Kris Davis”Diatom Ribbons: Live at the Village Vanguard’

On February 17, 2018, pianist Kris Davis played in the second of two concerts at Harvard University to honor the late jazz pianist Geri Allen. It was a fantastic night of music worthy of Allen’s tremendous talent. Davis took the stage in various ensembles, with some featuring drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, who had also curated the concert. The formidable connection on display would prove to be educational and ideological. When Carrington was organizing tributes to Allen, she invited Davis to join the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice, where Davis now works as the associate program director of creative development.

Soon after, Carrington and another member of the Berklee Institute, electronic musician, turntablist, and drummer Val Jeanty, would be the core of Diatom Ribbons (Pyroclastic Records, 2019), one of Davis’ boldest works to date. Davis had always had a knack for exploration, to the point where well-known jazz standards can sound like new adventures, but Diatom Ribbons expanded her sound.

Jeanty’s samples and scratches gave the album elements of hip hop, and some portions of Davis’ compositions worked in a melodically fluid fashion only to be followed by others that shifted like entrancing puzzles. When Carrington and bassist Trevor Dunn took the rhythm to aggressive territory, the album had a rock edge that was pushed even further by Nels Cline and Marc Ribot’s fierce guitar work. 

The expansive concept of Diatom Ribbons begged to be explored live. Thankfully, in 2022, Davis, Carrington, Jeanty, and Dunn went to the Village Vanguard along with guitarist Julian Lage to do exactly that. Diatom Ribbons Live at the Village Vanguard (Pyroclastic Records, 2023) does not have the same songs as the previous album – it presents new Davis compositions and other tunes under a similar experimental lens. Perhaps as a reference to when Davis and Carrington began performing together, Geri Allen’s “The Dancer” was released as the lead single. Davis takes the theme at a more steady pace and employs prepared piano with gaff tape that gives the notes a more percussive quality. The use of dissonance to punctuate phrases combined with the piano’s altered tone gives the tune a subtle catchy groove. Lage provides fine accompaniment, elaborating on Davis’ lines with soulful flourishes packed with graceful trills. 

Jeanty’s turntablism feels at home within the head-nod-inducing environment of “The Dancer,” and is incorporated well throughout the album. Scratches and vocal samples enhance the pulsating march of Ronald Shannon Jackson’s “Alice in the Congo” as Davis shimmers through the motif. Davis and Lage get the track off to a fine start with impressive bluesy playing. Things get more rambunctious as the piece moves into a more abrasive cloud of improvisation that gives way to a storm of drums and piano. Davis’ dissonant and complex playing jumps around at a breakneck pace. Carrington matches that energy with a stunning performance that ends with a thunderous solo and a very brief venture into a hip-hop-esque beat.

The following track, “Nine Hats,” would be a surprise if Davis had not already made Diatom Ribbons. Understated drum brushwork and languid guitar notes meet synths and the staggered rise and whirl of electronics. All this, plus the bowed cries of the bass and the prickly prepared piano, creates an eerie futuristic environment. “Endless Columns” is another tune that begins somewhat low-key, but ends up being much more than that. Piano and guitar unravel and twist in an interesting abstract conversation that is the centerpiece of a cavernous first half. Echoing turntables, gently tapped cymbals, and a slick bass line slowly progress the band into a completely different space. When Davis and Lage return, the spidery approach of the beginning is gone, replaced with solos with a beautiful melodic focus. The track is a fantastic example of the wide stylistic range of these musicians.

Like the studio album that came before it, Diatom Ribbons Live at the Village Vanguard is a distinctly modern recording that has something for most jazz fans; that statement could apply to the “Bird Suite” alone. Playing out over three tracks, “Bird Suite” rocks and crashes (“Part 1: Kingfisher”), has gorgeous swinging playing (“Part 2: Bird Call Blues”) and closes with the more avant-garde and hypnotic side of Davis’ style (“Part 3: Parasitic Hunter”). The pianist’s skill with interlocking patterns shines at the end of “Part 3: Parasitic Hunter” and in “VW,” a sparser, more jagged number that features a Sun Ra vocal sample. Sun Ra remarks that “this music is from another dimension,” and after spending a good amount of time with this album, it’s hard to disagree. Listeners will finish this live set jealous of the audience. 

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