The Art of Process

Kris DavisDuopoly (Pyroclastic, 2016)

duopolyI wanted my first listen to Kris Davis‘ Duopoly to be an uninterrupted viewing of the 80-minute video of the performances (available online or as a DVD sold with the physical CD). It’s not as if the act of filming these studio duets altered the music. It’s more that I wanted to get into the spirit of the project.

Duopoly comprises 16 duets with eight musicians. Some Davis knows well, but none have previously recorded with her. Each musician took three hours in the studio to record one composition (most often one of Davis’) and one improvisation. Topping it off is the mirror symmetry of the track order, which I was so pleased to hear about last summer — the album features each of the eight musicians playing a composition, then the same eight, in reverse order, doing improvisations.

To me, that whole structure is part of the art here. It isn’t just that Davis recorded 16 duets (the partners being two guitarists, two pianists, two drummers, two reedists). What I wanted to savor was the whole “shape” of the project — the constraints, the spontaneity, and the trajectory of the overall process. Certainly I enjoyed the music, too, but what I savored was the overall experiment.

The recordings are pure, with no rehearsals, overdubs, or mixing — although, sensibly, multiple takes were allowed. On the video side, the amount of camera movement is minimal. Davis is recorded by a fixed camera, while the guest musician is filmed by videographer Mimi Chakarova, using a handheld. Not every track works for me, but I think that fit the spirit of the rules.

One of the most fascinating visuals is “Eronel,” the Monk composition, played in duet with Billy Drummond. Davis starts off with an improvisation, and it’s up to Drummond to trust his ears, decide when to come in, and listen for the composition. The same is true of their improvisation, but with one constraint fewer. Being able to watch Drummond’s facial expressions, seeing him tease out his process, is a treat.

davis drummond cutAt times, though, he seems to have psyched himself out. I found myself aching for him to cut loose in a few spots. His improv duet takes time to get going but really cooks when it does, when he settles on an all-toms groove.

It’s possible that Drummond did cut loose, on alternate takes — or, maybe restraint was his strategy all along. Or, maybe it’s my burden to warm up to that strategy. The quiet tapping at the start of “Eronel” really clicked with me on a second listen, without the video (opening a whole other realm of discussion), and provides a healthy contrast to Marcus Gilmore’s hard asphalt swing on “Dig and Dump.”

The dual-piano tracks likewise complement one another. Davis’ composed duet with Craig Taborn, pensive and abstract, is followed by the direct jazz attack of Angelica Sanchez. I like that the Taborn track comes first in the album’s sequencing. It does get fiery but builds slowly and abstractly to that point; its introduction would have been an odd full stop had it followed Sanchez’s piece.

Sometimes, the only way to tell which parts are composed is to watch Davis’ eyes on the video. Even then, you can’t always tell, but based on that cue, “Trip Dance for Tim” has her playing an intricate theme filled with insane intervallic leaps. Tim Berne’s alto sax soloing is a delight during that phase, and eventually both are playing a layered composition that does resemble some of Berne’s two-horn work with bands like Snakeoil or Bloodcount.

berneThe Tim Berne improvisation comprises two phases: Berne madly screeching against stony chords, and Berne playing a tumult of notes against Davis’ rapid-fire blips, sounding like an acoustic sci-fi computer.

How about the guitars? Davis’ composition “Prairie Eyes” seems very much tailored for Bill Frisell, with Davis laying down scrabbling minimal riff against his sparse notes, or putting big-sky chords behind a very Frisellian melody. It’s an attractive piece with a haunting coda. “Surf Curl,” for Julian Lage, starts out percussive and skittery, building into a steady drizzle.

Duke Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss,” played with Don Byron, is the halfway point, the last of the compositions. The piece ends sublimely, making for a satisfying transition into the improv half of the album/video. That Moebius twist of a transition, as Davis’ producer calls it, is equally sublime, opening quietly with Byron’s clarinet like a flowing brook and Davis playing gentle dewdrop notes.

Davis has posted the entire video online: http://krisdavis.net/duopoly-full-video … and you can catch it segment-by-segment on Vimeo.

Kris Davis’ New Symmetry

Maybe it’s because I was a math major, but I do love to geek out about things like this:

Pianist Kris Davis‘ new album — Duopoly, due out on Sept. 30 — consists of duets with eight different musicians. Sixteen tracks: one apiece with each partner, followed by eight more with the same players in reverse order. It’s a palindrome.

The album’s front cover helps you visualize it all. The tracks start with guitarist Bill Frisell (upper left) and, I’m guessing, work their way “down” the left column, through Craig Taborn, Billy Drummond and Tim Berne. Then they go back up the right-hand column to guitarist Julian Lage. The next eight tracks reverse that sequence.

duopoly

Oh, but it gets better. The first eight tracks are based on compositions, while the last eight are improvisations. And you might notice that the the eight duo partners consist of two players representing each of four instruments: guitar (Frisell, Lage), Other Piano (Taborn, Angelica Sanchez), drums (Drummond, Marcus Gilmore), and woodwinds (Berne, Don Byron). It’s symmetries upon symmetries.

There are times when I’ll buy the physical form of an album — vinyl or CD — because it feels like the packaging is part of the whole experience. In this case, I’m geeking out on the overall concept as part of the experience. It’s fun so far.

To top it all off, they filmed these sessions, so Duopoly is a DVD as well.

To help promote the album, Davis and Taborn are hitting the road for a series of two-piano showcases, including a stop in Los Angeles for the Angel City Jazz Festival and a show at Oakland’s Mills College. I’ve reviewed solo albums from each of them (here and here), and a duet performance seems like it would be something to savor.

Here’s the itinerary for those duo shows:

September 30 — Firehouse 12 – New Haven, CT
October 1 — Music Center at Washington University – St. Louis, MO
October 2 — Roulette – Brooklyn, NY
October 3 — Kennedy Center – Washington DC
October 5 — Constellation – Chicago, IL
October 6 — Britton Recital Hall – Ann Arbor, MI
October 7 — Wexner Center – Columbus, OH
October 8 — Zipper Hall presented by Angel City Jazz Festival – Los Angeles, CA
October 9 — Mills College – Oakland, CA
October 10 — UC San Diego – San Diego, CA
October 11 — Poncho Concert Hall presented by Earshot Jazz Festival – Seattle, WA
October 13 — Bucknell University – Lewisburg, PA

Angelica Sanchez in Town

NYC Pianist Angelica Sanchez will be playing in Oakland tonight (Sat., April 23), at 1510 Performance Space.

It’s part of a west-coast tour she’s undertaking with saxophonist Phillip Greenlief and drummer Sam Ospovot.  “We have been improvising together for several years, and that seems to be a good fit. It’s been really nice playing with Sam, he immediately brought the right stuff to the trio,” Greenlief says in an email.

I’m relieved. I’d heard Sanchez was out on the west coast this week, but the only specific show date I’d seen was in Bakersfield.  (Turns out there was also a show in L.A.) Greenlief reports that they got some paying university gigs rather easily, but other shows were harder to come by. That’s understandable, given the problems venues have been having.

Sanchez has made quite a name for herself in New York. Her 2008 album, Life Between, had a lineup of big downtown NYC names that was impressive, even if one of them was her husband (saxophonist Tony Malaby).

Her piano playing is edgy yet elegant, going for lyricism and texture more than percussive battering. Don’t get me wrong; I like percussive battering. Sanchez has a compelling style of her own, though, enough so that lazy critics like me can write about her without having to mention Cecil Taylor. (Jazz Rule No. 5: If there’s avant-garde piano, you have to compare it to Cecil Taylor.)

“Eschewing a youngster’s need to dazzle, Sanchez is subtle, tossing out gnarled chords, open almost elliptical phrasing, simple folk music-like melodies, and taunt mid-speed solos,” David Adler wrote in All About Jazz. You can read that clip and more on Sanchez’s press-quotes page.

Sanchez goes solo on her latest album, A Little House (Clean Feed, 2010). It’s got a mix of serious classical emoting, some standards-minded

Along the Edge shows signs of serious classical emoting (“Along the Edge”) and the dramatic weight you’d associate with jazz standards. (“Casinha Pequenina,” the title track, by Brazilian composer Francisco Ernani Braga.)

Of course, some of that New York sense of daring comes in, too. “Up and Over” is a repeated little gimmick that makes for a fun, accelerating ride, almost like a little musical dare that you hear acted out on your speakers. And “Giant Monks,” a title that wears its influences on its sleeve, traipses through a few different jazz fields before settling on a theme that’s like boogie-woogie mixed with pensive brooding.

A couple of the tracks add toy piano, usually played simultaneously with regular piano, as in the photo above. “I’ll Sign My Heart Away,” an old Western tune, fits the toy sound well and exudes a warm charm. “Crawl Space” is further out there, spare and abstract. “Mimi” closes the album with toy piano alone, a clinky, slowly cascading improvisation.

At 1510 tonight, Sanchez, Greenlief, and Ospovat will play at about 9:00 p.m. They’ll be preceded by the duo of Henry Kaiser (guitar) and Scott Looney (keys/electronics).

Phillip Greenlief in NYC

If you’re reading this and you’re in New York or Philadelphia, take note. Phillip Greenlief is coming to your town.

(If you’re in the Bay Area and you’re reading this — you can see Greenlief and The Lost Trio every Monday night, free, at Kingman’s Ivy Room, in Albany right near Berkeley. Except the next couple of Mondays because, hey guess what, he’s coming to New York and Philadephia.)

A highlight of the east-coast swing will be Greenlief playing with bassist Trevor Dunn. Think of it as a 14-years-later celebration of the duet album they put out on Greenlief’s Evander Music label, back when Dunn lived in the Bay Area. Actually, their promo slogan for the upcoming shows is “17 years in the making,” so they’re counting back even further.

The itinerary:

* Oct. 31 at Downtown Music Gallery. With Tim Perkis. Um, yeah, you already missed this one.  There’s a reason I don’t bill this site as a news site.

* Nov. 2 — at Konceptions at Korzo with an NYC trio: Angelica Sanchez (piano), Trevor Dunn (bass), Gerald Cleaver (drums). 667 5th Ave. (btw 19th and 20th), Brooklyn.

* Nov. 3 — at Barbes, duo with Trevor Dunn.  376 9th St. at 6th, Park Slope, Brooklyn.

* Nov. 4 — in Philadelphia: Duo with Trevor Dunn. Also appearing: The Zs (2 guitars, percussion, sax).  Presented by Ars Nova Workshop at Kung Fu Necktie, 1248 North Front St.

* Nov. 5 — at 295 Douglass, Brooklyn, with Jen Baker (trombone) and Matt Ostrowski (electronics). More about Baker’s solo album here.

* Nov. 6 — at iBeam. Trio with Angelica Sanchez (piano) and Tom Rainey (drums). What a cool way to end the tour. 168 7th St., Brooklyn.

You can see it all at the Transbay Calendar — scroll down to “Events Outside the Bay Area.”