“It’s not about the dance. It’s like the birds. When they sing they just sing.”
“We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers.”
I first heard Canadian-born pianist Kris Davis play with Paradoxical Frog at the Jazz Gallery, when it was downtown. It was also the first time I heard Ingrid Laubrock. I was hooked and knew immediately they were forces to be reckoned with. I’d experienced Tyshawn Sorey, the third member of the trio, many times, and had already relished his musical capabilities.
I asked Kris, who combines intuition, knowledge, necessity, technique—and consummate artistry as leader, collaborator, or side-person—some questions:
Steve Dalachinsky (Rail): When did all this begin?
Kris Davis: I started playing piano at the age of six. Shortly thereafter I began the Royal Conservatory, a program that introduces classical music in levels and then grades pianists based on their performance. My family wasn’t particularly musical, so the conservatory became a gateway into the world of classical music and the beginning of my interest in the piano. Although classical music hasn’t always been my focus, learning compositions by different composers has been integral to my development as a musician. I have always devoted time on a regular basis to learning classical repertoire that spans a wide range of history and style. Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart were some of the first composers I studied, and later, as my tastes progressed, more adventurous compositions by composers such as Bartók, Ligeti, Crumb, and Feldman. Not only have these composers challenged my technique, they have introduced me to different kinds of harmony, forms, and textures that gave way to new ideas for my own compositions.
I was introduced to jazz in middle school through the music teacher there and joined the jazz band. He gave me Miles Davis, The 1964 Concert/Four and More. I was hooked and started listening and transcribing Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett solos. From there I got into Bill Evans and then circled back to bebop: Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, then Monk. Every weekend I would meet some fellow musicians in a friend’s basement and we would play standards for hours and listen to music together. That’s when I learned how to improvise.
Rail: Your approach to standards like “Prelude to a Kiss” [duo with Don Byron on the new CD/DVD Duopoly, the first release on Davis’s new label, Pyroclastic Records] is unique. I love the way you pull apart (abstract) Monk’s “Eronel” right from the beginning then reconstruct it toward the end with drummer Billy Drummond. The opposite way most folks, except perhaps Lee Konitz, Matthew Shipp, and Monk himself might approach a tune. Ditto your way of dealing with “Evidence” on your Thirsty Ear CD Massive Threads and “All the Things You Are” on your Clean Feed CD Aeriol Piano. Another great pianist, Connie Crothers, always used “All the Things You Are” as an example of a tune you could completely take apart, re-organize, and continuously extract different feelings and ideas from. I feel you do that with everything you handle. Something that’s been on my mind for a while is your use of prepared piano, a major contributing factor to your singular sound(s). Where and how did you get into it?
Davis: My interest in prepared piano peeked around 2005 when I went to Paris to study extended piano techniques with Benoît Delbecq. The interesting thing to me was not necessarily the materials he used in the piano for preparation, but his ability to build and sustain multiple rhythmic cycles at the same time, using the preparations to punctuate the cycles. At that time I was also checking out a lot of John Cage and George Crumb, how they use preparations to punctuate rhythms—a very different approach from Benoit’s. I was also drawn to the moods that were established through the preparations.
Rail: When did you decide to use it to the extent you do now?
Davis: The first time I really tried preparing the piano was in 2008, with Paradoxical Frog and on my first solo album, Aeriol Piano. It’s an ongoing process: trying different materials, finding a way to use it that feels natural to me. Lately I’ve been using gaffer’s tape, a kind of tape that doesn’t stick to the strings. I’ve heard many pianists use this before, but something clicked when I tried to use it on one of John Zorn’s Bagatelles. It opened a door and I’ve found all kinds of ways to use it since then.
Rail: As far as I can tell, you do it more consistently than anyone else. Can you think of anyone who uses it as much and as well as you do in the so-called jazz/crossover medium? It’s not like playing the inside strings which many pianists do today.
Davis: I love the way Sylvie Courvoisier uses preparations. She is so fast moving in and out of the piano, I’ve always been in awe of her ability to be so flexible with it.
Rail: Duopoly came out in September and features stellar duos with eight of jazz’s most exciting players: Bill Frisell, Craig Taborn, Angela Sanchez, Julian Lage, Billy Drummond, Marcus Gilmore, Don Byron, and Tim Berne. What made you decide to create your own label? How did you pick the musicians? And what determined the order?
Davis: I am very fond of the labels I’ve worked with over the years, but I was curious to see what was possible if I released something on my own label. I’m learning a lot about the business in 2016, how to get music out there and what the platforms are—it’s all very exciting.
Davis’s liner notes answer my next two questions: “I wanted to work with musicians I never recorded with before […] some I played with […] some I only admired […] no rehearsals […] no overdubbing […] no fixing […] no mixing […] the music […]” Duopoly is an album of “rawness, intimacy, and immediacy,” and what makes it gel so well is its mix of openness and structure. We find ourselves wrapped in a circular (arched) formation from beginning to end. A circle that completes itself while never closing, what the liner notes refer to as “a symmetrical, palindromic sequence with a Möbius twist in the middle.” It begins and ends with Frisell, in a sixteen-piece cycle comprised of eight composed tunes and eight improvisations, performed in duets with two guitarists, two pianists, two drummers, and two reed players, “the tracks […] paired by instrument.” As the section “Tunes” ends with Byron, “Free Improvisations” begins with him, and so on. The DVD brings us the same, up close and personal. This is thoughtful art at its best, the perfect union of essence, choice, and chance. Get it. Dig (into) it.
Bart Plantenga is no stranger to the Rail. Aside from reviews by others of his yodeling books, he has written articles on yodeling, music, and beer for the Rail between 2006 and 2011. In his latest book, Paris Scratch, Plantenga reveal how much music and radio DJing are true adventures, including a stint at French anarchist radio station Radio Libertaire in a squat in Paris’s Montmartre district. We glimpse how much “music defines Paris the way Doisneau photos do.” He states, “I muse about writing about background music in different cities, like what one hears in bars or restaurants […] Both book and soundtrack, Paris Scratch continues my long audio dérives series where the soundscape tells a story.”
The book is comprised of 365 “snapshots,” one for each day of the year, and music is referenced in thirty-nine of them. It’s a dark “meta-factual” delight where humor cuts deep, and like Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, its vignettes are harshly elegant, brash, endearing, truthful, enlightening, and engaging. It refers to every type of music: Gainsbourg, Gene Kelly, Aznevour, Chevalier, “a guy high on marshmallows and snuff” singing “My Little Straw Hat.” A Gato Barbieri stand-in, “the man who blew his alto sax like it was a fog horn.” Bob Marley, Chopin, Presley, Lennon, Johnny Burnett, Madame Butterfly, Getz, Simone, Sun Ra. There’s a tape of Nico singing “The End” in Père Lachaise. It’s steeped in cassette culture (mixtapes) and beer. And there is so much more than just music within the crevices of Paris streets, high-end restaurants, and low-end bars. I’ll quote Bart quoting Breton: This book “belong[s] to that taste for searching in the folds of material” and “the cracks of old walls.” It’s more than the sum of its parts. A true auditory read that filters through all five senses as it presents constant debates about the mundane, the existential, the profound, while allowing one to enter into, challenge, embrace, or reject them. Photographs can and do lie as surely as they reveal the “facts.” And these are the facts—through Plantenga’s lens. Snapshot 141: “it is said you can’t argue taste be it literature or music [. . .]” I’ll argue for this text anytime, anywhere. “Do you hear what I hear?” If not you’d better listen.
Paris Scratch, the book, is available at: http://sensitiveskinmagazine.com/books/paris-scratch-bart-plantenga/
Paris Scratch, the soundtrack, is available at: https://www.mixcloud.com/wreckthismess/wreck-1198-paris-scratch/
Poet/collagist STEVE DALACHINSKY was born in Brooklyn after the last big war and has managed to survive lots of little ones. His book The Final Nite (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2006) won the PEN Oakland National Book Award. His most recent books are Fools Gold (Feral House, 2014), A Superintendent's Eyes (Unbearable/Autonomedia, 2013), and Flying Home (Paris Lit Up Press, 2015), a collaboration with German visual artist Sig Bang Schmidt. His latest CD is ec(H)osystem with the French art-rock group, The Snobs (Bam Balam Records, 2015). He is a 2014 recipient of a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. His poem "Particle Fever" was nominated for a 2015 Pushcart Prize.His most recent books are Black Magic (New Feral Press, 2017) and Frozen Heatwave, a collaboration with Yuko Otomo (Luna Bisonte Prods, 2017).