Craig Taborn: Avenging Angel (ECM 2207)

Avenging Angel

Craig Taborn
Avenging Angel

Craig Taborn piano
Recorded July 2010, Auditorio Radiotelevisione Svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Avenging Angel marks Craig Taborn’s solo debut, this after a string of fine appearances on joints with Roscoe Mitchell, Evan Parker, Michael Formanek, and David Torn. Being an ardent Bill Laswell fan, however, my first encounter with the Minneapolis-born keyboardist came by way of his smooth electric piano stylings on Dub Chamber 3 (released 2000 on ROIR). Incidentally, that classic underground session also featured future ECM label mate Nils Petter Molvær on trumpet—perhaps a sign of things to come. The present album finds Taborn concentrating, as he has been in recent years, on the art of unaccompanied improvisation. The formula will sound familiar to anyone who has picked up a Keith Jarrett record in the last three decades, but the results, while likeminded, are starkly Taborn’s own. For whereas it is easy to read transcendence into Jarrett’s epic exegeses, Taborn wants us to dive into his instrument and nest in it for awhile. In his words, “This music is not about ‘transcending the piano’ as much as it is about working with what is possible within it.” Thus taking the dynamics of physical means, environment, and atmospheric context into account, he crafts a sound that appears structured yet which allows centuries of air to flow through its architecture.

Taborn
(Photo source: flickriver)

Like a tap on the shoulder from a shaded past, “The Broad Day King” introduces us to a watercolor-bleed of feeling. The effect is skeletal and tented by fingers of dawn. We can guess said king’s name. The music might even tell us. But ultimately his identity can be written only by hammers and strings, his reign as fragile as their tuning. If such titles mean anything to us, it is only because the Escherian landscape in which they are situated is so faithfully rendered. In the spontaneity of creation, Taborn locks us into the spirit not only of the elusive moment, but also of the many directions its ancestors have traveled to get here. We hear this in the sparkling eddies of “Glossolalia” and “Neverland,” and in child-like wonder of “Diamond Turning Dream,” which spins a bracelet of the former’s starlight.

This album is yet another benchmark for engineer Stefano Amerio, who posits Taborn’s intimate storytelling in a reverberant universe. The touch is just enough to spin an expansive backdrop while keeping the foreground crystal clear. This is truest in the title track, which dances uncannily at the edge of our firelight, and in “This Voice Says So.” The latter plays like a lullaby stretched into the slumbering pathos it inspires, making for one of the most beautiful tracks in ECM history. It is the illusion of stillness magnified, a glassine reflection, and all the deeper for its minimalism. And though Taborn does stir up the sediment, he is careful to end on the same delicacy with which the piece begins, ever attentive to the space(s) he inhabits. “True Life Near” is an example of the pianist’s uncanny ability to elicit tenderness from the often-sharp attack of his right hand. If any Jarrett parallels must be drawn, let them find purchase on this morsel of cinematic wonder. “Gift Horse / Over The Water” is a jauntier diptych with tight, 90-degree syncopations, and detailed riffs over a head-nodding ostinato. Its mechanical aspirations are more fully realized in “A Difficult Thing Said Simply,” while the bubbling “Spirit Hard Knock” exploits even more the capabilities of the studio’s Steinway D in epic waves. “Neither-Nor” is, as its title would seem to imply, the most “grammatical” of the set and has the quality of rainfall. Another highlight is “Forgetful,” a lost jazz standard trickling in from the other side of a dream, and which takes on some of the grandeur of that dream in its mellifluous resolution. “This Is How You Disappear” is a clever way to both say and realize fadeout. Drawing the curtain one fold at a time, until all that remains is the cover photograph’s sliver of backstage light, Taborn sets off a tender fuse with his finger roll, even as stars crash earthward, leaving only splashes of faraway nebulae to show for their sacrifice.

No matter how out of focus these images become, you can always count on Taborn to leave at least one focal point crisp. The focal point is paramount, for it invites us not only to listen but also to become. It is our hovel of transformation. As to what the listener might turn into, that’s as unpredictable as the paths his fingers take. If this angel avenges anything, it is the bane of expectation.

(To hear samples of Avenging Angel, click here.)

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