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Concert Review: Pianist Kris Davis at the Jazz Gallery

February 16th, 2012

About.com Rating 3 Star Rating


Pianist Kris Davis
© Daniel Sheehan and Martin Serrazac
Pianist Kris Davis played a ruminative set of her new compositions at the Jazz Gallery. Her band consisted of Matt Maneri on viola, Ingrid Laubrock on tenor saxophone, Trevor Dunn on bass, and Tom Rainey on drums. The concert was an opportunity for Davis to feature new material and a new ensemble. The goal of the quintet is to seek out an expansive palette of sounds, created by unusual instrumentation, and by basing both compositions and improvisations around sub-groupings within the ensemble

Davis is a reserved bandleader. She leads with small gestures from the keyboard, her head leaned intently over the instrument. She didn’t say a word until the end of the set, when she merely thanked the Jazz Gallery and the audience, and introduced her bandmates. Since the titles of the compositions were withheld, it was difficult to keep track of the beginnings and endings of pieces. This may have been part of the plan, an indication that the compositions weren’t meant to be the focus. Of course, it could have just been an indication of Davis’ laconicism.

There are bands that do many things well, and some that choose to do just one thing, and Davis as a leader leans more towards the latter. There was a sameness to many of the pieces, which often consisted of churning group improvisations that rarely presented concerted rhythm or melody. The lack of compositional contrast made it clear that Davis was more interested in the interplay of her bandmates. With such a talented band, this proved not to be a big problem in terms of improvisational excitement, but stronger leadership through more varied, assertive compositions might have created a more diverse set, and would have provided the improvisers with more material. However, if a band’s goal is to do just one thing, Davis has certainly struck upon her modus operandi. The conversational character of this quintet is among this group’s best qualities. The set had an inviting character to it, despite the abstract nature of most of the improvisations. Davis’ trust of her collaborators to fill the blanks of her music is the key ingredient.

The melodies in Davis’ pieces were often hidden inside nearly continuous improvisation, acting more like bones and sinews inside a body of sound, like supportive structures rather than flashy facades. In the last piece of the evening, Laubrock and Dunn played a unison melody as a recurring interlude between saxophone improvisations. The melody divided Laubrock’s solo into terraces of growing intensity, and added to her impassioned improvisation a gratifying sense of pace and balance. It was one of the best pieces of the set.

A vital part of the performance was the venue itself. The Jazz Gallery has an intimate, relaxed, and yet serious atmosphere. It makes shows feel a bit like hearing private concerts in one’s own living room. It is not only a venue, but a communal space, and hub of arts patronage. It offers two programs that provide vital support to artists in an increasingly expensive city: the Gallery’s Residency Commission program, which commissions a new work from a jazz artist and allows unfettered access to the space, and its new Woodshed at the Jazz Gallery, which offers free rehearsal time to selected musician. The venue raised over $20,000 in a Kickstarter campaign to fund the Woodshed program, and the Gallery and its supporters deserve accolades for their accomplishments in creating a vibrant performance space that provides a rare opportunity for experimentation in Manhattan. Davis’ new Quintet took advantage of the chance by playing a thoughtful set of music with warmth and poise.

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