CD REVIEW: Kris Davis & Craig Taborn - Octopus



Kris Davis & Craig Taborn - Octopus
(Pyroplastic Records. CD Review by Alison Bentley)


Kris Davis and Craig Taborn on this new album of piano duets sound as if they’re playing with at least eight arms and probably a few legs too, such is the virtuosity and intensity of their playing. The six tracks on this intriguing CD are drawn from three live gigs, melding free jazz, blues and modern classical music. They build on their contribution to Davis’ 2016 album of duos (Duopoly) where her duet with Taborn seemed special. Davis: “From the moment we started playing I felt instantly transported and free within the music, and had the sense we could go anywhere.”

Americn Taborn has contributed three Interruptions, “small composed pieces… to redirect or recondition the musical environment.” Interruptions One sounds almost mimetic: notes like water drops coalesce, or drop a fraction of a second apart like echoes, as the atmospheric pressure builds with huge abstract chords. A heavy storm bursts and subsides with tiny drops and circling atonal riffs. There’s constant movement, and what Taborn in one interview calls “multiple motion.” Cecil Taylor has been a big influence, and there’s something of his angular freedom here.

Canadian-born Davis’ Ossining (a village in the Hudson Valley) is about missing her family’s house move while on the Octopus tour. The cross rhythms of her prepared piano have a kind of emotive urgency that locks into grooves reminiscent of Steve Reich’s Octet, but more playful. (Davis studied West African music with drummer Abraham Adzenyah.) High percussive kalimba-like sounds run over Taborn’s deep repeated phrases; then a gorgeous meditative section resolves the tension. Her Chatterbox evokes an aviary of dissonant sounds and rhythms. It’s an impassioned conversation with many emphatic phases, full of incredibly agile speeding notes, strutting crashes and glissandi.

One of the album’s covers is Carla Bley’s 60s Monkish tune Sing Me Softly of the Blues, suggested by Davis. This version opens with a drawling bluesiness, trills and blue notes tripping over each other. The melody fragments into crazy phrasing and impossible disharmony, then returns, spikily melodic. Davis spent a lot of time transcribing Keith Jarrett: “It felt like his solos were one long melody,” she told one interviewer. “That was always a big influence for me, even if it veered off into other things.” There’s a jump cut into Taborn’s Interruptions Two, with emphatic rock-edged chords and delicately clinking high notes. Interruptions Three almost seems to be falling down Ligeti’s Devil’s Staircase, with jazz chords like double-speed Ravel on a loop. Defiant flourishes, rumbling bass doodlings and crashing chords seem to react instinctively to jumpy phrases. Taborn chose Sun Ra’s '60s Love in Outer Space and plays an exquisite intro, like Messaien through a jazz lens. His ostinato bass lines almost recall Abdullah Ibrahim’s African Piano, as Davis brings in the Romantic theme and develops the dreamy mood.

It doesn’t seem to matter what’s composed and what’s improvised, and as Taborn says elsewhere, “With improvisation you are composing at the same time as you're performing.” It’s as if they’ve absorbed an unimaginable amount of jazz, classical and improvised music, and use their formidable technique to play with a childlike spirit of inventiveness and playfulness.

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