Craig Taborn: Shadow Plays (ECM 2693)

Craig Taborn
Shadow Plays

Craig Taborn piano
Concert recording, March 2, 2020
Wiener Konzerthaus
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Cover photo: Thomas Wunsch
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 8, 2021

Since releasing Avenging Angel, Craig Taborn’s first spontaneous recital for ECM, a decade ago, the pianist’s traversal on the label has brought him to collective enterprises with the likes of Roscoe Mitchell, Thomas Morgan, and Chris Potter. All the while, his language has been as much his own as it has been a force of adaptation to contexts big and small. If that earlier effort can be said to evoke disembodiment, then let Shadow Plays be its embodied other half. From the gestures that open “Bird Templars,” one gets the sense that each of Taborn’s hands is a traveler engaged in a slow-motion contest for a single path ahead. And yet, there is no feeling of animosity—instead, a sense of wonder, especially as the music quiets in the left, allowing the right to offer its soliloquy in the spirit of accompaniment. If it is possible to whisper through a piano, then Taborn has accomplished that here. “Discordia Concors” and “Concordia Discors” both offer frantic searches for meaning balanced by the jauntier rhythms of “Conspiracy Of Things” between them. These pieces find themselves pulled to the keys by a gravitational force they cannot quite escape.

The jazziest inflections await interpretation through “A Code With Spells” and the concluding “Now In Hope,” both of which convey honeyed textures with cinematic sensibilities, each coated by resistance against the storms that have barraged us over the past year and a half. The most epic stretches are reserved for “Shadow Play,” in which chords resuscitate the possibility of harmony. As one of the cleanest concert recordings I’ve heard, it felt like I was the only one in the room: an intimacy we need more of than ever.

(This review originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Craig Taborn/Vadim Neselovskyi: Da’at


The Masada songbook is a gift that keeps on giving. Since Book 1 was introduced to the listening world through a coveted decalogue of CDs released in the 1990s by DIW, John Zorn’s magnum opus has continued to grow. Like the city of Beijing, over the years it has added one ring after another as newer residents flock in search of an indefinable center. In this iteration we find two pianists—Craig Taborn and Vadim Neselovskyi—interpreting tunes in solo and duo configurations.

Taborn’s six unaccompanied tracks tell a range of stories, each more involved than the last. Generally, these fall into two modes, exemplified by the swirling motifs, colorful vistas and deeply personal riffs of “Penimi” and dreamlike patience of “Kayam,” which works into denser and denser weaves, from gossamer to burlap. “Setumah” comes up for air from turgid surroundings with gentle persuasion, proof that this music requires virtuosity of an emotional register as much of a technical one.

Neselovskyi’s triptych of solo offerings explores different chambers of the same heart. His expressive palette, while monochromatic by comparison, is no less dynamic for its range of textures, moods and effects. The fibrillations of “Orot” are especially blood-rich. In duet with Taborn, he unleashes darkness and light in equal measure, guided by a mutual trust to follow wherever the music leads. Theirs is an act not only of communication, but also of deconstruction, whereby the very nature of language cowers at the feet of gestural vocabularies.

The final three tracks feature Neselovskyi’s trio with bassist Dan Loomis and drummer Ronen Itzik. Across reexaminations of “Bohu,” “Kayam” and “Penimi,” they leap from the page with sentient assurance. The rhythm section, in combination with Neselovskyi’s colorful sensibility at the keyboard, makes for one of the most robust flares to come out of the Masada sun in quite some time. Turning these tunes like a facet, we find that each catches the sun just so, a signal for some future interpreter to spin as they feel moved.

(This review originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Craig Taborn: Daylight Ghosts (ECM 2527)

Daylight Ghosts

Craig Taborn
Daylight Ghosts

Craig Taborn piano, electronics
Chris Speed tenor saxophone, clarinet
Chris Lightcap double bass, guitar
Dave King drums, electronic percussion
Recorded May 2016 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Tim Marchiafava
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 3, 2017

In the footsteps of two successful leader dates for ECM, pianist Craig Taborn rolls the die of paradigm once again and hits a solid four with Chris Speed on tenor saxophone and clarinet, Chris Lightcap on bass and guitar, and Dave King on drums and electronic percussion. Opener “The Shining One” is sure to delight fans of label mate Tim Berne, whose penchant for complex geometry is echoed here. Comparison aside, there’s a DNA helix all its own down which these musicians slide toward endings as abrupt as their beginnings. Speed navigates the bandleader’s genetic code as if it were his own back yard, while Lightcap and King engage in sequencing that feels at once parasitic and parthenogenetic.

“Abandoned Reminder” unravels its story from whispering electronics, as Taborn narrates a ballad-turned-trip down a stairway of psychological proportion. Such changes are indicative of an overall constitution, which by suggestion of an unusual fluidity activates proteins in underused listening muscles. The title track and “The Great Silence” are remarkable in this regard. Their enmeshment of soft virtue and hard truth is the quartet’s calling card. Like the arpeggios that thread both in their final phases, they treat predictability as a springboard for its own undoing.

Says Taborn of working with such widely accomplished musicians, “This music trades on transparency. I wanted all the elements to be crystalline, so that the layers of the music work like a prism.” Indeed, prismatic effects abound throughout“New Glory,” in which Taborn and Speed exchange unveiled conversation, and “Ancient.” The latter’s transition from bass monologue to ritual confluence shows a band working with patience and detail. As the parts, so the whole. Whether in the resonant piano-drums duet of “Subtle Living Equations” or the cosmic textures of “Phantom Ratio,” which floats Speed’s tenor on an ocean of nostalgic loops, the effect is consistently appropriate to the theme at hand. And while Taborn’s writing tends to pay homage to those themes at microscopic levels, his nod to Roscoe Mitchell’s “Jamaican Farewell” sees the jewel for the facets, and shines a methodical light of appreciation through a heart whose every beat is musical gospel. This is good news indeed.

Vijay Iyer/Craig Taborn: The Transitory Poems (ECM 2644)

The Transitory Poems

The Transitory Poems

Vijay Iyer piano
Craig Taborn piano
Recorded live March 12, 2018
at the concert hall of the Franz Liszt Academy of Music, Budapest
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 15, 2019

The duo of pianists Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn, documented on this March 2018 live recording at Budapest’s Franz Liszt Academy of Music, came out of an involvement in Roscoe Mitchell’s Note Factory. In that context they balanced prewritten knotwork with improvisational unraveling and acted as likeminded catalysts for spontaneous composition.

The opening “Life Line (Seven Tensions)” bears an appropriate subtitle, which, by gentle force of suggestion, allows one to imagine the physiological give and take required to bring this music to fruition. Interplays between passages of both intense abstraction and synchronicity feel as much indicative of where Iyer and Taborn came from as where they are going. With actorly sense of space they mold the stage as inspirational substance. They move as if stationary, posing as if never settling for one meaning.

Iyer Taborn
(Photo credit: Monica Jane Frisell)

Although subsequent tracks have their distinctions, as a whole they form an album of immense coherence. This didn’t stop the musicians from hearing much of what they rendered as impromptu panegyrics for legends lost that same year. “Sensorium,” for Jack Whitten, evokes the artist’s complex inner worlds and fractal obsessions; “Clear Monolith,” for Muhal Richard Abrams, allows light to pass through its latticed notes; and “Luminous Brew,” for Cecil Taylor, boils highs and lows over a campfire until their ingredients are indistinguishable. But nowhere is the feeling of dedication so palpable as in Geri Allen’s “When Kabuya Dances,” which crystallizes themes hinted at in a preceding improvisation and leaves listeners suspended far above where they started.

Beyond assertions of technical skill, Iyer and Taborn are purveyors of the metaphysical, listening more than making. Whether in sporadic (“Kairòs”) or rhythmically-driven (“Shake Down”) dialects, they speak in a supremely translatable language. This, if anything, is what makes these transitory poems more than freely made: rather, they’re made free.

(This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available for download here.)

Craig Taborn Trio: Chants (ECM 2326)


Craig Taborn Trio

Craig Taborn piano
Thomas Morgan double bass
Gerald Cleaver drums
Recorded June 2012 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant engineer: Charlie Kramsky
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The Craig Taborn Trio is a metronome with a soul. For its debut release, Chants, the pianist’s fearless group carves a niche and fills it with so much creative spirit that no one but the listener can squeeze in for a spell. The album defines a repertoire, extracting from one of the most enviable rhythm sections in the business an elixir for surefire engagement. Bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Gerald Cleaver know what Taborn is all about. They are never add-ons but are fully immersed atoms in his molecular goings on, nearly a decade in the forming. And if the syncopation of “Saints” is any indication, theirs is an aliveness of unity rare to hear. As in so many of the tracks that follow, there is a winding, slightly off-kilter feeling to its jaggedness. Taborn and Cleaver leave an especially consonant series of markings at the outset, each the half of a poker deck perfectly Farrowed to the tune of Morgan’s deal. The bassist works alone “In Chant,” enacting no mere solo per se but a living tendon between wholes. In those wholes contrasts abound. “Beat The Ground” evokes the blurred foliage of a running warrior’s peripheral vision. His weapons trickle down from the sky in care packages of godly insight, inspiring pulse-driven spirals into resonant fade. The feeling of resolution is as visceral as it is fragile. “Hot Blood,” on the other hand, is as cool as can be. It opens a city’s worth of brainwashed minds and, while flurried, keeps its inner flame in smooth focus.

Taborn Trio

From the tectonic instability of its intro, “All True Night / Future Perfect” congeals like so much stardust. Its evolving Spirograph is toothed with miniscule variations, which though unapparent to the naked eye scream to the naked ear. Like a dislocated joint these connections remain encased in the body proper, hanging in lieu of locomotion. “Cracking Hearts” opens with a scattering of cobwebs from Cleaver before the trio rummages through everything in its attic, upturning memories that were never theirs to begin with yet which ring familiarly. More important than artifacts are the “Silver Ghosts” who haunt the rafters. Theirs is a ponderous song, an ephemeral dotted line of footprints in the dark, conducted by the wings of a trapped and frightened bat. “Silver Days Or Love” clears out the windows, drawing pointillist glyphs by Taborn’s right hand over a steady imprinting of chords from his left. A strangely enchanting bass solo, host to a network of internal gatherings, gives soil to Taborn’s sprigs of blossom. Only when they “Speak The Name” do clouds begin to open their pores to the firmament’s pale blue love.

While the music of Chants is certainly profound, it is, more simply, found. It is as if it had been wandering for countless years in the corners of our minds, each motif a determined mouse waiting for just the right cheese to tantalize its palate. Taborn never lets the intensity of this indulgence overwhelm. He knows just when to turn down the dial, lest the circuit break and leave us altogether unreceptive to signals. His brilliance is all in the music. Rather than go from A to B, he is content going from Q to R, clothing himself in the orbits of another planetary system that operates by its own gravitational and chemical rules. The chant, then, becomes a de-normalizing impulse, a light in the telescope that renders us in our darkest hour strangers even to ourselves.

There is glory and praise in these movements, sacrifice and self-reflection, pockets of expectation filled to bursting with illusions. As in the surgical discoveries of Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin, geometry is paramount, the lifeblood of all orbit. If the Keith Jarrett Trio revitalized the standard, Taborn and his allies have set one.

(To hear samples of Chants, click here, or watch the promo video below.)

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.

(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.)