Canadian-born, New York-based pianist Kris Davis takes the delicate left-leaning balance of form and freedom of her debut, Lifespan
(Fresh Sound New Talent, 2004), and moves even farther away from the center on The Slightest Shift
While Lifespan featured ensembles ranging from trio to sextet, the new record showcases Davis' working group of saxophonist Tony Malaby, bassist Eivind Opsvik and drummer Jeff Davisall part of the first group's lineupand consequently demonstrating the kind of collective interaction that comes from working together on an ongoing basis. The Slightest Shift is a freer record than Lifespan, reflecting a comfort zone amongst the players that nevertheless avoids becoming predictable.
On this short set of just under forty minutes, the eight compositions may seem more open-ended, but it's also a case of Davis' compositional styleone that has always reflected interests in both jazz and contemporary classical compositionmaturing further. Instead of using conventional harmonic changes as a basis for improvisation, Davis' writing reflects a deeper interest in the use of linear fragments to provide a basis for the quartet to move from one place to the next.
"Bloodwine opens with a rapid-fire unison line between Davis and Malaby that quickly devolves into what appears to be complete free play. On further inspection, however, it's revealed to be a complex series of linked passages that ultimately resolve into a dark two-chord modal vamp where Davis' solo gradually builds in intensity, with Opsvik and Jeff Davis in firm but responsive support. The shift from Davis to Malaby in the solo spot is a seemingly amorphous transition that bears the earmark of intention, but equally sports a feeling of pure spontaneity.
In many ways The Slightest Shift feels like it's exploring a relatively narrow space, with one tune appearing to seamlessly move to the next. But in the same way that Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen investigates the rhythmic subdivisions within songs of similar tempos, Davis' quartet explores what might appear to be a narrow harmonic context, but in reality is grist for deeper consideration.
The avoidance of conventional form on The Slightest Shift makes it a more challenging listen than the discreetly lyrical Lifespan. Although "35¢ starts with a bebop-ish line, Jeff Davis and Opsvik create a foundation that effortlessly moves between defined groove and a more textural approach that keeps Davis and Malaby in a state of continuous flux. And yet these shifts don't feel incongruous; the transitions are so organic that they make surprising sense. "Jack's Song may begin delicately and with an almost pretty melody, but it remains abstract, with time becoming increasingly fluid as Malaby enters and works inside and outside of Davis' gently melodic support.
The Slightest Shift is aptly titledit shows just how the smallest movement can drive this quartet in a new direction. But more importantly, it's a release that reflects the leader's considerable stylistic growth as a performer and composer, strongly delivering on the promises made with Lifespan.