluting her adventurous spirit.
It manages to be simultaneously more traditional and more radical than both Duopoly (Pyroclastic, 2016) and Octopus (Pyroclastic, 2017). The former employs the funk finesse of drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, while the latter is a result of the electronics of Val Jeanty on turntables. Along with Davis, the pair are one of the few constants on the album. They came together originally as part of a tribute to late pianist Geri Allen, and such was the rapport that Davis was keen to work together more.
Although a startling departure from previous work on first listen, repeated spins bring out some continuities: Davis’ minimalist tendencies, piano preparations, and key inspirations, not least Cecil Taylor. Both the old and the new are in evidence on the captivating title cut, which begins with a lurching figure reiterated on prepared piano, before a sample of Taylor’s voice spools out, and Carrington’s drums lock into an earthy stutter. Twin tenor saxophones lay out the whoozy theme, before first JD Allen’s burnished tone vaults center stage, and then Tony Malaby, who has been a longstanding ally since Davis’ debut Lifespan (Fresh Sound, New Talent, 2004), swerves between the notes.
Davis piano work shines through on a regular basis, but it’s in the overall conception that her influence manifests most strongly. Jeanty brings novel textures and notably vocal samples, introducing French composer Olivier Messaien’s voice on “Corn Crake,” as well as manipulating multiple piano tracks alongside the real Davis, while elsewhere she adds depth and nuance to the ensembles. Carrington gives Davis’ tunes a potent rhythmic backbone, moving even the introspective “Sympodial Sunflower” into a ticking groove. In its entirety the content is so rich that previously missed detail is revealed on every pass.
Other innovations include adding Esperanza Spalding breathily singing Michael Attias’ lyrics on a cover of his “The Very Thing,” and then reciting a Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem at the outset of “Certain Cells.” Davis also blends guitar into the mix, with Marc Ribot and Nels Cline appearing both separately and together, conspicuously in the swirling tumult of “Golgi Complex.” With the changing line up between tracks, and the vocals, alongside the meaty ideas, the program evokes the style of Ornette Coleman’s masterpiece Science Fiction (CBS, 1972). Who would bet on where she goes next?

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