Kris Davis’s “Live at the Village Vanguard”

I’m always swinging after the pitch. It’s inevitable when following the work of creative musicians like pianist-composer Kris Davis  — who are always evolving and changing in their art — primarily through the medium of recordings.

The zenith of my listening year in 2022 was the two consecutive evenings at the end of February when I heard Davis perform with her Octopus duet partner Craig Taborn — first improvising and interacting with Harry Bertoia’s sounding sculptures at Dallas’ Nasher Sculpture Center, then playing new compositions and covers of Ronald Shannon Jackson pieces at Fort Worth’s Museum of Modern Art.

I’d been a fan of Davis since first hearing her in 2010, in the trio Paradoxical Frog with fellow improvising-composers-on-the-rise Ingrid Laubrock and Tyshawn Sorey. That unit released two CDs on Portuguese indie Clean Feed, a label for which Davis subsequently released four more: a solo, a trio, a quintet, and an octet with four bass clarinets. (She’d previously released four on Fresh Sound New Talent.) The last of her Clean Feeds was produced by David Breskin, who’d previously worked with the likes of Shannon Jackson, Bill Frisell, and Nels Cline, among others. Breskin went on to produce three more Davis albums for her Pyroclastic label: an album of duets with various collaborators, the first recording by the Octopus duet, and in 2019, the critically acclaimed Diatom Ribbons.

Diatom Ribbons is the band Davis formed around the core of drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, turntablist/electronic musician Val Jeanty, and bassist Trevor Dunn. Dunn first recorded with Davis in the quintet on 2013’s Capricorn Climber. Davis and Carrington share a Grammy award for the drummer’s album New Standards, Vol. 1 — a collection of pieces composed by women, hopefully the first of many. They work together at Berklee College of Music’s Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice, which Carrington founded and directs.

Going into NYC’s storied Village Vanguard — where Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, and John Coltrane famously reinvented themselves with iconic live recordings — for a week with a new set of material, one which sounds to these ears like her strongest and most self-assured yet, Davis added a new element to her band: the guitarist Julian Lage. The former child prodigy had big shoes to fill in a slot formerly occupied (on the first Diatom Ribbons album) by Nels Cline and Marc Ribot, but as his work here shows, he’s more than equal to the task, and his addition makes the band’s group dynamic even stronger.

With this edition of Diatom Ribbons, Davis has created a kind of ideal musical situation: one where she can use everything she knows, where nothing is excluded and no learning is wasted. Here, she’s able to synthesize her various influences from the worlds of jazz and 20th century composed music, and use some new tools to add further dimensions to the sound. Last year, she was just beginning to incorporate electronics into her improvisations. Here, they are even more evident, and with Jeanty in the mix, Davis is able to add voice samples from a few of her influences — Sun Ra, Paul Bley, Olivier Messiaen, Karlheinz Stockhausen — to comment on the music, sometimes introducing a humorous aspect.

Two of the pieces were performed at Davis’ Fort Worth concert last year: Shannon Jackson’s “Alice in the Congo” and her own “Endless Columns.” On the former, Davis plays the melodic line that Henry Scott’s scream trumpet handled on the Man Dance original, and she plays a swirling abstract solo with crashing clusters and burbling currents of notes, Dunn and Carrington careening into space after her before the drummer pulls things together with a quick funk beat, leading into the unison close. The latter tune is impressionistic, multitextured electric chamber music, with a lyrical Davis statement that is the album’s meditative heart. Also noteworthy is the grace with which Lage dances on the strings.

The three-part “Bird Suite” — composed for a Carrington-Rudresh Mahanthappa tour, commemorating Charlie Parker’s centennial, that wound up being cancelled due to the Covid pandemic — takes inspiration from both the towering saxophonist and Messiaen’s invocation of birdsongs in his “Petites Esquisses D’Oiseaux.” The first part, “Kingfisher,” is the rocker of this set; Lage solos with the nervous energy of early John McLaughlin (circa Extrapolation, say), and Carrington even throws in a punk-rock polka beat at one point. “Bird Call Blues” features samples of Bley and Messiaen’s voices, as well as birds near Davis’ home, all manipulated by Jeanty to add another mode of perception to the music’s flow. On “Parasitic Hunter,” Carrington opens up the time and the group plays freely, while Stockhausen’s sampled voice discourses on “Intuitive Music.”

Two different takes of Wayne Shorter’s “Dolores” demonstrate Diatom Ribbons’ affinity for the tonal abstraction and gliding swing of the mid-’60s Miles Davis band. This is also a good place to note the beautiful clarity of Ron Saint Germain’s recording — Carrington’s kick drum hits you right in the solar plexus, and it’s easy to imagine what this music would have felt like from a stage side table at the Vanguard. Speaking of women composers who recorded at the Vanguard, Davis and Co.’s take on Geri Allen’s “The Dancer” stretches out the tune’s bluesy pointillism over a leisurely funk groove. Davis’ spaciously episodic “Nine Hats” is based on fragments from Eric Dolphy’s “Hat and Beard” and Conlon Nancarrow’s “Study No. 9 for Player Piano;” it hits like light refracted through a window, recalling her minimalist homage “Feldman” on the first Paradoxical Frog album.

At this point in her career, Kris Davis is calling her own shots, and opening up new avenues of expression. She recently completed a tour with bassist-composer Dave Holland’s new quartet. I can’t wait to hear what she gets up to next. In the meantime, Live at the Village Vanguard has plenty of pleasures to keep me returning to it for a while. A double CD, it’s out September 1.

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