The virtuoso pianist and composer Kris Davis has been ubiquitous in 2019. Her projects with Nate Wooley, Ken Vandermark, and Craig Taborn have been complemented by her appointment to the faculty of the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice. Davis will serve as associate director of creative development and teach composition and improvisation courses. The Berklee program's founder and artistic director, Terri Lyne Carrington, is one member of the outstanding ensemble that appears on Davis' new project Diatom Ribbons.
The formations vary from track to track, duo to septet. Saxophonist Tony Malaby has worked with Davis since her 2004 debut Lifespan (Fresh Sound New Talent) and he appears on three of the ten tracks as does guitarist Nels Cline. Bassist Trevor Dunn, vibraphonist Ches Smith, turntablist Val Jeanty, saxophonist JD Allen and guitarist Marc Ribot are among the contributors that appear on multiple pieces.
Davis derived the title from a marine-biological process whose optics vary from different points of observation. It speaks to the shape-shifting nature of her work. Intriguing from the outset, the opening title track features the voice of Cecil Taylor explaining his rebellious approach to composing over Davis' prepared piano and Carrington's adamant beat. In a different vein, Malaby's tenor introduces Esperanza Spalding, on a quirky vocal narration of the poem "To Prisoners" (Gwendolyn Brooks) featuring Cline and Smith. Spalding returns on a haunting spoken-word piece, "Certain Cells," coolly manipulated by Carrington. Jeanty's weirdly appealing machinations lay the foundation for the pensive groove duet between Davis and Carrington, later paired on the ethereal "Sympodial Sunflower." In the later stages of Diatom Ribbons, Riboton "Golgi Complex (The Sequel)"and with Cline, on "Golgi Complex," demonstrate a hyper-aggressive style is the antithesis of Davis. If nothing else it allows Davis to channel Cecil Taylor once more as she matches the guitarists' pyrotechnics. Davis closes the album with Julius Hemphill's ominous "Reflections," the longest piece here at more than twelve minutes. It's done up with Allen and Malaby on tandem tenors that build with provocative solos in a disconcerted, quickly evolving setting.
For all of her extensive playing skills, experiments and classical training, Davis has kept an approach that need not explain itself. She simply infers melodies before finally revealing their full content and like Satoko Fujii, she composes minimally, giving her colleagues the space to further shape ideas in their own voice. It's a risky process that involves trust and musical skills in equal measure. Diatom Ribbons is yet another example of how uniquely talented Davis is in her creative process and playing.
Diatom Ribbons; The Very Thing; Rhizomes; Corn Crake; Stone’s Throw; Sympodial Sunflower; Certain Cells; Golgi
Complex (The Sequel); Golgi Complex; Reflections.