Pianist Kris Davis is a quiet person with a ferocious and bold artistic vision. While she is an accomplished mainstream player when she wants to be, most of her recent music has been on the less tonal side of creative music. She engages in free improvisations, creates abstract-sounding structures outside of traditional harmonic rules, and dares listeners with surprise.
Davis’ latest recording, Diatom Ribbons, is her most ambitious project to date but also—by a power of ten—her most accessible and inviting. But its ability to communicate with more listeners is not a product of being more watered down or less daring. Rather, Davis is not only collaborating with artists of greater renown such as Terri Lyne Carrington, Esperanza Spalding, and Nels Cline but also incorporating elements of hip-hop, rock, and groove music that help her gnarly forms to more easily get through to listeners who need a musical foothold. These decisions do not deflate Davis’s artistry. This should be her breakthrough recording to a wider audience. It may also be recording from 2019 that most successfully combines thrilling vision and a hunger for repeat listenings.
At its core, Diatom Ribbons is a pure Kris Davis project. It combines sensibilities from “jazz” and “classical” music without quite being either. It is unafraid to trade in grooves and the dance impulse, but it is no kind of neo-soul or jazz/hip-hop hybrid. It never sounds like a bunch of tunes with chord changes but more like a program of sound ideas that unfurl with logic and startling moments of discovery. It dodges labels and avoids pigeonholes even while having a strong personality.
But more than any other quality, what marks a Davis project is its sense of collaboration. Her recent duet projects have been riveting (with pianist Craig Taborn and with a long list of others), and she has been critical to several small band projects that felt like they had no single leader. Diatom Ribbons is, first, a collaboration with drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, who plays on every track with Davis. There is only one duet, but it happens to be a standout track.
“Sympodial Sunflower” begins as a lyrical improvisation for Davis’s solo piano, with several subtle but breathtaking pedal effects and voicings that suggest impressionism and Ellington at once. Soon, however, Carrington enters, whooshing her brushes across symbols and snare, engaging in a conversation that becomes a dialog grounded in a hip four-note bass line in Davis’ left hand, and a popping samba variation from Carrington. While the span of the entire recording can’t be summarized in one track, “Sympodial Sunflower” combines freedom, lyricism, and groove—pretty close.
The other musician who appears on nearly every track is the turntablist/sampling wizard Val Jeanty, who engineers both some of the groove elements of Diatom and who brings a set of recorded voices into interaction with the band. “Corn Crake” features just the trio, with Jeanty adding samples of the voice of French composer Olivier Messiaen as well as digital snarls and gurgles that sound like manipulated syllables or the percussive elements of spoken words. A set of repeated “ch”s, for example, deployed as a digital snare drum. Davis’ playing here is more abstract and less traditionally tuneful, but it is not unstructured. She uses cascading and chiming effects in a tonal mixture, decorating the soundscape in sheaths of sound. Then, as Carrington moves the performance into a syncopated funk groove and Jeanty makes her voice sample more punctuations, Davis pokes and prods more, all while letting the strings of piano still ring and resonate.
Also appearing on most tracks is bassist (acoustic and electric, depending on the assignment), Trevor Dunn. He plays deep, buzzing acoustic tones on “Stone’s Throw”, where percussionist Ches Smith on vibes also joins the band. This is a slice of tonal New Jazz, a complex composition that moves through unconventional meters but also feels harmonically approachable. Dunn is the anchor, working hand-in-glove with Carrington to step things along in a logical flow as piano and vibes play and improvise melodies that pull at and against the written material.
The roots of the New Jazz are acknowledged in Davis’ take on Julius Hemphill’s “Reflections”, which travels from mysterious impressionism to slamming 4/4 funk over 12 minutes. Tenor saxophonists J.D. Allen and Tony Malaby harmonize on the melody at first, with Dunn playing dark arco bass and Carrington coloring beneath them. About six minutes in, Davis and her rhythm section have turned up the heat, and Jeanty enters with a set of synth sounds and samples, leading to a set of insistent crashes that turn the tune into a rocking ostinato. The horns play a newly written line, and they improvise over the groove, which manages to be both solid and elastic at once, with stuttering moments that reset the feeling of backbeat in the most slippery way. It is delicious.
These performances, however, are not the most seductive and effective on Diatom Ribbons.
Davis uses the vocal talent of Esperanza Spalding twice. On “Certain Cells,” a Davis original, Spalding opens with a recitation of the Gwendolyn Brooks poem “To Prisoners” beneath which Carrington emerges with a clankingly urgent groove pattern. Dunn uses electric bass to throb a Morse Code pattern as Nels Cline shoots up guitar sparkler effects into the audio air above Davis’s sensuous patterns. “The Very Thing” allows Spalding to sing a real song (penned by saxophonist Michael Attias)—a tune with lyrics that is angular but beautiful. Malaby’s horn and Jeanty’s electronics wind themselves around the coy vocal performance. Spalding improvises between verses and creates the kind of lyricism we don’t hear often enough in “creative music”.
Much of the music on Diatom Ribbons is distinctive because it invites enjoyment with its edge, not despite it. The opening title track features the voice of pianist Cecil Taylor, cut up and fascinating, against a spikey, jabbing piano accompaniment. But the two horns have an attractive composed line as well—and Carrington is irrepressible, popping and joyfully dancing around all of it, bringing it to a purely rhythmic ending as Taylor says, “Music saved by life / You never play it the same way twice”. It’s heresy to write this, but I can’t think of a Cecil Taylor performance that I like more than this gem of philosophy and groove.
Then there are two electric guitar features that are simultaneously thrilling and bold. “Rhizomes” allows Nels Cline to rip it up over an undeniable backbeat, launched from a crackling theme for piano and guitar that is played over a series of chiming harmonies for piano and vibes. “Golgi Complex” is a diad of tunes that pair Davis’s most bluesy playing with guitarist Marc Ribot. He rips at first, over her funky pattern, and then she takes a solo over a more laid-back groove that is down-home and in the pocket before they clash with Carrington’s drums in a wild ending. Part two is the same thing but in avant-garde freakout mode, with Ribot overdubbing multiple wailing parts.
What can I say? Kris Davis seems to be suggesting. I can draw you in and I can blow your mind.
Diatom Ribbons does both, alternately or at the same time, with voices, with horns, with electric guitars, with hip-hop techniques, with complex time signatures, and with butt-moving grooves. It remains part of the complex New Jazz, but it is unacademic and unforbidding most of the time, unafraid to go in any direction Kris Davis chooses.
It is the most versatile and bracing jazz recording of 2019. And maybe the best.