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In her quintet’s maelstrom of chaos, Kris Davis is the calming, steady influence

By Michael J. West,

There’s a kind of quiet at the heart of the Kris Davis Quintet. Even in the band’s wildest, most avant-garde moments — and there were a few at Bohemian Caverns on Sunday — it was easy to detect a peaceful center to the maelstrom. And as loud and seemingly chaotic as its members could get, especially tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubock and drummer Tom Rainey, they consistently found their way back to that centering influence — Davis herself.

The young pianist has a knack for finding short patterns of notes to riff and develop, and, although she can get quite aggressive in her explorations, she kept them rooted in pastel colors and similarly muted volumes on Sunday night. The band’s second piece came close to breaking that cycle, with the piano suddenly forthright and in an out-of-alignment swing; even so, Davis was more restrained than the declarative bass lines of Michael Formanek, and if her playing wasn’t exactly quiet, it was nonetheless thoughtful and unflashy.

It was violist Mat Maneri who followed Davis’s example most closely. He avoided flights of fancy. While maintaining an even, questioning tone that sometimes thickened with cacophonous harmonies and could also overpower the ensemble (Maneri was the most amplified), he passed up opportunity after opportunity to run away with the proceedings. Instead, he kept pace with Laubrock’s rock-hard tenor lines and ultimately deferred back to Davis’s understated statements.

Even through the sonic dominance of Laubrock, Rainey and (to a lesser extent) Formanek, however, it was remarkable the degree to which Davis maintained control. The imperative lines by Laubrock, in particular, were unswerving responses to softer, but no less firm lines on the piano. Though it was the piano that joined into the sax’s already-incendiary lines near the conclusion of the third piece, it was hard to tell who was leading whom.

The same was true for Rainey: His crisp, poking drum sound hung heavy in the air throughout, and it was only close listening that revealed how meticulously he hewed to accents and momentum that Davis was putting into place. Formanek, moreover, seemed almost telepathically linked to Davis even when it was he who seemingly overshadowed her ghostly phrasings. His major showcase of the set, a solo to start the fourth and final piece, simmered with potential energy but remained preternaturally subdued even as it turned into accompaniment for Laubrock’s strident, muscular lines and Davis’ harmonic rainbows.

Just 33 years old, Davis is an artist to watch. To exert such decisive control over an ensemble, while exerting significantly less force than they, is a sign of fearsome artistic powers.

West is a freelance writer.

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