Mondays With Morgan: Kris Davis (new album ‘Diatom Ribbons Live at the Village Vanguard’)

Mondays With Morgan is a column in LondonJazz News written by Morgan Enos, a music journalist based in Hackensack, New Jersey. Therein, he dives deep into the jazz that moves him – his main focus being the scene in nearby New York City.

This week, Enos interviewed pianist and composer Kris Davis. She just released Diatom Ribbons Live at the Village Vanguard — featuring her titular ensemble, recorded at the hallowed West Village institution. The album is out on the highly respected label which Kris Davis herself runs, Pyroclastic

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A link to purchase the album (*) can be found at the bottom of this article.

(L-R) Kris Davis, Trevor Dunn, Terri Lyne Carrington, Val Jeanty, Julian Lage. Photo: Caroline Mardok

A diatom is a photosynthetic, single-celled organism with a glass-like shell; they can amalgamate into chain-like colonies.

Like their namesake, Kris Davis’ Diatom Ribbons are transparent.

 They’re not merely influenced by 20th century luminaries from Karlheinz Stockhausen to Sun Ra. They quote them, quite literally; turntablist Val Jeanty seamlessly interweaves their recorded remarks into their performances.

Furthermore, like said phytoplankton, Diatom Ribbons are modular.

Take “Parasitic Hunter,” the third part of their birdcall-inspired “Bird Suite,” which appears on Diatom Ribbons Live at the Village Vanguard. Featuring soundbites of Stockhausen explicating “intuitive music” in a 1972 lecture, “Parasitic Hunter” is based on, in Davis’ words, “really short little sections — sometimes just three little phrases.”

“We have the directive on the pieces that we can play that section and open it up for more of an improvisation,” Davis explains to LondonJazz. “ if no one leads that material and starts to build something, than we can continue on to the next little cellular section.

“They’re each very different,” Davis continues. “So, we’re dealing with that situation of Where are we going to open things? Or Are we going to just continue on through the piece?

Diatom Ribbons are used to continuing on — despite notable hindrances. For Davis, Jeanty, guitarist Julian Lage, bassist Trevor Dunn, and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, recording two nights at the 88-year-old basement club proved laborious.

“I was supposed to do a run at the Vanguard in April of 2020. And so of course, that got cancelled because of the pandemic, and then rebooked and then cancelled, and then rebooked again,” Davis says. “It’s mysterious how these things fall into place.”

Fall in place they did. And from originals like “Nine Hats” to takes on Ronald Shannon Jackson (“Alice in the Congo”), Geri Allen (“The Dancer”) and Wayne Shorter (“Dolores”), the  inspired, abstracted Diatom Ribbons Live at the Village Vanguard is a feather in Davis’ cap.

Read on for an interview with Davis about the road from 2019’s Diatom Ribbons to this live document, her prepared piano philosophy, and continuing the fight for gender equity in jazz.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

LJN: What should the people know about the concept and configuration of Diatom Ribbons, leading up to this Vanguard run and recording?

Kris Davis: The first record [Diatom Ribbons] was a project-based recording, where we were going into the studio, learning the songs in 20 minutes, and then recording.

There’s something really great about capturing those first moments, but I wanted to try to do something that was a little more familiar to me, which is being on the road, playing the music every night and developing it with a group.

That’s kind of what the Vanguard afforded this project — to play two sets a night and try the music in different ways. And just sit with it for some time, and find a band sound. So, that was really the plan — to see what would happen with the music after we had some time with it.

LJN: Sometimes, when jazz dovetails with electronic music, the strong flavors cancel each other out. But you nailed this synthesis. How did you do it?

KD: Well, each tune is different, in how electronics either works as an interweaving into the fabric of the group, or functions as a kind of soloist or overlaying thing.

Or, sometimes, there’s these playful elements. Like that tune “Parasitic Hunter,” where Val is using Stockhausen’s words about intuitive music — in a way, to poke at us. To say, “What is playing the rhythms of your thoughts, or your breathing, or your thinking?”

In that way, we have a choice to interplay with that in the moment, or just kind of let it marinate. The music that we’re playing shapes those words in that moment.

And every night was different. Sometimes, [Val] was directing us more in terms of the rhythmic changes of the piece. And sometimes, it was more us framing her, in the placement of where she flipped those directives.

So, there’s that piece. There’s “VW” with Sun Ra, where he’s speaking about all sorts of things. And just kind of rambling in some ways, but there’s some really good messages and moments that I felt resonate with me and some of the music I write.

I love that the first thing is, like, this music is from another dimension. It’s playful and funny, and sets the stage, in a way — where a piece like that might be kind of challenging, but it invites the listener to participate.

Val’s role in the group is unique, in that way. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do the second record — to keep diving deeper into what’s possible for voice and electronics, and her role in the group.

(L-R) Val Jeanty, Julian Lage, Trevor Dunn, Terri Lyne Carrington, Kris Davis. Photo: Caroline Mardok

LJN: There’s no shortage of soundbites of the great musical weirdos of the 20th century. How did you land on Stockhausen and Sun Ra?

KD: I pick all these things. I don’t know why I’m attracted to weirdos, and weirdo music. It’s just part of what I’m drawn to.

But I guess I didn’t realy think of it as weirdo music, as much as music that spoke to me — that resonated with the kind of music I was making, or the way I think about music.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that Stockhausen video — the lecture of him. There are a couple of them, and they’re awesome. They’re like pieces of art in themselves. He’s so arrogant [laughs] and it’s highly entertainment.

I’ve watched them so many times — the one on MANTRA, with the two pianos and electronics, where he’s talking about writing in this 12-tone row. Then, he explodes the whole thing into these stars and creates his own scales.

That whole idea of creating, from a blank page, material and worlds — to then break down and choose and create written material, in some kind of piece of something — also really resonates with me. So, he’s an inspiration.

LJN: At which evolutionary juncture are you at regarding prepared piano? And how does this recording reflect that?

KD: It’s just another texture — another layer that I can tap into. Some of the preparations are more about timbre; I put little magnets on the trings.

You’re not necessarily going to hear the pitch when you put those magnets on; they sound like these bells or gongs. Then, other things, like the gaffer tape on “The Dancer” — where you will hear the pitches, and it’s sort of muted, and there are all sorts of things you can do with the pedal.

I always felt the prepared piano felt a little more organic to me, [As opposed to] having technology as a way of changing timbre and sound. It fits well in improvised music, where it is often about timbre and space.

But then, when you’re playing tunes and parts and things, it’s fun to try to figure out how to bring in prepared piano and change the timbre. It’s still a piano, but it’s otherworldly. It’s music from another dimension.

LJN: What was it like combing through the recorded material for the best takes?

KD: We recorded two days, so four sets. You have to pay to record in the room, so it ends up getting very expensive to record for more than two days.

But, yeah, we played the same set, first and second set, every night. That way, there was one version better than another, or there were some mistakes, I could use the other version — or maybe cut and paste if needed.

Terri got Covid on a Sunday; on Saturday, she wasn’t feeling the best. I think she was like, “Hope you got the Friday night shows.” She was feeling better then. But I didn’t notice it in the music at all [chuckles]. She was hittin’.

Kris Davis. Photo: Caroline Mardok

LJN: Let’s talk about gender justice in jazz. Last year, the topic made a richly deserved splash — , Terri’s New Standards Vol. 1 album, et al. When it’s no longer a sexy topic — a shiny new object for media coverage — how do we continue this necessary work?

KD: There were things going on in the culture that felt like this was the perfect time for the Institute and the movement.

I don’t think everything can be sexy all the time [laughs]. Sometimes, it’s just hard work and talking about the issues — continuing to do so, especially with our students at the school.

It’s why this album was called Vol. 1; she plans to record all the tunes, or maybe produce some albums where other people are playing the tunes from the book.

Instead of thinking of it as a moment, I think of it as a call to other people to say, “I started this; I hope you’ll take the baton and continue growing it, and see what else can be done.” 

Because I know she wants other people to. We’re hoping that people will create another New Standards book of another 100 tunes.

LJN: The moment of warranted and overdue attention is the beginning, not the end.

KD: Yeah, exactly. And if you talk to Angela Davis about social justice, [you realize] it’s just an ebb and flow. It’s not always going to be at the forefront. It has these moments, and then it moves into the background, and then bubbles up again.

LJN: With this Vanguard album out in the world, what’s on the horizon for you?

KD: We’re playing at the Monterey festival; we’ve been playing a bunch of shows over the two years. In some ways, I‘m sort of ready to do some different things.

Like, I’m going to have another run at the Vanguard in January. I’m going to do a trio album with [drummer] Johnathan Blake and [bassist] Robert Hurst; we’re going to play that week and then record.

Piano trio formats have been the most challenging thing for me, just because there’s so much tradition and history around it. I feel like the Borderlands trio has found a cool way to deal with that format.

But I’m interested in bringing in tunes and trying again — seeing what else is possible.

LINKS(*) : Kris Davis’s website
Purchase Diatom Ribbons Live at the Village Vanguard
Album review by John Ferguson

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