Craig Taborn: a keyboards virtuoso and composer to look out for

Ever since Manfred Eicher launched ECM almost half a century ago with the Mal Waldon Trio’s ‘Free at Last’ , the label has been notable for its sterling support of great jazz pianists.  Among its first 20 releases were albums by Paul Bley, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett;  these day you can find such distinguished musicians as Stefano Bollani, Marilyn Crispell, Anat Fort, Giovanni Guidi, Vijay Iyer, David Virelles, Christian Wallumrod, and many others who for the moment slip my mind. One who certainly wouldn’t slip my mind, however, is Craig Taborn, whose piano quartet album ‘Daylight Ghosts’ has just been released; I’ve been following the American’s work closely ever since I first heard his solo debut for ECM, 2011’s ‘Avenging Angel’.

avengingSeveral things impressed me enormously on that first hearing. First, the sheer excellence of Taborn’s playing, which was both technically dazzling and very expressive. Second, besides his pianism, he was clearly an interesting composer, adept at writing material with a rich potential for improvisation; often, it’s difficult to tell precisely where the writing ends and the improvisation begins. And third, there was the fact that his music was both pleasingly wide-ranging and very hard to categorise. Sometimes, as in a sparse, slow meditation like ‘Diamond Turning Dream’, it felt less like ‘jazz’ than a contemporary composition for a chamber music hall (Taborn’s use of silence and the spaces between notes can be extraordinary); at others, as in the title track, the repetitive riff-based groove came across like something between minimalism and dance music; or there was the spritely post-bebop fantasia like ‘Neverland’, or something almost approaching a sombre ballad in ‘This Is How You Disappear’. The range was formidable, but the presentation never flashy; on the contrary, the music felt very considered, very personal – and very different. I wanted to hear more.

Actually, the Minneapolis-born, New York-based Taborn had been around for some while; in fact, I already possessed two or three albums by other leaders on which he’d played. But I checked out what was available under his name. First, there were a couple of releases on Thirsty Ear: ‘Light Made Lighter’ (2003), with Chris Lightcap on bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums, and ‘Junk Magic’ (2004) with Mat Maneri on viola, Aaron Stewart on tenor sax, and David King (he of The Bad Plus, whom Taborn has known and played with since high school) on drums. The first album is perhaps the closest to most people’s idea of jazz – you can hear the title track here – while the second, which credits Taborn with piano, keyboards and programming (apparently his parents gave him a Moog synthesizer when he was 12) ranges more widely and loudly: evidence, perhaps, of Taborn’s teenage interest in prog rock, punk, the underground, free jazz, contemporary ‘classical’ music and whatever else came his way. The title track will give you some idea of the album.

Besides these albums on which he was leader, there was also Farmers by Nature, a ‘collective’ in which he plays with the aforementioned Cleaver and bassist William Parker, whose full-on improvisations – which, though briefer, occupy a similar sort of musical landscape to that of The Necks – can be found on ‘Out of This World’s Distortions’ (2011) and ‘Love and Ghosts’ (2014). Inevitably, these are less structured than Taborn’s other recorded outings, but as you can see here, the musicianship is no less impressive.

But it is undoubtedly Taborn’s three ECM releases as leader that are most rewarding. After the solo debut came ‘Chants’ (2013), a trio album with Cleaver still on drums and, on bass, the estimable Thomas Morgan. The variety is considerable – from the driving, fugal ‘Saints’ to the meditative pulse of ‘In Chant’, from the lyrical  ‘Silver Ghosts’ to the funky semi-serialism of Hot Blood’ and the percussively trancelike ‘Speak the Name’ – but it consistently feels of a piece, utterly coherent; Taborn’s creative stamp as composer and musician is always evident, even as he leaves ample room for the other musicians to shine.

taborn-quartet-pic
Craig Taborn with (left to right) Chris Speed, Chris Nightcap and Dave King (photo by Bart Babinski, courtesy of ECM)

And now we have ‘Daylight Ghosts’, a quartet album, which reunites Taborn with Chris Lightcap and Dave King and brings in Chris Speed on tenor sax and clarinet. Again, the compositions – all by Taborn except ‘Jamaican Farewell’, which was written by Roscoe Mitchell (with whom the pianist played back in 1999 when making his first-ever appearance on ECM) – carefully mix written materials with improvisation; though they often develop in unexpected directions (some numbers comprise several distinct thematic blocks), their progress always feels utterly logical. This time, in addition to Speed’s sinewy, velvety, often unexpectedly soft reeds, Taborn has introduced electronics, though of a rather subtler, more seamlessly integrated form than on ‘Junk Magic’. cover-pic

The expert collective improvisation is immediately evident with ‘The Shining One’, a driving opener with pleasingly angular riffs that could not be more different from the subsequent track, ‘Abandoned Reminder’,  a dreamy, seemingly weightless meditation which takes its time before accelerating into a swirling group improv that verges on the free form and keeps shifting tempo; by the time it comes to a close after almost eight minutes, it has embraced a whole host of moods, but never once felt like falling apart. And so it continues, packed with telling details and surprising shifts, veering from the measured lyricism of the title track to the dancing, almost fugal calypso-like swing of ‘New Glory’, the echoing, airy ambience of ‘The Great Silence’ and the poignant pastorale of Mitchell’s ‘Jamaican Farewell’. (You can savour a taste of each track here.) A worthy successor to Taborn’s first two ECM outings, ‘Daylight Ghosts’ is not only deeply satisfying on many levels, but leaves you wondering what he’ll come up with next. Certainly, I’ll be looking forward to finding out.

Craig Taborn will be playing with Ches Smith and Mat Maneri at London’s Vortex on 15 May.

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