News Column

Jazz pianist Kris Davis to lead her quartet at Ann Arbor's Edgefest

October 23, 2013


Oct. 23--Pianist Kris Davis is a quintessential Edgefest artist. The 33-year-old Canadian is one of the most inspired young musicians working within the left-of-the-mainstream jazz scene in New York. That's precisely the artistic core of Ann Arbor's annual festival of improvised music now in its 17th year at the Kerrytown Concert House. This year's Edgefest, which kicks off today and runs through Saturday, includes nearly 20 performances, with a special focus on pianists. Davis leads her Lark quartet on Thursday featuring trumpeter Ralph Alessi, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and drummer Tom Rainey. The band completely eschews written compositions in favor of free improvisation and continuous dialogue. Davis, who grew up with traditional jazz and classical music, balances intuition and discipline. Her single-note lines sometimes grow into rhythmic broadsides or relax into spare melodies.

She's also not afraid of space, silence and understatement. She spoke from her home in Brooklyn.

QUESTION: How should new listeners approach your music?

ANSWER: I might suggest thinking about it visually. Things are pieced together in really specific ways, and I think you can visualize it pretty clearly -- how things are moving and changing. I don't think people have to know something about this kind of music. My family doesn't know anything about this music, but I've played concerts where they've come and I thought they wouldn't like it, but they seemed to really understand it. There were a lot of textural things going on and melodies and space and business and energy. I think that translates for anybody even if you don't understand jazz or improvised music.

Q: Sometimes people say, 'There's nothing to grab on to.' They worry that they don't understand it.

A: If you can experience it as a performer putting out the energy, you'll get it. It's not a complicated thing. If you're listening to pop music, you're listening for the melody. This music is a different concept. It's like you're walking around and you hear sirens going by and other things and it's like everyday life.

Q: But the more you listen, the more you'll hear, right?

A: Definitely. If everyone is playing at the same time, and there's this bustling, crazy language going on, it's not necessarily about any single line; it's about the communication between the players and the energy they're putting out together. I like to have things where there's that kind of a concept, but then things change and there is a melody you can grab onto, or it changes to a very spacious kind of concept where it's about the space between the notes and how everyone is allowing that space to develop. Those moments can be even more intense than when things are getting crazy.

Q: What is your responsibility to an audience?

A: Whenever I'm composing or improvising music, I'm always thinking about it from the audience's perspective, especially when composing. I'm always thinking about how I'm going to draw the audience in, how I'm going to create the drama. It's really from the audience's point of view more than the musician's point of view. Sometimes it's hard to do that when you're improvising because you're listening and doing all these other things and you're in the moment.

In terms of building an audience, I haven't really focused on that. I've been focused on the music and trying to find my own way through and how I want to create my own voice. I hope the audience will come to me, and so far it's kind of worked that way.

Q: How do you find your own voice in this music?

A: It starts with listening to others and studying it and figuring out how it works. I've tried to use lots of other musicians and composers' ideas in my own way. I experiment with certain concepts or sounds that I like and go from there. I don't think it's a thing where you say, "I want my own sound so now I'm going to create that." It doesn't work that way. You can't force it to happen, and in a way I don't think you should worry about it either. You take these ideas and experiment with them and come up with a way that seems right for you. I don't really consider anything I've composed or played a new idea. It's just something I'm experimenting with, and if it comes out that way, great.


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