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Kris Davis: Diatom Ribbons

Troy Dostert By

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To call pianist Kris Davis stylistically omnivorous would seem to be an understatement. While she started her career solidly in the avant-garde circles that brought her into projects with stalwarts of the genre like Ingrid Laubrock, Tyshawn Sorey, Tom Rainey and Tony Malaby, that hasn't stopped her from forging connections with other musicians not typically included in that category. Most recently, she collaborated in 2017 with saxophonist JD Allen and his trio on some tribute performances in recognition of the Thelonious Monk centennial, and she had a number of appearances the following year with bassist Esperanza Spalding and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington in honor of the late pianist Geri Allen—herself no stranger when it came to artistic endeavors that straddled the inside/outside line in jazz. But these recent efforts weren't surprising to those who've followed the arc of Davis' trajectory as a musician, for she has always had a strong iconoclastic streak, and a fearlessness when it comes to drawing creative inspiration from any resources at hand, irrespective of idiom or genre.

With Diatom Ribbons, her sixth release on her own Pyroclastic label, Davis will no doubt further enhance her standing as one of the most adventurous and exciting pianists on the scene. It certainly offers further evidence of her desire to smash stylistic boundaries, as she has assembled one of the most intriguing personnel line-ups in recent memory. Not only are Davis' frequent partners saxophonist Malaby, vibraphonist Ches Smith, and bassist Trevor Dunn part of the mix; so too are her newer colleagues, as Spalding, Allen, Carrington, and electronic artist/turntablist Val Jeanty all contribute significantly to the album's successes. Not to be omitted are Nels Cline and Marc Ribot, whose guitar pyrotechnics are featured on a couple tracks each. With such a wide-ranging cluster of musicians, Davis has abundant opportunities to harness her formidable compositional skills by creating pieces that tap into their unique strengths.

Jeanty plays a particularly vital role here. She first worked with Davis and Carrington during Davis' residency at the Stone in 2018, and that trio provides the core around which the music on Diatom Ribbons turns, with the other musicians brought in as needed given the requirements of the particular compositions. Sometimes Jeanty gets to manipulate snippets from recorded interviews with Cecil Taylor and Olivier Messiaen, as on "Diatom Ribbons" and "Corn Crake," respectively, weaving them into the fabric of the music, and on other tracks her various electronic effects serve to provide ambient or rhythmic texture. Her intuitive contributions are integrated organically and elementally, giving the music additional potency while fitting perfectly into Davis' larger artistic vision.

Carrington is also a crucial component, with her hard-hitting, groove-heavy technique superb in anchoring Davis' most rhythmically infectious writing to date. Her shape-shifting approach expertly steers the group through "Diatom Ribbons," a piece that moves through multiple rhythmic registers, alternating between swing and fractured funk; and she rocks out formidably on "Rhizomes" in support of Nels Cline's torrid solo. Recording engineer Ron Saint Germain has put her up front in the mix, all the better given the visceral energy she provides to each track.

This is an album with a lot of highlights, but just to mention a few: Spalding, who only appears here on vocals, not bass, provides some playful, free-spirited contributions to Michael Attias' sinuous composition "The Very Thing," the album's second track; and her recitation of Gwendolyn Brooks' "To Prisoners" on the seventh cut, Davis' "Certain Cells," could not be more timely in speaking to our current travails over mass incarceration. Davis hasn't generally been known for taking political stances in her music, but her message here is quite effective. Jeanty's skilled warping of Messiaen on "Corn Crake" is another marvel, as the composer's mutated presence seems to catalyze some of Davis' most affecting, impressionistic flourishes on the record. And Julius Hemphill's dark, brooding "Reflections" is given a twelve-minute treatment to close the album, first through capturing the piece's air of unsettled mystery, and then via a swift transition to another righteous groove from Carrington, with some incendiary soloing from both Malaby and Allen along the way. It's an exhilarating musical ride, and an apt finish to a record that documents yet another creative peak for Davis, in a career that has already had a fair number of them.

Track Listing: Diatom Ribbons; The Very Thing; Rhizomes; Corn Crake; Stone’s Throw; Sympodial Sunflower; Certain Cells; Golgi Complex (The Sequel); Golgi Complex; Reflections.

Personnel: Kris Davis: piano; Val Jeanty: electronics; Terri Lyne Carrington: drums; Trevor Dunn: acoustic and electric bass (1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10); Esperanza Spalding: vocals (2, 7); Nels Cline: guitar (3, 7); Marc Ribot: guitar (8, 9); Tony Malaby: tenor saxophone (1, 2, 10); JD Allen: tenor saxophone (1, 10); Ches Smith: vibraphone (3, 5).

Title: Diatom Ribbons | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: Pyroclastic Records

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