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.
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