Meet the Music Makers: Kris Davis

UChicago Presents sat down with pianist Kris Davis to discuss her approach to improvisation, her collaboration with Craig Taborn, and more.

UChicago Presents: Your first instruction to music was through classical piano, and took up jazz some time later. Who or what were your most formative influences in those early years?

Kris Davis: I played a lot of beginner piano pieces when I was starting out, and later switched into some Bartók, Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach. My family didn't really listen to a lot of classical music, so my entry point into classical music was performing and playing through the scores of these composers.

Around the seventh or eighth grade, I joined the jazz band at school, and that was my entry point into jazz – mainly because I wanted to play with other people, and I discovered that through playing in the jazz bands, collaborating with other students, and having the joy of making music together. So the early influences for me in jazz were people like Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, Bud Powell.

UCP: Many of your peers are keen to describe your improvisation as composition-oriented, and tend to note that you approach your improvisation with sensibilities toward orchestration, timbre and texture. Can you point to anything that helped shape that sort of holistic, rather than purely pianistic, approach to your playing?

KD: I guess I can point towards starting composing early on. I discovered free improvisation shortly after I started composing, and it was clear to me that those practices worked hand-in-hand, so to speak. 

So I would compose things and then use them in my improvisations and vice versa – maybe I’d play something at the keyboard and that would spark an idea for a composition. Then it also led into going back to some contemporary composers, and discovering works by Ligeti, or Berio, or Morton Feldman or John Cage. Listening to those pieces in turn gave me some ideas for my compositions and improvisation. And so composition and improvisation worked together to not only develop vocabulary, but more broadly shape the way that I think about improvisation in terms of an improvisational context. 

UCP: From what I understand, your record Duopoly from 2016 marked the first time that you and Craig played together. Had you known each other prior to that point? 

KD: I had met Craig a couple times – subbed for him on a couple of things and met him in passing, but I hadn't really spent much time with him at all. I was a huge fan of his playing and checked out his records, especially his first trio record on Thirsty Ear, Light Made Lighter, with Gerald Cleaver and Chris Lightcap. And then I’d just go and see him play all the time in New York, and thought this would be a great opportunity to play together and also just learn from him – he’s such an incredible pianist. 

But like you said Duopoly was the first time we had played together. It was so easy to play together – I guess because I had checked out a lot of his music! [laughs] And of course he’d been a huge influence on me, but I think we had a lot of shared influences as well, and ideas about thinking about improvisation compositionally, and vice versa, as well as using compositions as a starting point to expand on improvisation. That’s really definitely what happened on the piece that I wrote for him on Duopoly, as well as on the improvisation on that piece. 

So that's what we've continued to do in the project for Octopus. We’d write these shorter pieces – sort of cells of ideas – and then those grow into the improvisation. So mostly, what you're hearing on the record is improvisation, but they're informed by the ideas in the compositions – or, the compositions are used as landing places that we know we're going towards, meaning we're working towards improvisationally developing into the composition.

UCP: Will you be performing any new repertoire for this show – new, at least as of the tour that produced Octopus?  

KD: We hope to! [laughs] We were just on the road with John Zorn’s Bagatelles, and we were discussing trying to come up with some new music by the concert. So that’s something we’ll be trying to take a look at in September and October. It’s always a source of conflict with two pianos, because you have to find a way to practice together!

UCP: It's been a little while since you and Craig were last on the road in this duo setting. Is there anything that you were particularly interested in experimenting with, now that you’re playing with Craig in this capacity for the first time since your first tour together? 

KD: Well, I just finished a record of my own, and Val Jeanty, the DJ and turntablist, is on that record. For her, I recorded piano parts for a through-composed piece that we kind of bounce back and forth against each other, which we can manipulate and shape how we want. But the idea for this piece came from playing with Craig, and the combination of and the conversation between the two pianos, and what's possible harmonically, melodically and rhythmically. So Craig and I might actually end up playing that piece on the concert. But mostly, it’s sparked some ideas about things we haven’t touched on yet in the pieces that we've been working with so far.

UCP: In your estimation, are there any particular challenges to performing with two pianos, especially with a partner who tends to think as richly and in such detail about the music as you do?

KD: I mean, there are issues that come up with two pianos, but like an any duo, it's really a conversation between two people, and the spirit and musicality of those people and how they relate to each other. So, with Craig, even though we're dealing with two pianos, it's really just like having a conversation with them. You know, it could be a struggle for obvious reasons – harmonically, texturally – but, no. We're both improvisers, we're both in tune with what’s going on in the conversation that's happening between us. So I don't even really think about that as much; it’s not really that much of a struggle.

UCP: Your record label, Pyroclastic Records, is just a few years old now, but Duopoly and Octopus marked some of the first albums you put out on that label. What other projects are on the horizon under the Pyroclastic banner?

KD: We expanded the label this year into a nonprofit, and we have three releases due out this year. And one is Ben Goldberg’s record A Good Day for Cloud Fishing, and then I have a new record called Diatom Ribbonscoming out in October with Terri Lyne Carrington, Val Jeanty, and Esperanza Spalding, Nels Cline, Marc Ribot, Tony Malaby, and a bunch of others… it’s a long list of people, and an interesting configuration of artists and pieces. Also, Chris Lightcap is releasing his record, titled Super Big Mouth. So yeah, those are the three from this year, and we're hoping to continue that next year, with at least four records a year. But I guess we have to go one year at a time, but that’s definitely the goal.

UCP: You have plenty of dates lined up in Chicago through the end of the calendar year, including dates at both the Chicago Jazz Festival and the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, so clearly you’re no stranger to this town. Is there anything you particularly enjoy about performing here? 

KD: I love playing in Chicago, and every venue is different. I just played in the Green Mill, two weeks ago. I guess that's the place I’ve played the most in Chicago, and I love playing there. The audiences are so excited about the music – it's almost like stepping back in time with three sets a night, which you don't get to do as a musician very often. And there's just something… what's the right word? Something comfortable about playing in spaces like that. It feels like when I was growing up in the small clubs in Calgary and Toronto. But yeah, I love coming to Chicago – the audiences are super supportive and excited about music. And that just seems to be the thread whenever I come.

UCP: What have you been listening to lately? 

KD: Lately, I've been listening to a lot of Stockhausen. I’ve been checking out not only his music, but also the lectures. I find him very inspiring as a speaker and thinker. I’ve also been listening to Oliver Lake’s recordImpala from 1987. Ever since Geri Allen passed away in 2017, I've been checking out a lot of her work, and that’s some of my favorite playing of hers on that record. Other than that, a real mix of things – everything from Anthony Braxton and Duke Ellington to the Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina. I’ve been going back to Henry Threadgill’s music; I’ve been taking some lessons with him, and revisiting some of his scores.