CMA Duos: Kris Davis and Mary Halvorson
The pianist and guitarist discuss writing lyrics, foregoing chord charts, and why playing for a distracted audience can sometimes be a blessing in disguise.
Pianist Kris Davis and guitarist Mary Halvorson are two of the most curious and versatile musicians in New York’s bustling jazz ecosystem. Over the last decade, they’ve both experienced a steady ascent in critical acclaim and popularity, with each leading several exciting bands in addition to working closely with others, including together in Anti-House, a bracing quintet led by German expat saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock.
Davis, a Canadian native, recently released a series of duo performances with fellow pianist Craig Taborn, in addition to leading the knotty quintet Capricorn Climber and pursuing a fruitful solo practice. This fall she’ll record the debut effort of a new project with drummer Terri Lynne Carrington and turntablist Val Jeanty. Halvorson, a Bostonian, leads a richly contrapuntal octet—an extension of a trio and quartet with many of the same musicians—and she’s a key member of the collective trio Thumbscrew, with drummer Tomas Fujiwara and bassist Michael Formanek. Earlier this year she released the debut album from her quintet Code Girl, which includes the agile singer Amirtha Kidambi delivering lyrics written by the guitarist.
Davis and Halvorson spoke in Lisbon, Portugal, where both were participating in the Jazz em Agosto festival, which this year celebrated the compositions of John Zorn. Both musicians led groups that interpreted Zorn’s tunes, with Halvorson also performing in Davis’ quartet. Their conversation has been edited and condensed.
Kris Davis: I don’t remember how we actually met, but I remember when we played together for the first time.
Mary Havorson: It was with Ingrid, right?
KD: No, it was in my living room, in Brooklyn. I think it was you and Jim Black.
MH: That’s right.
KD: We played a session and I was thinking about doing a project with the two of you and I wrote some stuff.
MH: That’s right, we did a gig at the Tea Lounge. I remember because that was the first time I had ever played your music.
KD: Oh, wow, I don’t remember that at all.
KD: When I moved to New York I was doing cabaret gigs, restaurant gigs.
MH: Did you ever have a non-musical job?
KD: I’ve always taught music, but no.
MH: I’ve always done more or less what I’ve wanted to do because I had an office job, so I didn’t really do gigs. I would’ve, because I was trying to make a living as a musician when I was working in the office, but they just didn’t come. I guess I’ve always felt like I’ve only done the musical things that I wanted to do. You don’t always get it right.
KD: I feel like I learned so much from those experiences. When I look back now, I think it was a horror show.
MH: That’s what everyone says—people do these insane, weird gigs.
KD: You learn from discomfort, whether it’s a positive or negative experience. The school at U of T at that time was a bebop school, so that was what I was studying. The scene there at the time was very straight-ahead. It’s different now. But then I went to Banff and I met Tony Malaby and Angelica Sanchez and it was three weeks of improvising. I tell this story often, but I didn’t know what the heck was going on. It was intriguing, so a year a later I moved to New York and those were the people that I knew that lived there. I reached out to them and that’s how it started.
MH: I think it’s interesting how often people cite Banff as a place where they either met musicians they work with or discovered something they’re really into. It definitely says a lot about that program.
KD: And SIM [School for Improvisational Music], too, for younger people. It’s Ralph Alessi’s school.
MH: People love both of those programs and I always recommend them when I have college-age students, wondering what to do next.
KD: I play with so many women now.
MH: Me too.
KD: It just seems totally normal and natural. Maybe it’s part of the scene, because I’ve talked to Linda [May Han] Oh, who has a totally different experience with sexism and jazz. For me it hasn’t been that way at all. Since moving to New York I’ve played with so many women in bands. Not all female bands, but maybe half and half.
MH: I’ve never made a point to work with women for the sake of doing it. I’ve always worked with musicians who I thought were interesting. The good thing is that it’s just happened naturally. In Anti-House, there’s more women than men. There’s just more women around—more of my friends are women, I work with more women—I didn’t have to try. When I was growing up all of the people I played with were men—well, I guess at that point, boys—but it seemed totally normal and it didn’t bother me that much. I didn’t like it or dislike it, it was just the reality of what it was. I was lucky to work with people that were really cool. It started to shift, and as it started shifting and I started playing with more women, I began to get excited about it. But I never felt like it had to be a self-conscious thing. Now I have more women students—I think there’s been a momentum shift. But I’ve never chosen people on the basis of gender or race. I just want to play with interesting people, and maybe that’s a little idealistic, but I think it’s how it should be.
KD: When I was living in Toronto I was part of a straight-ahead scene and I was often the only female musician. I kind of liked it in a way, like I was rising to the challenge. When I moved to New York and started playing more improvised music there were many more women in the scene and it just seemed easy and natural. I realized it was so nice to play with other women. There’s an ease about it, and the ones I play with are all so supportive and generous. I think that also has to do with being in a more improvised scene, because people I talk to like Linda, who are part of the more straight-ahead scene—there’s just less women.
MH: That’s something I’ve always admire about you, that you’re not stuck in one scene. You’re working with lots of different types of musicians and doing a lot of different stuff. You can play so many different styles and still sound like yourself, but it’s really cool because you’re able to not just be in this tiny slice of whatever it is, so you probably have traversed a lot of different scenes, I’d imagine because stylistically the people you play with are pretty diverse.
KD: I guess that’s true.
MH: I consciously think about moving around stylistically. I’m curious if you consciously think about it—I don’t want to get stuck in one little thing. I make a point if I think a musician is interesting that I haven’t worked with before, I’ll try to get into some different styles and scenes because you learn so much that way. That has been conscious, because I think it’s easier to find a little corner and stay there.
KD: I feel the same way, although there is sort of a safety I need from the people I choose to play with that are outside of a scene. I need to know that they want to take on that challenge as well as challenge themselves. If I reach out to a person in another scene who’s not interested in that, I’m putting myself in a precarious situation. I’ve been playing with Terri Lynne Carrington, who reached out, and we’ve been playing some improvised gigs, and it’s really fun to play with her in that kind of setting. I think she’s enjoying the challenge of playing more improvised music. That’s opened up another world of people that she’s involved with that I’m playing with, like Esperanza Spalding, who is really into improvised music, even though she doesn’t get to do it that much.
MH: People do put you in a corner, whether or not you want to be. I’m sure people think of Esperanza doing a very specific thing and I’m sure her interests are much wider than what people might think. So many of us—you and I are not unique in this way—are open to so many different things. Some aren’t, but some are. I find it funny that people are surprised by, like, Ambrose [Akinmusire] playing in my band Code Girl. Several people have been like, “he’s in your band? How did that happen?” Or, “is he the original trumpet player in the band?” Why is it so hard to understand? Because we come from a slightly different scene, or people have pegged him or me as a specific kind of player, they find it hard to get. It’s kind of nice to throw people off.
KD: Ambrose is trying to break out, too. I think he wants to be more involved in the improvised scene. We all need each other, and it makes the music stronger. At this point we’re all drawing from so many kinds of music, so many styles, that it’s almost necessary to have that in your playing so the music can move forward.
MH: Exactly. I feel like that’s how I learn, playing with people coming from different places and playing in different people’s bands and checking out how they compose. Even when we were on tour together, you were giving me lists of stuff you were listening to, exchanging ideas and information. I’m not in school, you’re not in school, so it’s not like we’re studying anything specifically per se, but you’re constantly learning from each other. That may sound cheesy, but I really think that.
KD: It’s true. You have to make a concerted effort to keep developing and checking out new things. When I’m on the road that’s when it happens the most, talking to other musicians about what they’re checking out and I come home with a ton of stuff. How did you end up writing lyrics? What inspires you?
MH: That’s been something I’ve always done, but not that much. In college I wrote some poems. Weirdly enough my dad writes poetry too, but not very much. I’ve always been into music with lyrics, so it was like, ‘okay, I think it’s time, I want to try something new, I’m going to sit down and have a dedicated project where I write lyrics.’ In terms of method it was pretty haphazard, experimenting, trying different things, chopping things up, train of thought. Sometimes I’d have an idea in mind, sometimes I didn’t. I was trying everything. I didn’t have a real method, and then you find things that work better than others.
KD: How much are the melodies written out for Code Girl, for Amirtha [Kidambi]? Like how much freedom does she have with the words and the melody?
MH: I write out the melodies very specifically and she elaborates on them pretty consistently, so it’s kind of both. If I showed you the chart and you listened along you’d see that she is singing the melody, but it’s all of these ornamentations and elaborations, which is really cool because I’ve never felt like I needed to either to tell her to reign it in or to do more. I really like how she interprets them and what she does, and she never sings them the same way twice, which is really interesting. I’m working on another set now and trying some new processes. Have you ever written lyrics?
KD: No. I’ve thought about it, but I don’t know. I was just checking out some Carla Bley music, and there’s a tune called “I Hate to Sing.” Those are the kind of lyrics I want to write—with a great melody.
MH: That’s the thing, even if you’re not working on lyrics you’re still hearing them and forming ideas about what you like. Are you still writing for Capricorn Climber? I know you’re working on the project with Terri Lynne now, right?
KD: Yeah, there’s a recording in December. I’m still playing with Capricorn Climber—I like that group a lot, but it’s a little bit on the backburner right now.
MH: What’s on the front burner?
KD: I’ve been doing a lot of these Geri Allen tributes and learning her music and that’s been incredible and challenging in a way, because it’s taking me back to a language that I learned when I was young and sort of intentionally said, ‘I don’t want to sound like that or play that way,” which led me to the more improvised music scene. Now I’m actually going back and readdressing what that means.
MH: I think that’s really cool because then you sort of combine different elements of yourself.
KD: Yeah, I wrote a new tune last week and I wrote chord changes for the first time in fifteen years.
MH: Really? You haven’t written chord changes in 15 years?
KD: No, I was totally against writing them. When you see a chord change you go to a certain kind of way of playing a sound. If it’s written out as notes you interpret it differently.
MH: So in all of the Capricorn Climber music there’s not a single chord?
KD: On the last ten or twelve records there’s no chords.
MH: Wow, I had no idea. Because you have such a strong harmonic thing, I assumed there were chords, but I guess you’re just making them up as you go along.
KD: They’re written out maybe as a voicing.
MH: Actually, I do the same thing if I’m composing. If I’m writing a voicing I rarely think about what it is. Sometimes I do go back and analyze them because sometimes I want people to play over the chord changes, so I have to go back and figure out what are the chords I wrote. I try to do them by ear without thinking about theory or about what they are—is that similar?
KD: Not really, because I hardly ever want someone to play over the chords changes in a certain harmonic way. If I do, maybe I’ll write the actual letters, but I never spell out these complicated chords because it never comes off well. You want to make it as simple as you can for the players so that they can really be free to play and be themselves in the music.
MH: Have musicians ever asked you for the chord changes?
KD: No. When I wrote the chord changes that I played at this Jazz Gallery thing with Jonathan Blake and Nick Duston last week, it was a private concert, so I thought, I’m going to try these tunes. And it came up with Bsus13, and it was blowing my mind. It felt so uncomfortable. It was like the most dissonant thing in the world to play a Bsus13 chord. It’s weird how you can turn things around, that things that seem totally dissonant or out to some people are my comfort zone.
MH: I went to the New School for a year, so I was in New York in 2000, for just a year. And it’s interesting that you said you haven’t written chords changes, because during that year I kind of had this violent reaction against playing tunes, and I told myself I’m not going to do that anymore. And, for many years, I really didn’t play any standards, and didn’t work on it very much. I felt like I needed a break because I had been doing it quite a bit up until that point. Years later, I was like, ‘wait a second, I love tunes!’ And so I started working on it more, and for the past ten years a big part of what I’ve practiced is tunes and changes, just because I like it. Whether or not I end up using it, it’s a good way to get better at the guitar, which is the larger goal. I almost feel like I’ve come back around.
KD: I have this private fantasy that I go and get a restaurant gig somewhere, like up in Ossining, and nobody knows me and I can just play tunes with a trio once a week. There’s something about the way your brain has to deal with that material and a way of thinking and physically relating to the instrument. There’s so much to gain from playing standards and playing over forms and changes.
MH: That I did do a little bit. I had a restaurant gig on Fire Island, playing standards. That was the thing—nobody was really paying attention, but it was fun. We would just play tunes, and it was great for me because I learned a lot. It was this no pressure thing. I loved doing that.
KD: I think it’s good for young people to have that opportunity to play in a restaurant. It may seem like background music, but you’re really playing for each other and learning a ton at the same time. Now that I’ve been playing the Geri Allen music, it’s been coming back, getting stronger with retraining my brain to deal with harmony.
MH: It is something you need to keep up and work on, even if you did it for years in the past.
KD: Totally. I was really missing it, so this is such a breath of fresh air.