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Kris Davis

Monheim Papers Blood moon and mastery by Kersty Grether and Sandra Grether
Kris Davis. Caroline Mardok for Monheim Triennale
Kris Davis. Caroline Mardok for Monheim Triennale
Photo: Kris Davis. Caroline Mardok for Monheim Triennale

Kris Davis is one of the most exciting jazz musicians of our time. With 13 subtle and introverted albums to date, the jazz pianist and composer, born in Vancouver in 1980, has produced an impressive body of work in a rapid period of time. In All About Jazz, critic Mark F. Turner already compared her as a pianist/composer to Myra Melford and Geri Allen respectively. In 2021 she received the Doris Duke Artist Award.

Here is a musician playing, if not for her life, then definitely: for her survival! Kris Davis performs everything imaginable in terms of possibilities and free compositions. Sometimes more reduced, sometimes more opulent, often with or without lyrics. Sometimes haunting snatches of lyrics are enough to contribute to the condensation of a song.

In the early nineties, the Canadian pianist moved to New York, where she took composition lessons with Jim McNeely. She still lives in the USA, now in Boston.

The first thing that interests me (who first took piano lessons at the age of 30) is how early you have to start in order to become a master of the instrument.

Kris, can you still remember the moment when you played the piano for the first time? How old were you? And when did you decide: this is what I want to do with my life?

Kris Davis: "I started playing the piano when I was 6 years old. I had a cousin who played the piano. When I saw her play for the first time, I wanted to be able to communicate my ideas and feelings through sound and my fingers, just like she did. My first piano teacher was called Melody. She was a wonderful, dedicated teacher. We worked through the Royal Conservatory syllabus and I worked my way through the classics of Beethoven, Bach and Mozart. When I was about 9 years old, I wanted to stop. Playing classical piano made me feel lonely and I struggled with stage fright. My mother encouraged me to continue until the end of the school year. By the time the school year was over, I had found joy in playing again."

When did you decide to study jazz? Where and how did you get in touch with the jazz canon?

"When I was 12 years old, I auditioned for the jazz band at my secondary school. The teacher of the band was a passionate jazz fan and gave his students jazz albums to listen to. The first record he gave me was "My funny Valentine" by Miles Davis, and I immediately fell in love with this music. I loved the way Herbie Hancock played the piano, the connection he had with Tony Williams. I transcribed every Herbie solo on that album. Shortly after I joined the jazz band, I got to play a solo on a ballad for our upcoming concert. It was the first time I improvised in front of an audience and I just loved it. I didn't have to worry about playing wrong notes. I could be myself. I didn't have to reproduce someone else's language, as was the case in the classical piano tradition. It was creative and empowering. After that concert, I decided to become a jazz pianist. I met every weekend with a drummer, a bass player and a saxophonist from the big band and we practiced and jammed together, learned pieces from the "Real Book" (notations of jazz standards) and listened to music together. That's how I got to know the music of Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans.“

Kris Davis. Caroline Mardok for Monheim Triennale
Photo: Kris Davis. Caroline Mardok for Monheim Triennale

You said in an interview that mentorship has always been very important for Jazz Education. Who were your mentors and how important were they for you?

"Mentors have been very important to me and I've had them throughout the different stages of my development. First, of course, my band teacher at middle school - his enthusiasm for jazz was contagious and he was very supportive of all of us. In college, I studied with pianists Gary Williamson and Brian Dickinson, who were both great teachers and helped immerse me in the jazz tradition. Gary taught a piano technique from Godowsky that was passed down from pianist to pianist. I wanted to learn from him because I was having trouble with my technique. I felt that the way I played was limiting my ability to communicate. It took me two years under Gary's tutelage to learn to use gravity and the weight of my arms, as well as avoid unnecessary movements, to get to a point where I felt I could play the instrument. When I moved to New York, I began to explore improvised music. Tony Malaby became an important mentor who encouraged me to compose and to combine improvisation and composition. On weekends we would go to his house, play all day and then talk about concepts and approaches.

Floating happiness & the black underground garages of our existence

Kris Davis' songs can be understood even if you are not an outspoken jazz aficionado. You have to tune in, and give yourself some time, but then you quickly become addicted to these tracks, their playing, the interspersed snippets of lyrics, often delivered by male voices. It's a pleasure to witness and resonate with how these overheated sounds meet the detached, always highly complex, always radiantly executed craft.

There are piano-hectic narratives that often lead all alone - or accompanied only by sparse drum sounds - through the sometimes narrower, sometimes wider alleys of a self-observing view of the soul and the world. Surrounded by all sorts of balladier pieces that want to be heard like: "I Call For You, Cultivation Of Strings."

But here, too, the keys fly, floating happiness, but then again brief perseverance in the black underground garages of our existence. This music knows how to convey paths, in parts even without lyrics, guides, goes ahead itself, confesses drastic conditions, plumbs nightmares - and dreams. The music of Kris Davis does not take under fire, but always has to go further, for example: a guitar solo straddles the crater landscapes of "Corn Crake" (from the 2019 album "Diatom Ribbons").

Kris Davis has produced a number of extraordinary albums since her debut "Lifespan" in 2003; at that time she still recorded everything herself or was responsible for it, but already with the follow-up "The Slightest Shift" she discovered the advantages of team play: together with Tony Malaby, Eivind Opsyik and Jeff Davis, she created suspenseful jazz numbers that also give the solo pieces on the album room to breathe. But also the current "Blood Moon", which was created in cooperation with Ingrid Laubrock in 2020, still has these reduced moments.

Kris, you once said in an interview that for you jazz is self-expression through sound. When is a sound “found” for you? And how do you recognise that a song is finished? Does this state exist at all?

"A piece is never really finished, because it depends on the respective musicians and their interpretation. When I write a piece of music, I always consider it to be only two-thirds finished. The last third is to show it to the improvisers to see how they interpret it. I enjoy the collaboration. Writing for improvisers always offers me a certain amount of collaboration, depending on how much I write or don't write. It just depends on the musicians and the concept of the piece.

Jazz is the constant pursuit of the inner truth of an artist. When I was learning the tradition, on the one hand there were certain elements in it that I loved and felt in tune with, and on the other hand there were elements and rules of music that I didn't like so much. When I started to study all kinds of musical traditions, I took all these beloved elements and mixed them. I also looked at my personality and my skills as a pianist and then incorporated certain elements from both into the way I played. Improvised music gave me the freedom and a platform to go through this process, and to do so without guidelines with certain expectations of a tradition. Jazz is this and this, but it can't be that - I didn't like those rules in the genre. Improvised music and composition allowed me to find my inner truth and bring in other influences, other traditions."

You're playing at the Monheim Triennale. What can we expect?

I'm playing two shows, one with my long-time colleague Ingrid Laubrock as a duo, the other with some up-and-coming musicians, two of whom were my students. Ingrid and I have been working together for 15 years, first in a trio with Tyshawn Sorey and then in many other projects. Before the pandemic we released the duo album "Bloodmoon". We will perform some pieces from that in Monheim. The quartet consists of Milena Casado on trumpet and Ivanna Cuesta on drums (both were my students and recently graduated from Berklee College in Boston) and Noah Garabedian on bass. I wanted to come with this group for several reasons: I want to give more young people the opportunity to play, and to include them in a community of improvisers. There is a diverse scene for improvised music and a dedicated audience for it, and I want these great young musicians to experience that scene. I also wanted the opportunity to improve my skills as a bandleader with young people, so I wrote new music for this group that we will premiere in Monheim."

Have you ever been to Germany before?

"Many times! I have played in Germany more than anywhere else in Europe. Germany has an engaged, knowledgeable audience - it's always a pleasure for me!"

Why did you move to Boston?

"I moved to Boston because I co-direct a programme at Berklee with Terri Lyne Carrington called “Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice”. The mission of the institute is to dismantle patriarchy and gender inequality in jazz."

Do you have any rituals that help you compose a song?

"Walking or driving usually gives me ideas for pieces. There's something about movement and repetition that leads to ideas and creates space for the creative process."

Kris Davis. Caroline Mardok for Monheim Triennale
Photo: Kris Davis. Caroline Mardok for Monheim Triennale

We live in economically difficult times. Neoliberal structures make it difficult to make a living from art. Have you ever had problems paying your rent?

"Yes, of course. When I moved to New York, it was very difficult. At the beginning, I was not allowed to work. Then, when I got my work visa, I taught three days a week at a small music school and could barely pay my rent. I lived with four people in a two-room flat (I was lodged in the living room). There were cockroaches and mice. It was hard. I worried that life would always be like this. But little by little it got better. I found a better job and got more opportunities to compose and perform. Just before my son was born, I was able to make a living from my art, touring and performing. But all that changed after I had a child. I had to be at home and couldn't tour as much. So I started teaching at The New School and Princeton and working a little bit from the home office, and I became more selective about my travel activities."

How has the pandemic affected your life?

"The pandemic taught me an important lesson about work-life balance. Before the pandemic, my life was very unbalanced. I was constantly working and rushing home to be a mother. I constantly felt guilty because I felt I was not fulfilling both roles well. The pandemic gave me time to re-evaluate my life and start again. I have figured out how to live more balanced by putting my physical and mental health first. I feel like I'm stronger and more productive now and can focus my energy on the areas of my life that matter most."

One is almost a little surprised that even a Kris Davis still has to deal with the "normal" problems of a work/life balance. And of course with the "classic" of modern motherhood: guilt; feelings of not being enough, both at work and with the child. But it's great that she was able to use the pandemic to take a look at this whole imposition spook from the outside. With this type of female musician, who is so well educated and who is very common in today's music scene, one must not forget that it is nevertheless good old pop nomadism, where the most subtle artistic orientation does not protect one from economic constraints.

You can also hear the principle of this lifestyle in the new songs: Directed energy! Inclusion of all sensory possibilities. Yeah, that's it, that's how you can describe the sound of Kris Davis. Discover her albums!

Kris Davis, thank you for the interview.

"Thank you!“

Artist Page Kris Davis Signature Project: Kris Davis "Emergence Quartet"