Sunday, October 23, 2016


Pianist  Kris Davis

The jazz pianist and composer Kris Davis is accustom to her style of playing being likened to avant-garde jazz pianist Cecil Taylor. Although Davis, 35, appreciates the comparison, she says her biggest influences are pianists Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett. Davis grew up in Calgary, and at 13 she started playing jazz. Davis resides in New York now. Nationally, Davis has become a force of nature. Leading jazz publications such as DownBeat have praised Davis as the future of jazz, and many of her accomplished peers such as pianist Jason Moran are big fans.  To date, Davis has 12 albums available, ranging in scope from trio to large ensemble. Davis’s new album “Duopoly,” duets with talents such as Tim Berne, Craig Taborn, Bill Frisell, Billy Drummond and Angelica Sanchez could be seen as Davis’s most ambitious outing yet. The duets are remarkable, showing each musicians raw virtuosity, and offering further clarity into Davis’s subtle genius as a composer and a pianist. In early October, I Dig Jazz interviewed Davis via telephone two days after she returned to New York from touring Europe. Davis discussed the new album, balancing the responsibilities of motherhood with a growing music career, and getting more involved in the business side of her career by starting, Pyroclastic Records, her new record label.  
What was the impetus for making this duo album

In the past, I've focused on creating bands and developing a rapport, a vibe with the compositions that we're playing and between the musicians. I usually establish that through playing a few concerts and maybe a tour and then recording. I've put out almost ten records now, as a leader. I wanted to do something a little different where it was the opposite of that. We just sprinted into the studio and captured moments. It was an effort to try something a little different and experiment and take a different kind of risk.

You wrote in the liner notes the music on the recording wasn’t rehearsed.

What are the challenges you face with that approach?
I didn't bring in super hard music. If it was something that was hard to read or get together, that might not have been the best choice, for something like this. I tried to pick things that weren't super hard to read, and that fit the vibe of what I thought the other musicians would be comfortable with. Something like the “Prairie Eyes.”  That's a really old tune of mine, and I wanted to try it in a different format with Bill Frisell.

Some things were totally brand new, like the piece, with Julian Lage. That I hadn't played with anyone, so I was trying to figure out a way to play it, so there was a double task there. I'd never played with Julian either, so finding a way to play together and also how to shape the composition the way I wanted it to be. Some of the musicians had some comfort because I knew the tunes, like “Eronel,” with Billy Drummond. Some things were completely brand new, and it was a little more challenging to figure out how I should go about piecing them together.

Why did you pick Taborn, Lage, Drummond, Frisell, Gilmore, Byron, Berne, and Sanchez as collaborators?
I haven't recorded with any of these players. I do have a relationship with most of them where I played a couple of gigs with Billy Drummond. I did do a couple of gigs with Tim Berne, as a duo. I played in Don Byron's band a couple of times. I didn't completely pick someone that I was unsure if it would work or not. I had some sense that we'd find something pretty quickly, in the studio. That's how the project came about.

To put you on the spot, of the eight musicians who was your favorite?
Craig Taborn. We've never played together before. I'm a huge fan of his. In the recording, there was something special there that felt like, if we had more time, we could grow it even further. That's why we're touring together. That one, specifically, sticks out in my mind.

Are you and Craig's style of piano playing similar or dissimilar? If it's not similar, how do you make that work when you're doing a duo with another piano player and your styles are remote?
I think there's a shared sensibility of trying to be compositional when we're improvising. I think we share that basis. I don't think our styles are that different. We both have our influences. We're, obviously, different people. I think the harder challenge is trying to figure out how to make two pianos and two harmonic instruments work together in an improvised setting. That's the bigger challenge, I feel.

What's the key to making that work?
Having some composition, something to grab hold of. Something, where we're using some material or going in a specific direction that can help, shape the concert, the music that happens. Also, in the improvising, there's nothing planned. If it's completely open, just using our ears, trying to figure out what we're going for, range-wise. If someone is in the low register, are you trying to match that and create a specific sound with that? Maybe you should be in a different place on the keyboard, just to be out of that person's way, doing what they're doing, and create another texture or layer on top of what the other pianist is doing. It's intense behind what's going on and trying to give the other person space and also be in there, together, making decisions together. That's what I felt on the recording. Finding a push and pull with that.

Another challenge, too, it seems is making all that make sense for the audience.
Yeah, exactly. In some ways, I'm not so worried about that. I know that we can make good music together. I know that maybe some performances are better than others. I think the sincerity, and when you're trying, that comes across to an audience.

This project is also on your record label that you just started. Can you talk about why it was important for you to start a label?
I wanted to own my music. A lot of labels, they want to take a certain percentage of publishing and royalties. I've worked with a lot of different labels, and they're all great. They're all small labels, and they've been very supportive of me and my music. This project was funded by the Shift Foundation. It was paid for, and it felt like this was the time to try and release something and figure out, in 2016, how does music reach people? We don't have CD stores anymore, and everyone's downloading.

Do people buy CDs? How do people get the music? That's something that I've been removed from on purpose. I avoided that since I've been releasing things, just wanting to focus on the music. I felt like I wanted to be more connected. How does this reach my audience? Who is my audience? I wanted to learn more about that. That's what this is about.

Are you going to keep it just for your music, or are you planning to sign other jazz musicians?
I'm not sure yet. If I did release other people’s music, I'd want to be able to give them some support. I'm not really in a position to do that right now. You never know how things might change. Even for myself, I don't even know if I could release another album. If I did, I might just do a download and not print any CD's. I thought about doing that.

So far, Band Camp has been great. The proceeds are going to the artist. They take very little. I'm excited to see where that goes.

You have a lot on your plate. You record, you tour, you're a mom, and now you're building a record label. How do you make all that work? How do you manage, or balance, all of that?
It's a challenge, but I have people to help me. That makes a big difference. I have someone to run the label and keep track of everything and do the publicity. I have someone to book tours. I have some help. Otherwise, it would be impossible. Being a mom takes up a lot of my time. I'm pretty devoted to my son and being a mother. Even now, when I tour, I feel guilty and sad that I'm not with him. Sometimes I'm questioning, am I doing the right thing? I don't think I'll ever really know the answer. The nice thing is that when I am home and really with him, he gets my full attention, for the most part. He gets my attention more than most kids get to see their parents. That’s one nice thing about being a musician and working from home.

You've done large ensemble, trio, solo, and now duo projects. How do you make that transition from those different formats? Do you have a favorite format?
It's kind of a relief for me. I did this octet project in 2013. I was writing for six months for that project. I finished that and then it was like, I can write for duos, great. I'm so happy. So I'll do that for a while and then I'm so sick of duos. What's the next thing? It's like anything, you get involved in it, and then you're ready for a change. I'm happy for those shifts.

Do you consider your music avant-garde?
I don't think of it that way. To me, there're so many different kinds of music out there now. People are trying to push the envelope with things

Who’re some of your early influences?
My first early, early influences were Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett. They were the two pianists that I absolutely fell in love with. That's what made me want to be a jazz piano player. I did a lot of transcribing of their music and studying. The thing I took away from that was Keith Jarrett's melodic sensibility and Herbie Hancock's sense of rhythm and time. Those made a big impact, and I still think they do.

A friend of mine came to a concert the other day, and he was like, I can tell you like Herbie Hancock. No one has ever said that to me before. I was a side person for someone else's gig. From my soloing and improvising, my friend caught onto something. Kind of cracked me up. People hear the cluster chords that I play, and they're like, you play like Cecil Taylor.
When I first heard you play, Cecil Taylor came to mind.
They just hear the clusters that I play. I love Cecil, but he's not the biggest influence on me, compared to some other pianists and composers.

You started out very young, playing classical piano. When did you switch to jazz? When did you know that you’d make your mark playing jazz?
It was pretty early, around thirteen. I joined the jazz band at school. I don't know why but after the first concert we played with the group, I was like, this is it. Jazz is what I want to do. This is awesome. That was the shift. I'd been playing classical music and playing by myself a lot, and I started realizing I could play music with other people and figuring that out was exciting. I kept going with that and got involved. There were some other students at the school that was also really into jazz. We'd get together every weekend in this guy’s basement and play standards and read tunes and listen to music together, as a group. They made a big impact on me.

Was there a jazz scene in Calgary at that time?
There was a good jazz scene there, at the time, and some people to study with. I'm not sure now, what's going on there. At the time, there were some really good musicians.

What do you have planned for your next project? Have you started thinking about that?
I'm looking to do a larger, orchestral project. That's in the back on my mind. I'm still composing music for an orchestra in Vancouver called, The Now Society. That's supposed to be premiered next fall. I have a year to work on it. They're improvisers, and I'm excited to try and write a song with some direction and shape for a large ensemble and figure out how I'm going to go about that.

You are constantly challenging yourself and pushing yourself to come up with different projects to do. I know we talked about it a little earlier, but it seems like that's big for you.
I think that's the spirit of jazz and improvised music. It's challenging yourself and trying different things and finding your way through the music. For me, it's exciting and fun to face those challenges and also learn from the mistakes. It's all from recording so many projects. Those things are there. They're all there, on the record. The successes and the failures. I look at it more as a documenting of that time and working towards the project.

That's my approach with it, versus trying to solidify that this is the one, it's got to be perfect. I try not to get too bogged down on that.
Are you saying that, when you go back to listen to an album after you've made it, that's when you analyze it or search for mistakes?

Yeah. I think when you're mixing and mastering the record, you're just listening to it so much. After you hear it the tenth, fifteenth time, you have a sense of what you're happy with and not happy with. That's the thing about this; it's all subjective. If there's something I don't like, it might actually be something that someone else likes. Going through the process of recording and playing music and then seeing their reactions. Sometimes I'm surprised because things that I thought were horrible, people loved and vice versa, things that I thought were great, people are like, okay. You don't want to be too precious about it. Do the work and try your best, experiment and push yourself. When the record is out, let the chips fall where they may. You really can't know how people are going to take it.

The Kris Davis Trio plays edgefest Friday October 28th  7:30pm at Kerrytown Concert House 415 North Fourth Avenue Ann Arbor, MI 48104 (734) 769-2999
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