Monday, January 06, 2020

Catching Up With Kris Davis, Dave Douglas and Avram Fefer

Pittsburgh Current posted a few thoughts from its staff writers reflecting on the music that happened during 2019. Click here and scroll down to read some of my thoughts about shows I really liked last year. 

It's been awhile since I penned a proper album review here - and I'm still not ready to do that. These three albums have been out for a while anyway. But at the same time, they all have some great things going for them so another mention or two can't hurt. If it gets one more person to check them out, then I've done a good deed. 

Kris Davis
Diatom Ribbons

With every album she makes, pianist Kris Davis seems to create something entirely different from what preceded it. Diatom Ribbons' title track opens the album with some clanking prepared piano and a voice. Not just any voice but that of Cecil Taylor, offering some philosophy about his music. For a person who thrived by being intentionally vague and obtuse, this excerpt gets to the heart of his work. And it's nothing compared to the performances of both JD Allen and Tony Malaby that follow him.  The whole arrangement creates a blend of adventurous jazz with turntable sampling work (Val Jeanty works the decks here and throughout the album). 

The album features an assortment of players coming and going throughout the album. Besides Davis, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington is the one constant. Esperanza Spaulding appears on two tracks but  she left her bass at home and uses her voice. She sings Michaël Attias' "The Very Thing" and, in "Certain Cells," she recites Gwendolyn Brooks' poem "To Prisoners." Trevor Dunn plays on most of the tracks, alternating acoustic and electric basses. In addition to putting Allen and Malaby together on a few tracks (including a phantasmagorical 12-minute reading of Julius Hemphill's "Reflections"), both Nels Cline and Marc Ribot also pop up, separately and in tandem on "Golgi Complex." Sometimes things get spare and wide-open, while other tracks like "Reflections" move along at full speed.   

Dave Douglas

Within minutes of playing Engage, it felt like it was headed to my Best of 2019 list. For what it's worth, Douglas often ends up faring impressively in such lists, but "Showing Up" has something really magical in the three-chord riff that drives the song. It moves almost like an Americana indie rock song, driven by Jeff Parker's guitar. (He is something of an indie rocker anyway, what with his role in Tortoise.) Douglas' trumpet uses that foundation to create one of those yearning moods that just tugs at the end. The circular riff doesn't seem to resolve exactly, so maybe that's part of the allure.

The rest of Engage lives up to its name too. "In It Together" features some strong group improvisation. "One Sun, A Million Rays" has Anna Webber playing some moody flute lines before the piece eventually fades with an ominous march. "Where Do We Go From Here" is built on a tense 6/4 vamp that almost unravels during Webber's tenor solo. With titles like "Free Libraries" (where Douglas plays some languid lines and Parker takes a clean, "jazzy" solo) and "Faith Alliance," with its overdriven guitar, Douglas is clearly working to motivate people to take action through his music. It can be hard to take that step but Douglas is a good motivator. 

Avran Fefer Quartet
(Clean Feed)

Listening to "Song for Dyani," from Testament, brings to mind Ask the Ages, the late Sonny Sharrock's summit meeting with Elvin Jones, Pharoah Sanders and Charnett Moffett, where that quartet sounded like they were playing heavy rock. The pedal drone of "Dyani" inspires that comparison in saxophonist Avram Fefer's quartet, though they race along at twice the speed of Sharrock's band, driven by the multi-directional playing of Chad Taylor, who composed the tune, and bassist Eric Revis, who gets aggressive here.

But Testament has more happening than just this particular moment moment. Fefer, alternating on tenor and alto, finds a good foil in guitarist Marc Ribot, who digs into the boppish swing of "Dean St. Hustle." The leader plays it cool for the straightforward theme of "Essaouria" and then adds a strong growl to his tone during his solo. "African Interlude" gives Taylor a chance to swing really hard too.

Fefer has worked with Taylor and Revis on previous albums but this was the first time he and Ribot worked together on the saxophonist's originals. Hopefully this won't be just a one-off event.

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