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Album Review: Kris Davis' 'Aeriol Piano'

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By

Kris Davis Aeriol Piano
Courtesy of Clean Feed Records
One of the greatest challenges to a jazz musician is the solo performance. The creative task of playing an album full of engaging music solo can be quite daunting. When it comes to those who have succeeded in their solo piano efforts, names like Bill Evans, Art Tatum, Keith Jarrett, and Brad Mehldau immediately spring to mind. Indeed, to throw one's hat into that ring practically begs comparisons to those greats. However, pianist Kris Davis has shown with her album Aeriol Piano that she is not only up to the task, but has something unique to add to this tradition.

The first noticeable aspect of Davis' playing is how she has constructed her own musical language. It is tasteful, sparse, sensitive, and seems to be informed by such contemporary composers as Ligeti and Rzewski, more so than by traditional jazz. Davis pays homage to her jazz roots by opening the record with a deconstructed version of the standard tune, “All the Things You Are.” Slowly she circles around the original harmony, playing cat and mouse with the recognizable shifts in harmony, teasing the listener with identifiable contours of the melody. Her version is like a jigsaw puzzle coming together. The whole isn’t decipherable until the very end.

Davis is also a pianist who is very aware of the breadth of sonic possibilities that the piano offers. She embraces prepared piano techniques, plucks on the strings, and uses dynamics and color in both subtle and dramatic ways. On “Saturn Return,” she balances low, dark, and ominous chords, peppered with plinks of the prepared piano, as counterpoints to flighty upper register melodies. Her raw and unabashed rhythmic accompaniment is reminiscent of the violent hits of Stravinsky's “Rite of Spring.” She follows that up with a dreamy and pensive impressionistic piece called “A Different Kind of Sleep,” where she combines slow arpeggiated chords with the tense brightness of plucking strings to create a calm and introverted sound.

Davis often uses melodic and rhythmic shapes to develop her pieces. Instead of being tied together by harmony or a singable melody line, her pieces adhere through patterns of intervals and rhythmic bits. When she isn't patiently floating through a tune, she can be heard pounding out fragmented rhythms and disjointed phrases. On “Good Citizen,” she puts the chaotic side of her music on display by throwing wild and fast runs within repeated shapes and phrases. On “Beam The Eyes,” she starts out with spacious, detached phrases, and slowly develops them to a fever pitch of dense aggression.

On “Stone,” Davis slowly develops a repeated bass figure, and deftly implies different worlds of harmony upon it through the imposition of various colorful chords and sparse high melodies. She is also excellent at balancing light and dark, as with the nightmarish soundtrack that is “The Last Time,” and the peaceful, introspective last track “Work for Water.”

Overall, Aeriol Piano is an interesting and contemplative work that showcases not only Davis' unique musical vocabulary, but also her patient and sensitive exploration of the sonic possibilities of the piano. Despite being a solo venture, the album never comes off as self-indulgent, and the tracks are mostly short, making for a mostly effortless listening experience. More contemporary classical than jazz perhaps, it is an excellent entry from one of the more interesting rising piano stars of New York.

Release Date:

September 19th, 2011 on Clean Feed Records

Tracks:

  1. All the Things You Are
  2. Saturn Return
  3. A Different Kind of Sleep
  4. Good Citizen
  5. Beam the Eyes
  6. Stone
  7. The Last Time
  8. Work for Water
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