Craig Taborn: Rooted

Ian Patterson By

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The more someone is willing to face the possibility of failure, the more one is able to learn how to surmount that...and that's what makes real improvisers, I think - a fortitude.
There is no place for fear or doubt in pianist Craig Taborn's playing—such states are banished from a mind that seeks to explore the musical possibilities of each moment with maximum freedom. Taborn's improvisational playing is a continual creation where the journey is the thing, and words like beautiful, ugly and mistake have virtually no meaning. True improvisers like Taborn, with the ability to take the leap into the unknown, have always been a fairly rare breed.

From early collaborations with James Carter, Taborn has gone on to work in a wide variety of settings, from acoustic trios to electronic and techno. He has played with some of the most innovative musicians around, such as Roscoe Mitchell, Bill Laswell, David Torn, David Binney and Lotte Anker, to name but a handful. In whatever setting he appears, Taborn leaves an indelible mark.

In recent times, Taborn has hooked up with long-time associates and two of the more elemental forces in creative music today—bassist William Parker and drummer Gerald Cleaver. In such empathetic company, Taborn can be heard at his most daring. On Farmers by Nature (AUM, 2009), an hour-long live improvisation of intense trio interplay, the lines of leading and comping are so thoroughly intertwined as to be indistinguishable. It is a collaborative improvisation which stems from a deep musical knowledge and a deeper shared understanding, and it is a music which takes the listener into the eye of the storm.

All About Jazz: Yourself, Gerald Cleaver and William Parker have played a lot together in various settings. It must have seemed very natural to finally make a recording together just the three of you, no?

Craig Taborn: Yeah, absolutely. It was selfishness on my part; I just really wanted to play with those guys. [laughs]

AAJ: How much discussion or preparation did you have before the concert at The Stone which produced the hour of improvisation which came out as Farmers by Nature?

CT: None at all, basically. [laughs]

AAJ: So you just said: "Hey guys, see you at the gig. Don't forget your instrument"?

CT: [laughs] Yeah, that's about it. There was no worry about that. It was exciting to see what would occur, if that makes sense. There was truly no talk about what we were going to do.

AAJ: Was knowing that the gig was being recorded in any way intimidating for you?

CT: No, it wasn't. The recording was just something that Gerald thought to do, and we had John Rosenberg come in and record it, although at the time of the gig the intention wasn't necessarily to make a CD for distribution. It was just to document what we were going to do just because we were excited about playing, so there was no pressure. It wasn't consciously a recording session in that sense. We wanted to get a good document of it.

AAJ: On the subject of documenting gigs, where do you stand on audience bootleg recordings?

CT: Well, I have a complicated relationship to that actually, because I've certainly benefited as a listener and as a musician from hearing a number of bootleg recordings, so from that perspective I don't really have a problem with it. At the same time, there's a certain respect that should be paid to the artist creating the music. Maybe it shouldn't be done without their knowledge, and then if they prefer for any reason not to have it documented then you probably shouldn't.

The financial aspects of it are an issue as well. There was a time when people were really making money off bootlegs. There were guys in Eastern Europe who would bootleg a concert and then make a CD that looked better than an official release, and they were making money, taking all this money off of somebody. That, I'm definitely opposed to. But in terms of people just documenting gigs, I think it's nice when people let you know they're doing it, and it's nice when people ask, and it's nice when they respect an artist when they say: "Hey, you know, I'd rather you not do it."

AAJ: Farmers by Nature is a very democratic-sounding recording, everybody is leading and everybody is supporting all at the same time. Was that a very conscious decision or was it a natural evolution?

CT: I think it's a very natural part of how we play. For my part, as a pianist, there's a tradition of piano trios where the piano is the lead, and I absolutely don't want to do that; it's a little daunting, it's a little tiring and it's much more interesting for me to try and function in an ensemble context with that particular instrumentation. I definitely don't want to be the piano solo voice with a rhythm section behind me, especially with those guys, because they are often generating more interesting information at the time.

For my part, and I think for all of us, we are improvising together and it's largely personalities, so the instrumentation is almost secondary in a way. It was more I played with William and Gerald. The bass, drums and piano was just circumstantial. It's more about the personalities, the musicians; if William had come in with a recorder, we would have played.

AAJ: You know William Parker and Gerald Cleaver very well. Can you tell us what it's like to play with them and what their strengths are as musicians?

CT: The biggest thing for me with both of those guys is that they are so rooted, and what I mean by that is that they truly have a connection to...you know, I hate using the word tradition because it's hackneyed and such a jazz related thing, and it carries a weight I don't mean and it loses a weight that I actually do. I would say that they are both rooted in the essence of what all of that music is about when they play. They both bring the weight of everybody who has played before and all the implications of that, almost in a metaphysical sense. Before anything instrumental, technical or even musical, it's just deep playing with them. They're coming from such a deep place. You can feel the ground, you can feel the connection to everything, and it doesn't feel like they've really had to learn it, or build it up over time. It's just something that's really strong within them. That's what I get out of both of them.

And with that, you just get this wealth of playing experience, that's connected to that. There's so much history that they have with playing music in a variety of contexts and with a lot of different people and that comes out really clearly. The decision making then becomes very effortless. There's an ease in listening and responding without having to force any details.

AAJ: When you guys are playing together, how much of your communication is visual?

CT: I think, very little. When we were recording that, I don't remember anything visual; I don't think I looked. I'm sure there were times I glanced up. And that's not lack of attention. I just think everybody goes inward to go outward, if that makes any sense. We're not a visually cueing type of ensemble. I don't think any of us really play that way. It's much more closed eyes and listening.

It's intensely interactive and there's a lot of communication, but I don't think very much of it is visual; on my part, almost none of it. There's actually a video tape of that gig too, and I've seen it and I'm not looking at anything. [laughs] I don't think anyone is really looking too much. I've played with Gerald for 20 years and with William for 10, and I just don't think any of us is that kind of player.

AAJ: Tell us a little about the choice of title for the CD, Farmers by Nature.

CT: It largely comes from Gerald, so he's a better person to talk to fully about the inspiration. He came up with it and it was agreed upon. I think it's related to what I was talking about before, as literal as it may seem—that rooted connection to essential things and that agricultural bit is part of it. There was an awareness before we got together to play the first time that the strength of the ensemble would be that we'd all approach music that way, from, for lack of a better word, a much earthier place. Essentially, where the music is coming from is that it's organic; it's nurtured from trying to tap into the root essence of ourselves and really pulling from that.

There are other groups I play with where there may be more artifice, not to say that it is totally artificial, but there may be concepts or a different level of design that exists on top of it. This is pretty earthy stuff and it was intended that way, without even talking about it. That's why we wanted to get together and do that ensemble (even though we all played in many groups and some of them with similar instrumentation) you know, as a place to go and fully dwell in that organic, raw state and try to create from that.

AAJ: Subsistence farming, the concept which Gerald Cleaver compared to, is incredibly arduous, back- breaking work. Just how demanding, how draining is sowing and reaping your own improvised musical harvest?

CT: With this particular ensemble, I would say it requires a lot. I mean, I pull a lot out of myself when I play this music. I can say I try to do that all the time. I really go in as far as I can go when I'm playing, and there's a lot of exertion going on. But it isn't exhausting because it's a nourishing musical environment, so I find I tap into endless reservoirs of creativity and vitality, which isn't always the case. In some contexts that I played in I can easily get spent, and it's not like they're bad. I go in and kind of wring it all out, every ounce of it, and then it's gone. And when it's done you're sort of done and you go home and you're exhausted for a while.

But with this, even though I'm wringing so much out of it I don't run out of either energy or ideas. I think that has something to do with the musicians and the context, and the idea of the context, which is that we're tapping into that root source. There's a lot being spent but I tap into a wellspring that never really runs out.

AAJ: The music on Farmers By Nature clocks in at just over an hour, which seems like a long time to continuously improvise. Did you decide to play until you had said all you could, or did you have a time frame in mind and say: "Let's see what we can do in an hour"?

CT: It's a performance. [laughs] How long is a performance? We had an hour or something to play, so it was constrained by that. I don't know if we'd had no specific limit if we would have gone on longer. Saying that, I think that's the amount of time it took that music to be made. We knew it was going to be around an hour but also it just seemed the right amount. We said what we wanted to say in that time, for that evening. I remember when we played it felt: "Okay, we're done now."
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