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: … 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.


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

Ches Smith’s ECM Trio

Ches SmithThe Bell (ECM, 2016)

imageSo many of the musicians I came to know during the early 2000s have fled to New York. Among them is drummer Ches Smith, who’s come to the spotlight as a part of Tim Berne’s Snakeoil and a leader of his own avant-jazz band, These Arches.

Those two bands fit in the same subgenre in my head. But I’ll always remember Smith for a band that was closer to instrumental pop: Good for Cows, his duo with bassist Devin Hoff (who is still out there, and whose one-off, strings-based project Redresseres, is going to be the subject of a writeup here someday.)

Now Smith has joined the company of ECM bandleaders with The Bell, a trio album where the band sketches wispy outlines that lead to frenzied excursions.

The title track, opening the album, is an exception. It’s all about the long game,  developing gradually over a monotonic pulse and Mat Maneri’s slowly repeated viola line. Smith himself contributes small accents — a cymbal tap or dramatic, short swells of timpani. The deep atmosphere is very “ECM.”

Most of The Bell is far from ambient, however. There’s the tense drama of “Isn’t It Over,” which  builds into a cross-current of polyrhythms: a piano pulse from Craig Taborn, a subtle free groove on drums, and a soloing viola, each flowing on a different timestream. It’s relaxing, but also dark.

The 11-minute “I’ll See You on the Dark Side of the Earth” culminates in almost a heavy rock theme played in Maneri’s richly sour microtonal style, and he and Smith essentially rock out over Taborn’s somber piano chording.

The Bell‘s gorgeous, cerebral title track turns out to be just the surface. You’ll find plenty of passages of crystalline delicacy, but the overall album covers a gamut of moods.

Taborn Alone

Craig TabornAvenging Angel (ECM, 2011)

Craig Taborn takes a studious approach on his first solo piano album, taking advantage of the chiming acoustics of an auditorium in Lugano, Switzerland. It’s a seeking process. You can understand what French critic Vincent Bessières means when he says (quoted on ECM’s site) that Taborn takes an approach “where improvisation blends into real-time composing.”

For example, “The Broad Day King” opens with the right hand playing pedal tones, individual notes that Taborn lets ring slowly while the left hand explores matching chords. Late in the album, “Forgetful” hands us a lovely jazz ballad, starting in tentative, primordial form, then blossoming beautifully. The intensity peaks early than halfway through the eight-minute piece, but the rest rides a lovely, gentle arc that’s just as rewarding.

It’s very hard not to think about Keith Jarrett, because the shallow similarities are there: solo piano, improvised on the spot, recorded in Europe, ECM, minimalist album cover …

About the cover. Yes, the hushed, soft image is partly just ECM being ECM, but this kind of sparsity seems apt for an album of solo improvisation. You see it on some Jarrett albums, or Henry Grimes’ Solo, for instance. It represents a blank canvas, giving the listener visual space to explore. Maybe that’s why Avenging Angel strikes me as participatory, as if you’re welcomed inside Taborn’s head has he explores, reaching outward to find the music waiting to be produced from this exact moment of time, place, and presence.

Taborn’s explorations are more varied and intricate than Jarrett’s. There’s a lot going on in a Jarrett improvisation, but he tends towards songlike forms, building harmonies around one tonal center. Jarrett can be dazzling, and there’s no denying the grandeur of his work, but there’s a formal sheen to it.

Taborn’s approach reflects the more “outside” tendencies of his jazz career. He does stick to his ideas on each piece, rather than going schizophrenic, but he wrests out the possibilities with more finesse and adventure than Jarrett. And when Taborn does lock into an idea and ride it out, he certainly shows off some dazzling technique of his own.

At the same time, Avenging Angel is very much a jazz album, especially when it comes to the faster tracks. You get a patient jazz stroll on “Neverland,” two hands in dialogue, wandering about tonal centers. There’s also “Gift Horse/Over the Water,” which uses the left hand in a more traditionally jazzy rhythm but also sneaks in some quick unison phrases and one nifty ostinato, over which Taborn splashes some strident chords, possibly the album’s most Jarrett-like moment. It’s spirited jazz that would make a good first listen if you’re trying to win new converts for Taborn.

Michael Formanek Quartet at Yoshi’s

Monday night’s crowd at Yoshi’s Oakland was  lively and responsive and actually a bit over-the-top, but when some big-name guys make the trek here from New York — hey, why not? I was happy to see them, too, and glad they drew a bustling, receptive crowd.

And it was good to hear Michael Formanek‘s band outside the spacious ECM shell of their record, The Rub and Spare Change. (Reviewed here.) I actually love that ECM sound, which I don’t find as antiseptic as some critics say, and which does leave room for a brilliantly burning energy. But live music, for many performers, benefits from being more visceral. That’s what we got: a more visceral, gut-reaction version of the quartet, with songs nourished by repeated live performances.

A review of the band’s recent L.A. gig noted that “Tonal Suite” was the opener — the five-segment, 17-minute “Tonal Suite.” I wasn’t sure how the audience would take to that, but they went ape over it. People didn’t applaud after solos — it’s hard with creative music, since a “solo” overlaps so heavily with the rest of the piece — but they seemed to be well into the groove with Tim Berne‘s spirited sax solo, and they appreciated Craig Taborn‘s bright piano splashes. It helped that “Tonal Suite” ends with an active, upbeat theme that gets repeated here and there, complete with a nifty false ending, like an inside joke.

Formanek’s writing, like Berne’s, uses complex melodies often jutting with odd-time-signature shards. The set mostly consisted of new pieces, mostly on the peppy side — that might be one reason the crowd stayed so engaged, although folks around me were also dead silent (a rarity at Yoshi’s) during Formanek’s one unaccompanied bass solo. One piece I remember in particular, “Rising Tensions,” was light on its feet and included a lovely yet electric Taborn solo. “Pong,” the set ender, came in a lovely chiming 6/8, likeable and relatively easy listening. (At the table next to me, after the show, a couple of people mentioned it being their favorite.)

Throughout, Gerald Cleaver was a monster on drums — lots of strength and sound — and Taborn’s piano was not only lightning-quick but fiendishly inventive. The band was loose and smiling

The encore was “Twenty-Three Neo,” the opening track to The Rub and Spare Change, which is based on a delicate and hypnotic piano line. They played it even more slowly, more delicately, than on the CD — a different kind of “visceral” breakthrough. Cleaver was a model of restraint, using silence as the glue to hold the piece, rather than breaking the careful mood.

Formanek has some roots in the Bay Area and mentioned the December passing of “Bishop” Norman Williams, crediting him as a major influence that steered him towards the edgier side of jazz. Good work, Bishop. Hopefully, you’d agree that you did good work here.

Michael Formanek Meets ECM

Michael FormanekThe Rub and Spare Change (ECM, 2010)

It’s good to see Michael Formanek get so much critical praise for this album. Down Beat gave it five stars and put it on the Best-of-2010 list. The Village Voice poll ranked it 27th overall, with nine critics placing it in their Top 10s and Ed Hazell assigning it No. 1 status.

I’m not sure any of Formanek’s other albums are available, save the solo bass outing Am I Bothering You? So, it’s especially nice to see his music getting some ink.

A lot of the attention has to do with the record being on ECM, although it’s interesting to note that this album was recorded without an ECM deal. ECM’s Manfred Eicher later mixed the album at Avatar Studios, a fave ECM haunt.

Whether it’s inherent to the music or a trick of the mixing, this album certainly sounds like an ECM record, as you can hear on the promo video (which I’d embedded in a September post). That’s the track “Twenty Three Neo.” The piano has a crystalline air, and Gerald Cleaver‘s drums rely on lots of light cymbal taps, that placid wood-on-metal sound that’s so ECM. Even when Cleaver gets ferocious, as on “Jack’s Last Call,” he’s pushed back, so as not to overwhelm.

Craig Taborn‘s piano work is amazing, spinning away at computer-like speeds. He carves a fleet solo on “Inside the Box,” and he’s a monster toward the end of “Tonal Suite,” where he’s hammering away at an irregularly regular theme while also soloing with the right hand. Every jazz pianist can do hand independence, but something about Taborn’s playing here seems like it’s slipped in from another dimension.  I went back to check on Feign, the 2005 Tim Berne trio album where Taborn’s on acoustic piano throughout, and traces of the same strong hand independence are there, so — I guess I’ve proven I’m an unobservant idiot.

With Berne (sax) and Taborn on board, it’s fair to wonder if the soloing sections might end up sounding like a Tim Berne album themselves. I mean, you put the same people together in an improvising-friendly combination enough times, and you’d wonder if the output would all take on the same tint. There are moments of similarity. On “My First Phone” on Feign, an open-ended, floating piano pattern backs a poking, staccato Berne solo; the whole moment could probably be inserted somewhere into The Rub. But overall, Feign has more of an attack posture. Understandably, the pieces tend to be written with a sax-driven theme in mind, and Tom Rainey’s drums are more of a co-leading instrument, whereas Cleaver on The Rub takes a lighter, tactile approach.

As for the composing itself, Formanek goes with a suite-like approach, with one long theme after another, spread apart by well-knit group improvising spaces. Quirky time signatures abound. As bassist for Tim Berne’s Bloodcount in the ’90s, Formanek got a lot of experience with these kinds of blueprints, but the composing certainly shows his own mark, in elements such as the swinging shuffle of “Inside the Box” or the insistent, thick piano chords of “Too Big To Fail.” It’s good to hear his compositions again, and he’s found a fertile environment for letting them bloom.

Playlist: March 20, 2009

KZSU playlist for Friday, March 6, 2009, 3:00 p.m. to 4:50 p.m.

Items of note:

….. I got the new Buffalo Collision CD, featuring Tim Berne along with two members of The Bad Plus. Haven’t given it a thorough listen. I found a segment of the first track that I thought would work well on-air, but it turned out to have fewer fireworks than I’d heard at first. The segment had a good, strong flow to it, but I don’t think I let the band put their best foot forward. I’ll do them proper later on; meanwhile have a look at what Stef thinks.

"Farmers By Nature" - source: AUM Fidelity….. The trio CD from Gerald Cleaver, William Parker, and Craig Taborn is a winner. I wish the sound fidelity was stronger (recorded live at The Stone) but the playing is undeniable. Reviews from Stef and All About Jazz.

….. Found a Mario Pavone/Anthony Braxton CD, a combination of Braxton’s abstractions and some of Pavone’s more wide-open compositions, and even a couple of standards. I’ve known of Pavone as a solid inside/out bandleader but was surprised to see him on something this far out. Released in 1993 on the Music & Arts label.

….. All those Cryptogramophone CDs were in anticipation of a two-night “Cryptonight” series at Yoshi’s next week.

….. Blues pianist and singer Eddie Bo died Wednesday, and word was just hitting the major media outlets as my show was progressing. (I can thank the sharp eyes of @siebert on Twitter.) We’ve got a couple dozen Eddie Bo tracks spread out among various blues compilations, so I had to delve into that stash.

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