I find I’m having trouble writing about the latest Kris Davis CD. It’s good, and it’s free jazz, but saying that alone doesn’t do it justice. It’s different, and it’s clearly an evolutionary step and a gutsy one, for a pianist whose quartet started out with a more conventional sound.
The excellent Free Jazz blog has noted Davis’ progression into more abstract musical forms. Her quartet, formed in 2004, includes Tony Malaby on saxophone, who’s not exactly dinner-jazz material himself, but the debut Lifeline CD stuck to a comforting kind of sound, with plenty of towering piano and sax work, but an overall quilted feel that goes over well with jazz-club audiences. Have a listen here, on Davis’ Web page.
It’s not as if the music has lost structure. “Black Tunnel” uses a dramatic composed line that appears between episodes of light, fast playing, where Davis does toneful morse-code pecking on the piano. The piece ends with Davis hammering one tiny, tiny, quiet piano note, a humorous touch that sums up the album’s attitude.
Then, you’ve got the title track, which opens the album with an abrasive, pre-arranged clamour, an elephant stomp that lets you know you’re not in for an evening of standards. The piece’s guts are built of robotic piano rhythms that, after a quiet segment, return to sit underneath a gutteral Malaby solo.
Other tracks, like “Minnow Bucket,” get into full-on group improvising but without slipping into that stark, academic atmosphere that European improv crafts so well. It’s still jazz, and even club-friendly jazz (relatively speaking).
The wild abandon and velvety jazz touches make for a coarse mix sometimes, but that’s what I like about this album. It’s not a carbon copy of ’60s free jazz, it’s not your usual improv session, and it has a voice distinguishable from European free jazz. Davis has crafted something fresh and new here.
Davis’ next act might be a full-on improvisational quartet; it’s an equal-billing affair called RIDD, for its four members’ last names. Drummer Jeff Davis is in that one, too, as is Reuben Radding, a bassist whose free-improv output can be sampled generously on his Web page. I’ll be keeping an eye out for their upcoming CD on Clean Feed.