Craig Taborn and his multiple motion

Giuseppe Segala By

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The tradition I come from is one of innovation of established approaches.
Craig Taborn is among the most creative musicians on today's scene. His music is shaped by a deep intellectual curiosity towards a wide range of artistic forms and sources of knowledge. His technical, stylistic, emotional and mental versatility have allowed him to collaborate with a large range of recognized masters in diverse styles of contemporary jazz.

Despite such diversity and versatility, Taborn has a distinctive, recognizable and focused approach. His piano style, especially evident on the solo album Avenging Angel (2011, ECM), is based on a prodigious polyrhythmic intricacy as well as on counterpoints which are at times dense and at other times delicate and expansive. One can hear echoes of Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra coming out of the creases of his playing. On Daylight Ghosts, his most recent album, Taborn displays a striking capacity to write compositions for his quartet which leave room for endless surprises delivered through a flurry of ostinatos, counterpoints and unisons, amidst highly organized structures.

All About Jazz: Why did you decide to pursue a music career and how did piano and keyboards become your instruments of choice?

Craig Taborn: The instrument choice came long before the career choice. There was always a piano in my house. My father, a psychologist and college professor by trade, would play it in the evenings for his own enjoyment. He played blues and jazz by ear. At some point, when I was more or less eleven years old, I wanted to learn some things he was playing and he showed me how to play them. After that, I began practicing in earnest, soon starting proper piano lessons. As far as electronics are concerned, a little later, when I was twelve years old, I asked for a synthesizer and my parents bought me a Moog synth for Christmas. So I also also explored electronics quite early.

I quickly took to music and played in many bands, eventually playing piano in lounges when I was 17 or so, but I did not decide making music a career until later when I was in college and the number of gigs I was doing began to interfere with my studies. At that point I realized that i was already a working musician and decided to continue down that path.

AAJ: What were the most formative moments and epiphanies during your music education?

CT: There were many. A major one was seeing the band Last Exit with Bill Laswell, Sonny Sharrock, Peter Brötzmann, and Ronald Shannon Jackson. I was 15 years old and I was trying to understand the complexity of artists like Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton. Listening to their recordings was both intriguing and challenging. But then I saw that Last Exit concert and their sound and weight was truly shocking. I returned home feeling overwhelmed. After that experience, the same Cecil Taylor recording I had been listening to with so much difficulty sounded more clear and calm to me. I could finally understand and hear its subtleties. It felt almost like, all of a sudden, I was listening to a cool jazz album. So that experience really taught me that any boundary which limits our perceptions and enjoyment can be moved and expanded.

AAJ: You grew up in Minneapolis, a city with an under-appreciated yet vibrant scene, with many significant jazz players. How did that influence your musical upbringing? Is there anything distinctively "Minneapolis" about your playing?

CT: It is difficult to say. The Minneapolis music scene was rich but mostly because of its openness to music from out of town. Minneapolis gives a lot of support for the arts and this makes it possible to see a love of music acts from New York and other places. So i would say that much of my influences were actually from New York. In Minnesota, however, musicians create their own "dialect" out of a lot of influences, which we blend in an original way as we are largely free from any notion of what the influences should mean. So you see a lot of cross-genre music. Prince, for instance, always included Funk, RnB, Rock, New Wave, Folk etc in his music. He mixed it freely and moved from one to the other. You can see that same approach in The Bad Plus, and many other Minnesota artists. I think that kind of eclecticism is very much a part of what happens there.

AAJ: This eclectism is evident also in your music, thanks to a well-developed amalgamation of genres spanning from Jazz to Classical, from Rock to Contemporary, all the way to the more modern Electronica, Metal, Punk, Underground and Noise musics. How do you manage to synthesize such seemingly-distant influences so naturally? How do you prevent this process from creating just an updated form of "Fusion"?

CT: The influence of these kinds of music is organic. I am not trying to combine them in any pre-established way. What I play is the result of allowing what you listen to influence what you create. So i just respond to my creative inclinations. The integration of "style" happens internally, subconsciously. "Fusions" seem to come from consciously trying to combine a number of styles to create music that is supposed to sound in a pre-determined way. I am not thinking that way at all. What comes to me is just ideas, the influences they derive from are not as clear to me.

AAJ: How did you approach your interest for these more energetic genres when preparing your projects for ECM and what was Manfred Eicher's response in this regard?

CT: I focus on the the sound and on what can work with that sound and how. To a certain extent, I am aware of a different approach to sound when working with Manfred, but for me that is the natural consequence of working collaboratively with him. So, as much as i would work differently with different drummers depending on how they sound, I am aware of Manfred's aesthetic point of view and how it marries with the sound of the project. Ultimately it boils down to a matter of musical sensitivity aimed at understanding how these things may be implemented. In the case of these "more energetic" genres it is a matter of understanding how far and effectively that energy can be translated in a recorded context, and how it might need to be changed to that end.

AAJ: How do tradition and innovation interact in your musical process?

CT: Tradition and innovation are two aspects of the same process. The tradition I come from is one of innovation of established approaches. As a result, you cannot be a traditional Jazz musician without somehow innovating the resources that you inherit. And, by the same token, you cannot really be an innovator if you have nothing upon which to innovate. So I find that both things are essential for my music making.

AAJ: In your more recent albums, especially in the solo record Avenging Angel and the most recent album Daylight Ghosts featuring your quartet, the relationship between written and improvised parts is tight and in continuous evolution. How do you integrate these two aspects?

CT: Composing for improvisers is a process of creating information and structures that invite improvisation. The written material has to leave enough space for what is still unstated or undetermined, so that there is room for improvising. Conversely, it is equally important that improvisation alters the written material. If you have the possibility for improvising to change how the written things are interpreted and you have musicians savvy enough to work with the written material in their improvisations then the two approaches will work well together.

AAJ: As a follow up question: what do improvisation (both solo improvisation and collective improvisation) and composition represent for you?

CT: Well, they are just two aspects of the same process. With improvisation you are composing at the same time as you're performing, so you lose the possibility for revisions. At the same time you gain the possibility of experiencing the space you're performing in, an aspect that can shape the music in a way you cannot know when you are composing in a room you know. So each aspect has its own advantages. In the ultimate process of making music I use whichever one will yield the most interesting result.

AAJ: If you were to define your position in the musical spectrum of today, would you find the "jazz" label to be limiting?

CT: Well it is not so much limiting as possibly incomplete. However, there are so many definitions of "Jazz" that I am usually not concerned with naming things. I consider Jazz a lineage and a process more than a style or specific state of music. So am happy to call what i do Jazz. That aligns with an identity and tradition that is close to me and most accurately represents my approach. But I do not think that it conditions how it sounds. For other people saying Jazz may create the need for it to sound a certain way but that is a different story. So the limitation is not in the term but in a person's own aesthetics. Music is music aside from any labels and I certainly am never thinking whether what i am making at any given moment is Jazz or not. I am more concerned with whether what I play sounds cool.

AAJ: You have had formative collaborations with many prominent masters. Can you tell us about your work with Roscoe Mitchell and to what degree has the AACM school influenced your music?

CT: I have listened to the music of many AACM composers since i was 12 or 13. The liner notes and graphics of some Anthony Braxton recordings really fired up my imagination and changed how I thought about what music could be. Therefore, I count the music made by many of the artists in the AACM among my primary influences. I started working with Roscoe Mitchell 20 years ago and it was one of the most important associations in my life. I learned and continue to learn so much from his example and approach. And this influence has had an effect on everything I have done since, regardless of "genre."

AAJ: You have been also influenced by personalities with whom you have not collaborated. Can you tell us about Cecil Taylor's influence? And Sun Ra's?

CT: Cecil Taylor was an early and constant influence and really changed or expanded what i thought of as possible on the piano. He made me realize how the piano could function in any context. Sun Ra's example across the history of music and in so many contexts (electronic music, composition, improvisation, band leading, mythos, connection to old masters, etc.) is so pervasive that I am not sure why he is not counted alongside Duke Ellington as one the enduring Masters of this music. Consistency and longevity are evidence of the strength of his conception.

AAJ: It seems that your approach to the piano is strongly characterized by a form of "spontaneous counterpoint." In your work with Tim Berne, for instance, this becomes particularly evident in the connection between your piano and Tom Rainey's drumming. Can you tell us more about this aspect of your playing?

CT: I have always had an interest in counterpoint-or, to be more precisce, in "multiple motion." I like the idea of distinct musical identities operating in the same musical field. This can be melodic, rhythmic or timbral but I like to identify separate elements and work with them. So with Tim Berne's Hard Cell, for instance, I was always interested in exploiting this possibility as much as possible, even though there were only three instruments in that band. I used the electronics, and later the piano, alongside Tom's gift for and awareness of rhythmic complexity, to try to see how far we could go in terms of evolving a multiplicity of musical identities in those improvisations. And this extended very much from the way Tim Berne was composing for that group-which often had 3 or 4 parts in the writing.

AAJ: Gerald Cleaver, Tyshawn Sorey, Dave King and Ches Smith are some of the other prominent drummers with whom you have been playing on a regular basis. What do you seek in a drummer? How do you approach playing with drummers of such diverse styles?

CT: It is essential for me that a drummer is fluent in many approaches but also cognizant of the musical context and able to engage creatively in any environment. One thing that stands out about the drummers you mentioned is the fact that, while they are all fantastic and totally unique drummers, they are also primarily composers and bandleaders. Each of them has his own music and projects. They are not "just sidemen drummers." I think this is essential. They have a creative point of view and apply themselves to music primarily as composers, their choices come from the angle of a composer not a drummer. Dan Weiss and many others would have to be added to that list as well!

AAJ: A fundamental drummer you have played with is Paul Motian. Can you tell us about working with his unique style?

CT: Paul is one of the most influential drummers of all times. His approach, which is informed by the essence of the music-melody and sound-was truly revolutionary. Playing with him was another deep learning experience. At those gigs you find your approach to everything you do altered by the experience, no matter how specific it is. Paul was like that for me.

AAJ: How do you write music that successfully integrates keyboards and guitar, something that you've successfully achieved for instance with Marc Ducret on Tim Berne's Science Friction or with David Torn on his album Prezens?

CT: For those projects i did not write any music-Science Friction is Tim's music and Prezens is group music "composed upon" by David Torn. But to answer your question i think that the integration of electronics and guitar is something that comes from engaging with and understanding sound. Most guitarists are heavily involved with their tone and sound and they make music from that place. So, when playing with guitar players, understanding their sound is more important than the notes that are being played. Both Marc Ducret and David Torn are coming from an advanced sonic space anyway, so when you play with them you're with two sound designers more than two guitarists.

AAJ: What are the genres that trigger your musical curiousity today? What music do you listen to these days?

CT: Truly all genres are inspiring. A list of artists would not be long enough and to pick a few would not accurately characterize my listening. For the sake of offering you something, the last recordings that I purchased—and yes i still buy music! -were by Chrome, George Russell, The Lemon Twigs, Shostakovich, Damon Bell, Jute Gyte, and older Abbey Lincoln.

AAJ: You've studied literature and you have a strong interest for visual arts. To what degree do you draw inspiration from these art-forms?

CT: Completely. I find continual influence from all kinds of creative people and also from science.

AAJ: What are your next projects?

CT: Working on an electronic project, some more solo piano things, and a newer smaller "chamber" project.

Photo credit: Roberto Cifarelli.

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