Taylor Eigsti: Prodigy Taking Jazz World by Storm

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My dream is to help people, especially the ones under twenty-five, see jazz in a different light.
Listening to the opening moments of Resonance, the Bop City debut of piano whirlwind Taylor Eigsti, is scary enough—those incendiary octaves that ignite "Got a Match" into a post-bop firestorm.

Imagine, though, what it was like to experience this intensity first-hand when this surreally gifted player, all of ten or eleven years old, blew me off the bandstand.

I remember Eigsti as an amiable kid, dark-haired and smiling, as a friend introduced us and asked if he could sit in. Getting up from the bench, I let him slide into place, raise his hands and from that point on, admittedly, things are a bit of a blur. But I definitely remember looking at this dynamo and knowing that the jazz piano world had no idea what it was in for.

You might say the same even now, for Taylor Eigsti (pronounced Ikes-dee) is still, at least by some standards, a kid, and still a nice guy who likes to do guy-type things. By day he mills through mobs of fellow freshmen at the University of Southern California; although he's a jazz studies major, he admits that his jones for football may have helped lure him toward Trojan country. "Football is my second love," he says, maybe a little embarrassed. "I've always had that dream of playing college ball, or even in the NFL."

He's got a girlfriend, he's got buddies he hangs out with, his grades are solid. He's a normal person for his age, in all ways but one.

He is, already, one of the most exciting jazz pianists on the planet. Not young jazz pianists—we're talking about the whole tribe. Lick for lick, voicing to voicing, Eigsti can stand up to and trade fours with just about anyone alive at the ivories.

The evidence is all over Resonance, on which Taylor, bassist John Shifflett, and drummer Jason Lewis whisper, stroll, strut, and blow through a set of familiar and original tunes. Each arrangement leaves plenty of room to stretch; as a result, all three hit extraordinary levels of interplay. Whether tearing it up on "Oleo," building intricate harmonic reflections on "Somewhere," or taking a fresh look at "Angel Eyes" through a prism of 7/4 rhythm, this trio makes it clear that, to quote Mercer Ellington, "Things Ain't What They Used To Be."

...which, by the way, is also on the album, served with a damped-string opening, glassy pedaling, saucy slow swing, and a spoonful of greasy blues. Tasty stuff.

It's enough to leave listeners shaking their heads, as I did that night eight years ago on the bandstand in Palo Alto, wondering, "Who is this person?" Glad you asked ...

Taylor Eigsti was raised in Menlo Park, half an hour south of San Francisco, the son of musical parents. Their influence, from his first experiences with music to now, was deep and enduring. "They did a great job of letting me figure out what my passion was on my own," he says, "and then helping me to develop it without forcing me into anything. That's one big reason why I have such a balanced life now—the way my parents encouraged me as I grew up."

It was his older sister Shannon, though, who inspired him to play. She was fourteen when Taylor was born, and already showing enormous potential. When she died, just three years later, Taylor soon resolved to start taking piano lessons himself. He was, at the time, four years old.

From the start, jazz spoke to him as no other music could. "I liked the excitement in it," he explains. "You can express yourself in any genre of music, but this is the only one where everything is spontaneous. I would listen to people playing it and realize that they were making up their stories on the spot. That was really awesome to me, because there are so many different stories out there."

At first, the musicians whose stories he could hear were contemporary: Spyro Gyra, Fattburger. All that changed when he first heard Art Tatum. This blew the door off the hinges, and Eigsti began to devour the catalog of mainstream jazz pianists—Oscar Peterson, Phineas Newborne, Gene Harris, younger acolytes like Benny Green—and the musicians who played with them.

He also started taking jazz instruction. After two years of traditional lessons, Taylor started studying with Randy Masters, a celebrated Bay Area trumpeter, composer, arranger, and instructor, whose working credits range from Tito Puente to Lou Harrison. Soon he was taking classical lessons as well, from Cole Dalton, once a week all the way through high school. By age eight he had advanced sufficiently to play his first professional gig, opening at Sunset Gardens in Menlo Park for David Benoit. "That's back when I was trying to dress and act like David too," he laughs. "It was the start of a great friendship."


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