In addition to his eighty-plus appearances as a sideman, pianist Craig Taborn
has during the last six years found a happy home for his own music on the ECM label, where he's been able to establish a formidable body of work in just a few recordings. It makes sense, really, that after his solo record Avenging Angel
(2011) and trio outing Chants
(2013), he is now working with a quartet. An expanded group gives him more tools to work with, essentially. And this is a very good thing, since this release represents a definite breakthrough in Taborn's maturity as a composer. It's also the fullest realization yet of his talent as a leader, and it's a tremendous achievement, one certain to find its way onto a lot of Best-of-2017 lists (and yes, it's only February).
Taborn has assembled a stellar lineup here, with guys he's worked with extensively: Chris Speed
on tenor sax and clarinet, Chris Lightcap
on bass, and Dave King
on drums. They are all prodigious instrumentalists in their own right, and their individual résumés are themselves impressive. But under Taborn's guidance they are able and willing to subordinate their talents to the group concept itself, and this is crucial, as this record is first and foremost about the richness of the music, rather than a showcase for the players' technical feats. On these nine, expertly-crafted pieces, we are reminded once again of the power of collective music-making, where ego takes a back seat to a larger musical endeavor.
Some of the pieces, like the album's spirited opening cuts, "The Shining One" and "Abandoned Reminder," are built around thorny melodic structures, with ostinato phrases emerging and sometimes overlapping as a way to open up each piece for further exploration, or to establish an infectious groove. Each piece tells a complete storythese are thoughtful, well-assembled compositions, to be sureyet there is just enough open-ended fluidity in each so that they avoid seeming constricted. Taborn's ability to take deceptively simple ideas and to stretch them in intriguing ways is evident on "Ancient," a mesmerizing piece that spins out of a two-note pattern introduced by Lightcap into permutations galore, eventually reaching a much more knotty culmination by the end of the track. But as engaging as the energetic pieces are, so too are the atmospheric, reflective ones. Taborn is comfortable with openness and space on his recordings, and there is a sense of quiet awe on "The Great Silence," "Subtle Living Equations," and the album's lone cover tune, Roscoe Mitchell's "Jamaican Farewell," where Speed's ethereal clarinet is simply beautiful in its fragility and sublimity.
Yet another fascinating aspect of the recording is its use of electronics. Taborn uses electronic keyboards (sometimes simultaneously with piano), Lightcap occasionally plays an electric bass, and King supplements his conventional kit with electronic percussion. Yet although ubiquitous, and a fundamental aspect of Taborn's concept, these components are remarkably well-integrated and unobtrusive. As a result, the record largely retains the feel of an "acoustic" record, with the subtle electronic elements present chiefly to give the record its underlying mood of mystery. The one exception is the closer, "Phantom Ratio," which after a deliberate, slowly-paced opening quickly transitions into a punchy up-tempo ostinato anchored by Taborn's synthesizer loopand it works powerfully, especially as the band builds in intensity behind him: it's a potent finish to a record with surprises and turns in abundance.
It's always exciting to witness musicians reaching the peak of their abilities. In Taborn's case, we can't be entirely sure that he's arrived there yet. But he's certainly getting closer, and adventurous listeners are surely the better off for it.
The Shining One; Abandoned Reminder; Daylight Ghosts; New Glory; The Great
Silence; Ancient; Jamaican Farewell; Subtle Living Equations; Phantom Ratio.
Craig Taborn: piano, electronics; Chris Speed: tenor saxophone, clarinet; Chris
Lightcap: acoustic bass, electric bass; Dave King: drums, electronic percussion.