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Friday, December 9, 2016

Kris Davis - Duopoly (Pyroclastic Records, 2016) ****

By Lee Rice Epstein

Kris Davis has pulled off a massive trick with Duolopy, cleverly blowing up the duo setting and reassembling the pieces into a thrilling collage. Davis, who has been praised several times on the blog (a sample: her trio, her quintet, her octet Infrasound, and her improvising trio with Ingrid Laubrock and Tyshawn Sorey, Paradoxical Frog), appears to have entered a period of tremendous creativity. For Duopoly, she takes the fairly standard piano duet and places it into 4 instrumental pairings (piano plus guitar, piano, drums, and reeds), divides those into 8 separate duos (Bill Frisell and Julian Lage, Craig Taborn and Angelica Sanchez, Billy Drummond and Marcus Gilmore, and Tim Berne and Don Byron), then duplicates each duo to create an additional 8 free improvisations. The pairings and sequencing pretty much need to be exactly right for the album to work, and I’m happy to report they work exceedingly well.

A great deal has been made of Davis and Taborn’s collaboration on Davis’s original, “Fox Fire.” And their pairing is indeed magical—sadly, I missed seeing them perform here in LA earlier this year, but I’ve heard their live performances are incredible (see below for video from this fall’s tour). But I haven’t seen as much written about Davis and Sanchez, who present a slightly thornier duet on Sanchez’s “Beneath the Leaves.” It’s a marked contrast to Davis and Taborn’s playing, and both performances serve to highlight the strengths in the other. Not surprisingly, both pianists duets with Davis got me thinking about a Taborn-Sanchez duo. Each has such a singular approach to the piano, and Davis successfully bridges the performances by drawing on Taborn and Sanchez’s tenderness and technique in equal measure.

It’s interesting to have Berne and Byron paired as the reed players for this outing. Again, Berne’s initial duet, on Davis’s “Trip Dance for Tim,” is a lovely dance between the two. And Byron’s clarinet on “Prelude to a Kiss” is dazzling. The four tracks that form this center turning point, the previous two plus Davis’s improvised duets with Byron and Berne, are quite possibly the highlight of an album stuffed with highlights. Berne’s plays a bright, keening solo during the improvisation, steering Davis to a pounding finish that echoes to a silence, which gradually builds back up to full volume in Davis and Gilmore’s improv.

Just one more pairing I want to highlight: Davis and Frisell. As I alluded to in my review of Andrew Cyrille’s quartet album, Frisell is back in a big way. His playing on these two albums is some of his best in a long time, and credit to Davis for the collaboration and inspiring some lovely playing from him. Their closing duet opens with some airy chords from both, sustained notes weaving together to create a textured backdrop. It’s a thoughtful closing statement and a bit of a tease, at barely three minutes, as the album glides to its finish on a gentle, quick fade.

When I first saw the lineup, there were surprises aplenty. Where I had expected to see Laubrock, Rainey, Halvorson, Alessi, and others, ultimately Davis paired herself with musicians she hadn’t yet recorded with. Instead of revisiting collaborations I’d come to appreciate, a deep well of possibilities opens up on Duopoly, and although I haven’t read anything to indicate more may be coming, I already have a personal wish list of unique pairings I’d love to hear on future volumes.

Kris Davis and Craig Taborn live at The Kennedy Center, October 3, 2016: