Solo piano albums are tough listens. They’re exercises in spacing, balance, dynamism, and are generally more intellectual exercises than most jazz albums. Duo piano albums are even tougher. One — or a pair, really — must really know what one is trying to pull off creating with such limitations, and have an even clearer idea when releasing that creation into the greater public. Kris Davis has always been an inventive, bold piano player. This is certainly true in her previous album, 2016’s Duopoly, wherein she dueted with a coterie of exceptional musicians, but especially so the rapport she made with pianist Craig Taborn, so much so that the two have released a new duo album in that same spirit, Octopus, out now on Pyroclastic Records.
Recorded over a series of live performances, Octopus, to a large extent, runs free. This pair is creating music at an exceptionally high energy, though it can at times feel as much like an intellectual exercise than it does truly pleasant music. This is largely recital fare, spacey in places and dense in others. But those moments when it all takes off are true delights. The staccato construction of the first section “Ossining”, like hammers on nails and the welding of steel girders, has the punch that reminds you that the piano is a percussion instrument. The runs of “Interruptions Three”, as if the keys are running for their lives like some natural disaster.
Truly, the album is worth the entire price of admission just to hear Davis & Taborn’s take on Sun Ra’s “Love in Outer Space”, a beautiful crescendo that’s in just two instruments can sound as forceful as the whole Arkestra. It’s as carefully considered and structured as the rest of this album, but this tune, perhaps since it’s a Sun Ra composition, has a melody that acts more as an anchor and thus functions as a more conventional jazz song. It’s through this structure that Davis and Taborn soar, for every good wing has design that follows the laws of physics.
Octopus is one of those albums you have to be in the mood for. This has to be your specific kind of fair. Such is the territory Kris Davis tends to trend on the piano, which is why finding such an appropriate traveling companion as Craig Taborn makes this the perfect combination for those who love their jazz piano to scratch every intellectual itch. Of course, that’s what octopi are– smarter than we think, extraordinarily crafty, adaptable, able to plumb perilous depths, and able to impress us mere humans, even when we can be weirded out by them. The title fits this pairing and most certainly this music.
Octopus, the new album from pianist Kris Davis accompanied by pianist Craig Taborn, is out now on Pyroclastic Records.
Nextbop Editor-in-Chief Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine and the San Antonio Current.