Kris Davis — Massive Threads (Thirsty Ear, 2013)
Massive Threads is a difficult combination of minimalism and brashness that almost dares the listener to try to enjoy it. Some of these solo piano excursions include passages where Kris Davis might well be saying, “Let’s spill a bunch of paint and see if the critics can convince themselves it’s art” — but I don’t think that’s the case. I do think I’m finding artistry and beauty in this music — and I admit, I do enjoy the academic side. This is material that takes multiple listens to embrace, and it’s worth the effort.
Davis’ work got increasingly abstract and challenging during the past decade. You can hear some of that minimalist touch it at the end of “Whirly Swirly,” the mostly friendly opening track of Waiting for You To Grow. But that album, like much of Davis’ work, kept its feet anchored in jazz. Massive Threads boils away jazz pretense, reducing musical forms into primordeal ideas and an obsession with the piano’s highest or lowest registers.
That doesn’t mean it’s simple or slow. “Ten Exorcists” is an impress display of lightning precision. It starts as an almost toneless, Philip-Glass-on-speed exercise, later developing something of a melody in the form of left-hand chords. For maximum contrast, that exercise in concentration is followed by the gaping empty spaces of the second track, appropriately titled, “Desolation and Despair.”
The title track gives you a little bit of everything. The intro is attractively splashy, full of free-jazz abandon, but it soon crosses into a desert of twisted, gloppy chords stamped out in slow, robotic, quarter-note succession, describing a stern 6/4 cycle. It’s not always easy listening, but I like the idea of it. Nicer but hardly normal is “Dancing Marlines,” a whispered monologue of upper-register keys like drippings from an icicle. It builds into staggered, stair-step pickings that have a light mood and even a sense of swing.
Monk’s “Evidence” gets pulled apart into a halting, stuttering non-rhythm. A ray of jazz manages to poke through, in the harmonies and the phrasing — especially at the end, when Davis gets into a high-register ostinato and some convoluted cross-rhythms, like an alien music box.
“Slow Growing” ends the album on a morose note. It’s a careful, creeping piece full of heavy harmonies; it reminds me of the glum CD of piano sonatas by Russian (soon-to-be-Soviet) composer Alexandr Mosolov on ECM. What Davis’ album shares with that one is the sense of complex emotion that’s too thickly stacked to express in simple terms. There’s a sense of therapeutic outpouring that’s worth the time to absorb.