The best way to grasp what pianist Kris Davis’s new Diatom Ribbons project is all about might be to consider the guests who show up on its eponymous debut album—including radical composer Olivier Messiaen and free-jazz pioneer Cecil Taylor.
Taylor’s presence might not be a surprise; the pianist, who passed away last year, was a formative influence on the Vancouver-born Davis, who is now one of the most in-demand musicians in the New York City avant-garde. But Messiaen died in 1992. How is it possible that he’s making an appearance on an album that was recorded just this summer?
Technology, of course, is the answer. Neither musician actually plays on Diatom Ribbons, but their recorded voices appear, with Taylor explaining his creative process on the album’s title track and Messiaen, a keen ornithologist, discoursing on the bird name-checked in “Corn Crake”. And their presence can also be felt in the 39-year-old keyboardist’s approach to music, which combines Taylor’s physical abandon with Messiaen’s more contemplative approach to melodic development.
The living contributors to Diatom Ribbons—guitarists Nels Cline and Marc Ribot, bassist Trevor Dunn, saxophonists Tony Malaby and JD Allen, and singer Esperanza Spalding—are equally impressive. For the tour that will bring the Diatom Ribbons band to Vancouver, however, the group has been pared down to its core of Davis, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, and electronic musician Val Jeanty. When the Straight reaches Davis at her Brooklyn home, she readily admits that doing her music justice with a smaller ensemble has been on her mind.
“I was just thinking about that as I was wandering around the house,” she says, adding that she eventually hopes to take some version of the larger band on the road. For now, though, she’s going to adopt a very loose approach to the Diatom Ribbons material, preferring to showcase her trio’s instrumental and conceptual gifts. “We’re going to use the tunes as kind of a platform for landing on or jumping off from,” she explains. “So the tunes will be in there, but there’ll be no set list. We’ll just recognize that they are, and if one of us brings in a section or starts a tune within the improvisation, then we’ll go with that—but there might be a chance that we don’t play any of the tunes if things are going well in the concert. It’ll be kind of a fluid situation on the bandstand.”
Part of the fun, for Davis, is hearing Carrington cope with the challenges of playing free. The three-time Grammy winner is one of the most accomplished drummers in jazz, but this is the first time she’s worked in such an unstructured environment. “Just the fact that she’s open to it and to trying these different things is really exciting to me,” Davis says. “And she’s really good at it!”
The Haitian-born Jeanty might also seem like an unlikely free improviser: as a DJ, sampler jockey, and percussionist, she’s primarily worked with hip-hop artists and other electronic musicians. But Davis credits her with having an improviser’s quicksilver mind—and with bringing an enormous sonic palette to the trio. “She has the language element, the percussive element, nature sounds, tribal singing… It’s just endless, all the things that she has at her disposal that she can use in the music,” the pianist says.
The Coastal Jazz and Blues Society and Western Front New Music present Kris Davis: Diatom Ribbons at the Western Front on Thursday (October 3).