Focusing on composition as much as performance, this intriguing programme of originals balances form and structure with free-flowing improvisation. Lifespan is an album that sneaks up gradually; there is much to recommend in this set which is long on lyricism, short on unnecessary displays of technique. The members of this group can play and they know it; consequently the emphasis is on taking the compositional frameworks that newcomer Kris Davis provides and expanding on them in ways that shows everyone's abilities while being, at the same time, somehow selfless.
A Canadian who moved to New York in 2001, Davis has been gradually insinuating herself into the downtown music scene and has, for this release, surrounded herself with a fine group of established players. Saxophonist Tony Malaby, who has played with artists including Joey DeFrancesco, Mario Pavone and Marty Erlich, has a lyrical approach that is just left-of-centre enough to keep things interesting on the oblique "Jo-ann." Trumpeter Russ Johnson, most recently heard on violinist Jenny Scheinman's stunning Shalagaster , delivers a sinuous solo on "Even Eivind."
Bassist Eivind Opsvik, who has worked with Carla Bley, Marc Copland and Craig Taborn, is a progressive player who carefully balances lyrical invention with tighter ensemble work. Reed player Jason Rigby and drummer Jeff Davis round out the group, with Davis delivering a rhythmically charged solo over Opsvik's ostinato on "Nein."
Davis has a writing style that has already, at this early stage, developed into a unique sound. Her material would fit comfortably within an ECM context; while there is intensity to be found, the overall approach is more inward-looking. While not averse to more expressionist leanings as evidenced on the modal workout "Endless," her compositions are more inclined towards the impressionism of "Argyha" and "Lifespan." With the power of a sextet at her disposal, she is also capable of chamber-like delicacy on "Travel Far."
Her work leans more to a European approach; still, she manages to display her roots in the American tradition on "The Epic." Her playing shows the influence of Mal Waldron, but is less overtly rhythmical; she demonstrates a free style that owes something to Marilyn Crispell, but is lighter, more delicate; there is also a romantic side to her playing that differentiates her from these sources.
With a distinctive left-leaning compositional and playing style, Kris Davis is establishing herself as an artist of note. Lifespan is an auspicious debut that also shows off her abilities as a bandleader; by putting the music first she demonstrates a remarkable musical maturity that can only bode well for the future.
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Personnel: Kris Davis (piano), Tony Malaby (tenor sax on "Jo-ann" and "Argyha," soprano sax on "Even Eivind"), Russ Johnson (flugelhorn on "Jo-ann" and "Even Eivind," trumpet on "The Epic"), Jason Rigby (tenor sax on "Endless" and "The Epic," soprano sax on "Travel Far," bass clarinet on "Jo-ann," clarinet on "The Epic"), Eivind Opsvik (acoustic bass), Jeff Davis (drums)