Pianist Craig Taborn doesn't like to make his music too easy to appreciate, an attitude that seems to have only grown in importance. But don't confuse that with the all-too-common desire to be difficult, which tends to manifest itself in out jazz settings, perhaps as an effort to emphasize that such music is art and not entertainment. Taborn's mostly interested in his music having substance (and 2001's Light Made Lighter is as good an example as any). And that's particularly important when production plays a heavy role, as it does with Junk Magic. Overproduced jazztronic records are just too lightweight.
With Junk Magic he has crossed a line where production matters just as much as actual performance, to the extent you can separate the two. Taborn recruited violist Mat Maneri, whose prominent voice rides alongside saxophonist Aaron Stewart's. Just as often as not, their instruments go through a machine before they're spit out on record, but don't be scared. It works.
Taborn's original compositions for this set tend to revolve around simple melodies and vamps which can be repeated, modulated, and developed until they become anthems. At other times they're dark and swirling, as with "Shining Through," where a sharp aroma of free interchange pervades the setting. Both styles reflect Tim Berne's own barely-contained freedom, and yes, Berne and Taborn have been collaborators.
Pianist (and now keyboardist) Matthew Shipp keeps an eye on things at Thirsty Ear's Blue Series imprint, and his own "nu jazz" developed through the imperfect Nu Bop to last year's enormously successful Equilibrium . Shreds of Shipp's work reflected here. Free improvisation, which lies at the roots of this music, rarely recedes from the mix. But the electronics are the key, and Taborn does them right. The main factors are synthesis, processing, and a barely imposed order. In fact, it's often difficult to figure out how much of the beats are machine- versus human-generated. That's a tribute to Bad Plus drummer David King, who seems quite at home in this hybrid environment.
Even despite the burgeoning sound of most of this record, these players pause for contemplation on a regular basis. "Bodies at Rest and In Motion" presents that slightly-distracted sort of reflection, definitely over the line into darkness. It stands in stark contrast to the minute-long old-school beatbox groove that follows and the outright reverberant piece that closes the record. Pay close attention to Mat Maneri's eerie viola parts on "The Golden Age."
This isn't a long record. Clocking in at almost 42 minutes, Junk Magic makes its impact and then fades. Four tracks are beat-laden, four are open to more abstract exploration. The balance is right, the record is good, and Taborn is moving forward. Borders are not barriers. No doubt about that. Stay tuned.
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Personnel: Craig Taborn: piano, keyboards, programming; Mat Maneri: viola; Aaron Stewart: tenor saxophone; David King: drums.