Kris Davis and Craig Taborn – Octopus – Pyroclastic 

Two are better as one.

Kris Davis and Craig Taborn – Octopus [TrackList follows] – Pyroclastic PR 03, 58:38 [1/28/18] ****:

(Kris Davis – piano; Craig Taborn – piano)

What’s better than one? Two, of course. Duets in jazz are nothing new. But two pianos improvising together is still somewhat rare. Such collaborations need simpatico, communication and two minds working as one. Such is the case with Kris Davis and Craig Taborn. The two were part of Davis’ 2016 CD/DVD, Duopoly, a series of duets with Bill Frisell, Tim Berne, Julian Lage and others. During their time in the studio, it became evident Taborn and Davis had a stimulating chemistry. The two decided to go out on the road on a 12-date tour in Autumn, 2016 with engineer Ron Saint Germain. The result is the hour-long, six-track live document, Octopus, issued on Davis’ Pyroclastic imprint.

The performances, which run in length from seven minutes to nearly 15 minutes, incorporate pre-composed material; wholly improvised sections; and two carefully chosen cover tunes. Taborn and Davis’ conversant style is parallel to the free jazz of likeminded pianists such as Cecil Taylor, Don Pullen or Paul Bley. Throughout the program there’s a sense of tension, pull and push, dissonance, density and repetition, and much more. This isn’t necessarily easy music to appreciate, but the explorative nature delivers surprises, discovery, an unfolding gradation of mystery and significant amounts of heading into the unknown.

The pieces are blocked out but full of unanticipated movements. For example, Taborn supplied a succession of distinct segments all titled “Interruptions.” Taborn clarifies they are “Small composed pieces or objects that could be used within a larger improvisation. They seemed to stand on their own as compositions, but I intended them almost as interstitial material.” Thus, the album opens with the 11-minute “Interruptions One,” which acts as a sort of introduction to the rest of the tracks. Taborn starts with a gentle scattering of notes and a congruent pulse. Then there is a moment of silence and Davis enters. As the tune gradually develops, “Interruptions One” becomes more and more agitated, with dynamic and rapid reiteration of textures and biting notes. “Interruptions Two” is wedded to Carla Bley’s “Sing Me Softly of the Blues,” which was the title track for Art Farmer’s 1965 LP of the same name. Taborn and Davis (who added Bley’s composition to the live dates) take Bley’s delicately-moded tune and expand the music into crests and ebbs which often have a staccato structure. It’s difficult to tell when the twosome effortlessly transitions into “Interruptions Two.” Listening to this 14:36 medley is exciting and daunting, since there are a lot of nuances, details and extemporization which transpire. The seven-minute “Interruptions Three” is a rambunctious, cavorting examination of rhythm, creativeness and impermeable interchange. There are flashes of blues, instances of neo-classicalism, dashes of dissonance and shifting surges.

Davis’ compositions have breadth and depth. She utilizes prepared piano during “Ossining,” inspired after the New York city Davis’ family moved to while Davis and Taborn were on the road. “Ossining” is the only cut where a person can differentiate between the two pianists. Davis provides a keen rhythmic cadence which she explains emanates from music she heard prior to the tour, “When I wrote the piece, I was listening to some West African music and looking into how some of it is constructed.” The second half of “Ossining” has a subtle quality akin to the small-town landscape of Davis’ new home. Davis’ “Chatterbox” is on the opposite spectrum. If there is one number which echoes Taylor, it is “Chatterbox.” A high degree of dissonance, a thick rhythmic experience and masses of contrasting notes clatter throughout this eight-minute explosion. Taborn brought in Sun Ra’s “Love in Outer Space,” which has a deceptively beautiful determination. Taborn and Davis don’t collide here, but intertwine gracefully as they navigate a considerably charming melody and eventually lock into a propulsive groove with a notch of brief discord near the final stretch. “Love in Outer Space” is a wonderful way to conclude Octopus.

Interruptions One
Sing Me Softly of the Blues/Interruptions Two
Interruptions Three
Love in Outer Space

—Doug Simpson

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