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."

The next several years set the precedent for Taylor's approach to life. He became a high achiever at school, eventually becoming valedictorian of his eighth-grade class. He also developed an enthusiasm for sports, as a member of the junior varsity basketball squad for two years at Woodside Priory High School and assistant head coach for three years of the sixth, seventh, and eighth-grade basketball teams. None of this slowed his progress at the piano, on which he was playing local party and restaurant jobs before getting even close to being a teenager. At twelve he shared the stage with Diane Schurr; a year after that Dave Brubeck invited him to perform with his band, after which he opened at shows for Diana Krall and Al Jarreau.

Perhaps most impressive of all was Taylor's entry into teaching. He had picked up enough knowledge by age twelve to begin work as assistant to Smith Dobson, one of the Bay Area's most respected jazz pianists and pedagogues. "It's hard to put into words how much confidence Smith gave me," Taylor says. "He'd be like, 'I'm taking a couple of people out for private lessons. Taylor, you teach the rest of the class.' It put me on the spot, but it also helped me learn what teaching is all about." It would take only a few more years for the renowned Stanford Jazz Workshop to invite him to join their staff—at age fifteen.

"I had been a student there too, so everyone there made me feel welcome," he remembers. "Obviously there was this initial awkwardness when the classes I taught would see that I was a little younger than them, but it always worked out great in the end."

Inevitably, the time came for Eigsti to try his hand at recording. His first, Tay's Groove, was cut in '99, a trio session, featuring veteran Bay Area bassist Seward McCain and drummer Dan Brubeck, whom Taylor had met through his father Dave. Next, in December 2000, came Live at Filoli, featuring the current trio on a last-minute call to substitute for Marian McPartland. "Bud Spangler, the producer, had barely heard of me, so he was taking a risk," Taylor explains. "He recorded it for radio broadcast, but everything turned out so well that we decided to put it out. It was the start of a good thing: Bud became a dear friend and ended up being the producer for Resonance."

After doing Taylor's Dream, for release in Japan by DIW Records, in 2001, the trio went to work on Resonance. By this time their energies had fused to the point where Taylor, John, and Jason could play with a telepathy and freedom that most groups would envy. "There's a certain magic about the Triangle," Taylor says. "Four can sometimes be a crowd, but with the three of us on Resonance, it was completely free. We were so much on the same wavelength."

Ideas came quickly and unexpectedly. "Juliette," for example, was created totally at the session. "After a lunch break, we were just jamming on this little groove," Taylor remembers. "Bud got into the control booth quickly and pressed Record. We laid it down as a first take. My girlfriend Juliette had stopped by, so when we started wondering what to call it, John suggested 'Juliette.'" Quick thinking, John.

The feel of their performance on "Somewhere," however, came from Jason. "Usually 'Somewhere' is played as a ballad," Taylor says, "but Jason had this beat that he did with his hands on the drums. That gave it a little more motion, with more things happening. We tried it a whole bunch of ways, from extra slow to a lot faster, before we settled on the version we got. But, really, each take worked in its own way, because it kept the integrity of the song."

It's not apparent to the casual listener, but Taylor insists that a theme runs through all the tracks on Resonance. "It plays around a lot with the idea of escaping the world through the powerful force of music," he explains. "Songs like 'Somewhere,' or 'Avolation' [an Eigsti original], which means escape through rising, or 'Got a Match,' to see light and get out of the dark, or 'Introspection' [also by Eigsti], which is another form of escape."

Is it about escape or arrival? With his recent appearances on the compilation Windows: 25 Years of Windham Hill Piano, frequent shows with the Brubeck Brothers Quartet, and appearances that involve opening for or playing with Hank Jones, Natalie Cole, Kevin Mahogany, Bobby Hutcherson, and many of today's jazz giants, Eigsti doesn't stand much chance of escaping anyone's notice.

For Eigsti, the future means just a few more years of tempering this momentum as he finishes up at USC. After that, watch out! "My dream is to help people, especially the ones under twenty-five, see jazz in a different light," he says. "Jazz is such a pure art form, either mixed with funk or something else, or just as it is. There's so much joy in it. I know that others have gone down this same path, like Wynton Marsalis, who does a great job at bringing jazz to a wider audience. But that's what I want to do, while not necessarily sounding like the other musicians who have come before."

That, and playing in the NFL. Don't laugh; anyone who's accomplished this much this fast, from that night of my enlightenment to the advent of Resonance, just might pull it all off.

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