Saturday, October 22, 2016

CD Review: Kris Davis - Duopoly

Kris Davis

For her newest album, pianist Kris Davis hit upon the idea of performing a series of duets with specific types of instrumentalists: two different guitarists (Bill Frisell, Julian Lage), two pianists (Craig Taborn, Angelica Sanchez), two drummers (Billy Drummond, Marcus Gilmore) and two reeds (saxophonist Tim Berne, clarinetist Don Byron). With each pairing, they played one composition (five by Davis, one by Sanchez, one by Thelonious Monk, one by Duke Ellington) along with one brief improvisation.

In remarkable display of sequencing, the compositions play in order of the performers listed above (and pictured left to right on the cover, between pictures of Davis' inverted face). The improvisations run in reverse order of performers, making the final album something like an artistic palindrome. For those interested in watching the music come to life, Duopoly comes with an accompanying DVD that was filmed by two cameras in the studio, one pointing at each subject.

At first blush, the DVD almost acts like a distraction. Not simply because of technical things - such as when the camera stays on Lage's face during "Surf Curl," cropping out his musical activities - or the questions it can raise - like whether Drummond's facial expressions come from his passion for the music or uncertainty about where to play. After watching the performances, though, a return to the CD felt more rewarding. This is often gentle music and the visual almost took away attention from what is being created.

The composed pieces often feel as skeletal as the improvisations (which are each titled for Davis' guests). The interplay between Davis and Sanchez on "Angelica Sanchez" betrays more connection and interlocking of ideas than "Beneath the Leaves," though the latter sounds equally lyrical. "Fox Fire," with Taborn, begins slowly, with the alluring suspense that he created on his Avenging Angel disc: Things might begin glacially, but stick with it and you'll be rewarded as things open up. This pairing is one of the best on the whole session. It should come as no surprise that they have played a few shows together, marking the release of this set.

The two non-originals get stretched out beyond simple recognition. Davis takes "Eronel," a song associated with Thelonious Monk that was actually written largely by Sadik Hakim and Idrees Sulieman, and breaks down the theme into choppy pieces, while Drummond gradually builds from cymbal splashes to the full kit, ending in tandem with her like he knew where he was all along. Byron joins the pianist for "Prelude to a Kiss" which also takes the romantic theme and slows it to molasses-esque pour, giving a new type of romantic quality.

All of the improvisations average around four minutes, give or take a few seconds. That length of time doesn't offer much chance to create more than some fleeting sonic imagery that would not be out of place on an ECM album. They're compelling, though they don't always offer something to latch onto. Lage, on acoustic guitar, provides one of the few moments of free frenzy, when he skronks on his instrument. Coming as the penultimate track, it's a welcome jolt and leads into the final statement with Frisell, right where we came in.

The evershifting sound of Duopoly provide a challenge to maintain focus, but Davis' own performance offers consistency and direction in the moments that often feel loose, whether she's plinking prepared notes, slamming the low end or echoing her partner's high octave plinks. Although the music, and the studio footage, might come across a bit serious, the additional shots of the musicians included in the CD booklet indicate that everyone was having a good time. Davis continues to be one of the most fascinating new pianists in adventurous jazz.

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