Kris Davis: Duopoly
Pyroclastic Records

Give pianist-composer Kris Davis full marks for originality. Structured in a symmetrical, palindromic form and issued as a CD-DVD release on her own Pyroclastic Records label, the aptly titled Duopoly presents sixteen duos, half based on formal compositions (five Davis originals, one by fellow pianist Angelica Sanchez, and covers of Monk's “Eronel” and Ellington's “Prelude to a Kiss”) and the other half free improvs using the same eight players with whom she performs the first set. A duet between the Vancouver-born, Brooklyn-residing pianist and Bill Frisell opens the recording, after which guitarist Julian Lage, pianists Craig Taborn and Sanchez, drummers Billy Drummond and Marcus Gilmore, and reed players Tim Berne and Don Byron appear on separate tracks. Following Byron and Davis's Ellington rendering, the artist order reverses itself for the improv section, this time Byron followed by Berne, Gilmore, Drummond, and so on. By ordering the tracks as instrument pairs, an additional dimension is established that invites the listener to compare and contrast the musicians within each pair. We already know that Frisell and Lage are stylistically different guitarists, for example, but hearing the one immediately after the other makes the difference all the more noticeable.

Davis's project indulges two tendencies, one an almost obsessive focus on structure and order, the other an embrace of the possibilities afforded by unrestricted free play. It bears worth mentioning, however, that it was only after the recordings were completed that Davis and producer David Breskin decided to sequence the tracks in the two-part form; it's also noteworthy that the difference between the composed and improv pieces turns out to be much smaller than anticipated when the former regularly break away from the tunes' melodic armature into explorative interplay and the latter, while naturally more free-form, gravitate towards structural coherence, too (in the release's booklet, Davis herself notes, “In some cases, the free playing sounds more ‘composed' than the tunes do”). Adding to the project's appeal, all eight musicians are ones with whom Davis had never recorded before this project.

If anyone is up to the challenge of such an undertaking, it's Davis, who's been described by Jason Moran as a “freethinking, gifted pianist [whose] range is impeccable.” She's issued a number of notable recordings over the past half-decade, among them sets for solo piano (Massive Threads), trio (Waiting for You to Grow), quintet (Capricorn Climber), and octet (Save Your Breath, featuring four bass clarinets). She also plays in a number of group contexts, with saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and drummer Tyshawn Sorey in Paradoxical Frog, for instance, and in a new quartet featuring guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Drew Gress, and Sorey.

Duopoly's overall approach is effectively instantiated by Davis's searching rumination with Frisell, “Prairie Days,” a quietly confident performance that wends down various pathways, bluesy among them; in contrast to the effects-enhanced Telecaster wielded by Frisell, Lage plays a 1939 Martin acoustic on the restlessly agitated “Surf Curl.” Interactions of the especially close-knit kind emerge during the pieces with Taborn and Sanchez, the latter, Sanchez's own “Beneath the Leaves,” an intense, at times Lennie Tristano-esque workout. Those classic Monk melodies surface during the Drummond-Davis treatment of “Eronel” yet obliquely and elusively, as if they're peeking through the cracks of the duo's freewheeling, bop-inflected attack. On alto saxophone, Berne tears into Davis's “Trip Dance for Tim” with a no-holds-barred intensity, the pianist gamely and determinedly shadowing his every move; by comparison, Byron and Davis's take on “Prelude to a Kiss” makes for a delicate and respectful homage. During the improv half, Berne generates aggressive flurries alongside Davis's hammering chords and Gilmore stokes equivalent fire, but in other cases, such as during the Taborn and Frisell pieces, things take surprisingly restrained turns.

Shot in black-and-white using one fixed camera and one handheld, the DVD footage is unfussy and but not unappealing for being so. The sound content is the same, obviously, on the DVD as on the CD, but the video material provides an illuminating component in documenting the manner by which the musical interactions unfolded. Davis is typically shown intently focused on the keyboard, the other musician positioned to her left within NYC's spacious Sear Sound studio. Regardless of the dialogue partner involved, she plays with open-minded determination and harmonic invention throughout the eighty-minute collection, her ease at the keyboard well-suited to the kind of spontaneity these intimate, multi-directional settings most benefit from.

November 2016