Craig Taborn has distinguished himself through his work, some of it nothing short of groundbreaking, with some of the most important musicians in New York's "Downtown" scene. His contributions during parallel careers with Mat Maneri, Drew Gress, Marty Ehrlich, Gerald Cleaver, Dave Douglas' Witness project, and Tim Berne's Hard Cell and Science Friction Units, has been thrillingly spontaneous yet organic, accomplished yet somehow ephemeral. Craig possesses that trait so valued by listeners and leaders alike (and sometimes not, by the less self-assured of them) throughout the history of the music; that is, they find themselves pointing their ears towards him throughout recordings and performances to find out what remarkable phrase, color, texture or idea he's going to come up with- invent even- next.
One of the fruits of his labors has been recognition by the forward- hearing ears of one Matthew Shipp, curator of Thirsty Ear's Blue Series, who facilitated the recording and release of Craig's cutting-edge acoustic piano trio project, Light Made Lighter in 2001, to critical acclaim across the spectrum of the jazz community. Craig's knack for multi-level, textural thinking, both in composition and execution, reveals itself to the listener in acoustic, electric and electronic settings and should continue to place him at the very center of modern jazz reinvention for many years to come.
Our recent conversation caught him just prior to taking to the road for a European tour with drummer Susie Ibarra's trio. It also catches him on the initial thrust of his creative effort towards his next offering for your Thirsty Ears; an electric record, which, if his past efforts in the genre are any remote indication, should go a long way towards propelling Craig's intensifying star into a new orbit.
All About Jazz: So you're from Minneapolis originally, and started playing quite young?
Craig Taborn: Not that young, really. When I was about twelve.
AAJ: Pretty serious pretty fast?
CT: Well, in terms of improvising and playing jazz, I knew I was interested in doing that.
AAJ: I read you started off playing electronic keyboards and acoustic piano at the same time.
CT: Yeah. My parents got me a Moog, sort of right away as a Christmas present. So I was exploring that.
AAJ: I was interested to read you grew up with Reid Anderson and Dave King .
CT: Yeah, we were from the same neighborhood
AAJ: I am a fan of yourself, Happy Apple , The Bad Plus and Reid Anderson's recording The Vastness of Space and was surprised to find out you all came up in Minneapolis. You must have had a good jazz program in the schools or something was going on with the water there.
CT: It definitely wasn't a jazz program. I don't think any of us...there was no institutional thing, we just all kinda got into music at the same time. That's sort of how we knew each other. It was more because we were all playing. We would have been at the same high school, but I went to a private school. Dave went to an arts track at this other public high school. It was the same social scene effectively.
AAJ: Well, not to belabor the connection but you have such a unique playing and composing style and Dave's thing is so slamming and so different and Reid is such a great new composer- it's just amazing the sort of common lack of influences you guys display if you ask me. You're all just really new voices.
CT: That's nice to hear. I think coming up where we did and how we did and having the influence of each other was a piece of that, just because we all listened to a lot of different sorts of musics. We didn't have the concept of a specific scene or a specific place we were trying to fit into. We were making it up as we went along in terms of what even playing music was or improvising or anything. We all went different ways during the college years but we all kinda went with that and all came out sort of different. Definitely, individualism was part of the concept - finding your own way to do certain things.
AAJ: After that I read you landed at UMichigan and almost immediately hooked up with Gerald Cleaver, right?
CT: Yeah he is one of the first people I met there.
AAJ: I thought Gerald's record was one of the best of last year, and just a total all-star team there. The way you guys are hearing each other-the listener can hear you hearing each other. It seems like there's so much time between the notes and you're all interacting with each other just so full-on.
AAJ: Let's talk about that transition to UMichigan.
CT: I was looking for somewhere with a music program, even though I ended up not availing myself of the program there. My original idea was to go into a liberal arts thing and eventually get into a composition program but I never did. I went to Ann Arbor because there was some interesting stuff going on there, especially with the composition faculty, and it was close to Detroit, and that was always my goal, to have someplace where I could have some access to a jazz community, in an urban sense, and also study.
AAJ: Is there someone there who is really well known for composition?
CT:At the time they had William Bolcom and William Albright . Big prize-winning contemporary composers were around there then. That was a big draw for me.
AAJ: We're talking contemporary classical then.
CT: Yeah. Pulitzer prize winners. Pretty big names but pretty contemporary. They're still relatively young composers.
AAJ: So you had a classical interest.
CT: Yes. At the time I wanted to do a classical composition kind of thing, or just my own compositional thing, but it definitely had that type of information in it. But I just ended up exploring that kind of stuff aside from academia. I met Gerald really quickly, my first week there, trying out for the jazz ensemble so...he actually got me my first gigs.
AAJ: You guys are the same age?
CT: Actually he's a bit older than I am. I'm 32. Just because of the Detroit thing, the first gig I did-Gerald got me on a gig with James Carter and either Jaribu Shahid or Rodney Whittaker on bass-this was at a time when a lot of these people hadn't left Detroit and moved to New York. It was right when James moved to New York, in fact. So there were a lot of those people, of that age group, who were great players. Many of them are in New York now, but were still in Detroit then.
AAJ:: Everybody still has to move to New York, huh?
CT: Not everybody. Not Happy Apple. I don't think you have to actually. It can help or hurt. I know a lot of players who don't, and it's less of an imperative now. A lot of European players are staying put. I just happen to play with a lot of musicians who don't live in New York. To get on the map on a certain sense you do, but less and less so.
AAJ: Yeah, Columbia just picked up the Bad Plus , a Minneapolis band, with Dave, Reid and Ethan Iverson. Speaking of which, they put their first cd out on Fresh Sounds and you're on a new Fresh Sounds piece.
CT: I'm on the new Elvind Opsvik disc. I didn't even know him. It's called Overseas. Jacob Sacks is another pianist from southeast Michigan, a great player who is on the cd. Both Gerald and Tony (Malaby) were involved, so... Eivind just called me and had this idea for me playing organ on there. When I heard who was involved I said, "Sure, great..let's do it." That one came together that way. On Fresh Sounds, I'm also on Gerald's record. Chris Lightcap has two discs on Fresh Sounds as well. I'm not on his.
AAJ: But he's on yours.
CT: He's on the Light made Lighter disc, with Gerald. My trio has also included Reid in the past.
AAJ: I noticed that Jazztimes called Light Made Lighter a "Jazztronica" release in its latest issue on the jazz/electronica crossover thing. A bit of a mistake there, considering it's a great acoustic piano trio disc!
CT: Yeah, I have no idea-whatever. Maybe there's confusion because the record I'm working on now is electronic.
AAJ: Well, that's exciting. That should be killing.
CT: We'll see, but it's completely in progress. I'm writing and getting it together. I don't want to say too much but definitely Gerald's on it, and I wouldn't want to list anybody else until I've approached everybody and confirmed it all.
AAJ: Thirsty Ear is nicely changing up the musical map a bit. Do they kind of tell you what to do or anything?
CT: No, not at all. It's pretty hands off. I think they probably have some ideas about what they think will happen, but it doesn't really translate into specifics. I've never had them tell me anything to do. It's more curatorial than it is conceptual.
AAJ: Yes. They always make a point of saying Shipp is the "curator" of the series.
CT: He's the one who wanted me to do something for Thirsty Ear.
AAJ: But he doesn't at all suggest what that might be?
CT: Not really. In the loosest of terms they sort of have a broad concept of what they're looking for. When they approached me for my record he had the idea that I would maybe do a piano trio. He maybe had the idea of Gerald , but I don't know if he knew I even knew Gerald, who was in my band anyway. It just so happened that Gerald was playing with Matthew Shipp, also in Roscoe Mitchell's band. All of us were in Roscoe's band-called the Note Factory- Gerald, Matt Shipp and myself. There's a record on ECM called Nine to Get Ready , also with Hugh Ragin, William Parker Jaribu Shahid, George Lewis (note: the MacArthur genius grant-winning George Lewis), and Tanni Tabbal (drums). There's a newer one on PI Records, with Vijay Iyer instead of Matt Shipp. But that's where we originally met-there's two pianos in that group.
AAJ: Was that out of Detroit connections?
CT: Roscoe has long had the Sound Ensemble and other things, with a Detroit affiliation including Gerald, Tanni and Jaribu, as well as Spencer Barefield. Roscoe's from Chicago, but his Ensemble tours have had these Detroit personnel in them. Connie and Jaribu and Gerald are all in New York now. Remember, Tanni, Jaribu and myself are James Carter's rhythm section from the first three records. They also were Roscoe's rhythm section. So it was largely through them that Roscoe became aware of my playing.
AAJ: At any time in Roscoe's band did you do electric keyboards?
CT: No that's all acoustic
AAJ: Well, later in Carter's band you killed it with some of that B-3 stuff.
CT: Oh yeah. I see why you'd ask.
AAJ: I was surprised you've intimated you don't really consider yourself a B-3 player.
CT: Oh no. Not that way. I guess now I can say it because I've played it on records and done tours - by the way I'm playing Hammond on that new Elvind record. But before James I never played it, and I am not one of those organ guys, like Medeski. Like the whole cult or the whole ethos of the organ jazz person-I'm definitely not that and I didn't come up with that. It's sort of an approach to an instrument and I'm not from that and would never claim that. So I don't do bass pedals, but beyond that I addressed a lot of things in terms of trying to figure out how to do that organ thing. Not only is there a tradition of doing that, but a deeper tradition of coming out of the church and having that organ stuff, and that's a completely other universe-there's a lot to grapple with there that I have no experience with.
AAJ: You did some dates with Jef Lee Johnson with the electric band, right? I interviewed him recently-he's an amazing cat.
CT: He's the greatest guitarist in the world.
AAJ: That covers it. So is your first recorded performance with Roscoe or James?
CT: No, definitely with James.
AAJ: When was that Innerzone Orchestra thing released?
CT: That was later, '99, with Carl Craig, the big Detroit techno dude. Another Detroit thing.
AAJ: So you were physically in Detroit until then?
CT: No. I was in New York by then. I moved there in about 1995. I was in the Ann Arbor/Detroit areas in the early 1990s. The Detroit time period gets murky, in terms of giving you the order of things. I played with Marcus Belgrave, Wendell Harrison. During that period it was pretty well divided, as it's been all along between acoustic and electric work. The electric stuff isn't really documented until later. There's a group I had with Gerald ..we played a lot of electric, improvised music in the early 90s. In and around Ann Arbor we were pretty well-known. We were called the Tracey Science Quartet. That started in '89-'90. I played synthesizer, mostly in that group.
AAJ: Did you play Rhodes then, as well? I'd go so far as to say your Rhodes work is groundbreaking.
CT: Oh, thank you. I cut my teeth on Rhodes because I always had one, from age 12 or 13.