Taylor Eigsti: The Prodigy, Revisited

Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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My left hand feels like this old wise Grandpa with arthritis, while my right hand is this chihuahua that's running all over the place, bringing his little doggy bones to Grandpa.
Taylor Eigsti In 2004, I interviewed both Taylor Eigsti and his mother, Nancy, about what it was like to be (and to raise) a prodigy. In the four years since then, Taylor's career has continued its nearly-vertical trajectory, with two Grammy nominations, two prestigious Piano Jazz shows with Marian McPartland, three jazz magazine covers, and multiple Down Beat Magazine critics' poll recognition.

Now, at the ripe old age of 23, Eigsti continues to carve his place in the jazz tradition while being very much of his own generation. For example, his MySpace blog features a list of "things that suck," which have included "arrogant sound engineers," people who steal cell phones, airlines, laundry, and cilantro. Eigsti also has a genuine social conscience, and will donate a rare solo performance to people who give $2500 or more to the Jazz Foundation. Eigsti and his girlfriend Ashley recently went to New Orleans, where he did a big benefit for ACORN, the non-profit community organizing group. The couple also helped restore a mural in a park in the lower ninth ward. Eigsti describes it as "a sobering experience to see all of the damage that still exists there. It looks like the hurricane hit yesterday in most parts. Unreal!"

While Eigsti outgrows the prodigy status that's dogged him for the past 15 years, his music is maturing, communicating more on a deeper level, and his astonishing energy powers a formidable technique that's an absolute delight to watch. This interview took place in May of 2008, just before his CD release party; it was held at the Jazz Standard, which may offer the best music and food and the most welcoming atmosphere in New York. Among other things he discussed his ideas about bringing jazz to the next generation, his use of "note bombs," and what he hates about his own playing.

All About Jazz: I went back to our first interview, from four years ago.

Taylor Eigsti: Yeah. That sucker always pops up on Google whenever you type in my name.

AAJ: I think it's the word "prodigy"—people are always googling it to see if they've got one at home. Whatever the reason, it's gotten more reads than any other interview I've done.

TE: That's really good. It's an honor to have that status.

AAJ: We'd get even more hits if we found a way to put "Nude American Idol" in the title. But that would be cheating. Anyway, back then you said that being a prodigy was like being "a bearded lady," a freakish kind of thing. So here we are four years later: your first Concord CD (2006's Lucky To Be Me) spent 23 weeks on the jazz charts, and your second has just come out to great reviews (2008's Let It Come To You, also on Concord). This makes six CDs as a leader, so far. You've also gotten two Grammy nominations [for best jazz composition, "Argument" and best jazz solo, on "Freedom Jazz Dance"], and you're playing and recording with some of the brightest lights in jazz. So the question is, have you finally caught up with yourself?

Taylor Eigsti

TE: I hope so. That whole prodigy business was always a double-sided thing. I always felt that if there was any enjoyment that people might take from knowing that I'm young—if that added some additional thing—I'm all for it. But I didn't want people to like what I did just because a young person was doing it, and wow, not many young people do this kind of stuff...

AAJ: You didn't have much choice in the matter, though.

TE: Exactly. I've been young my whole life, I don't have any other means of comparison—it's no novelty to me, it's just what I've done. Fortunately some of the accomplishments of the last few years are helping; I've done some things, instead of being the "brand new kid."

AAJ: Like the Grammy nominations?

TE: That helped. It was great to have that. And recently I notice that people can actually remember certain songs I've done. I have some distance from the prodigy thing now, although it's a hard situation, when you have a team doing publicity: "Hey, don't make me look too young!" Another change is that I hated bad reviews at first, but now I love them because they make me seem a little more legit. When I started to come out, everyone gave good reviews, 'cause I was just a kid.

AAJ: Except for Howard Reich [his very negative review was Taylor's first].

TE: Yeah, well. He's a bitter guy with an impressive vocabulary; I think people read him mostly for the shock value. Then there was a bad review of Let It Come To You—some guy on some blog talked about the Concord marketing machine, and how it was also promoting [20 year-old singer-songwriter] Erin Boheme and [24 year-old trumpeter] Christian Scott. He called us "The Mod Squad," and he gave my CD a terrible rating, but he never said anything about the music. Whenever there's more attention on the marketing aspect of things—however that manifests—the music gets lost. I just want to put the focus back on the music, which is all I'm trying to think about.

AAJ: You've said this is the album you always wanted to make. Could you expand on that?

TE: I was very satisfied by that whole experience. For one thing, the photography on this CD was much better: I'm in clothing that I would actually wear. And I was totally stoked that they used my artwork, let alone allowing me to record the tunes that I wanted to record. Technically, this album is two, put into one: my suite sounds very different from the rest of the record, so we ended up sequencing it like a live show. And we still have bonus tracks that would fill a whole other CD. To some degree almost every country has their own bonus track—Japan has theirs, there's a Brazilian thing, there's even a duo track with [soprano] Frederica von Stade that's going to be European-only.

I wanted this project to capture the music I've been performing for the last couple of years, but also show where I'd like to take things, compositionally. The last four tunes on the album are more of where I'm going. The suite has a lot of emotions wrapped in it—it wasn't easy to write, it took a lot out of me. I wanted to sum up what I felt when I was living in the Bay area. Now I'm trying to write for larger ensembles. For lack of a better term, I'm trying to be Maria Schneider with a back beat. I'm really driven by the rhythm that comes from rock and R&B, and the freedom in improvisation. That's where the jazz kicks in, but there's also classical harmony and studying the modern usages of harmony.

Taylor Eigsti

AAJ: Cool. I almost forgot what the original question was, after all this riffing.

TE: You know how you talk about people's personalities being in the way they play? Well, I'll get into a thing, and take too many choruses...

AAJ: Not to worry. I'm sure it's all useful. By the way, I'd never heard of The Eels, so I went to the Web and checked them out. They're intriguing, sort of edgy, and since they're signed to the Dreamworks label, their music was used in all three Shrek movies. I was tickled to learn that the lead guy, Mr. E., bought a toy robot dog, to see if he would like having one, before he got an actual dog.

TE: Really? He probably has some interesting things going on upstairs. My favorite Eels song is called "It's a Motherf****r," but it wouldn't work with the demographic of my fans, not with that sea of gray hair. But it's a beautiful song.

AAJ: Back to something you said earlier, about bringing jazz to the next generation. That's especially important now, given the recent collapse of IAJE [International Association of Jazz Educators], which had all those high school programs and competitions to get kids involved in jazz.

TE: I hope there will be something new in its place.

AAJ: Don't we all? Meanwhile, you put Björk on your last record, and you've got The Eels on this one: what other ways can you get younger people interested in jazz?

TE: People of different ages use music in a vastly different way. A lot of jazz listeners sit down, and allow their attention to really wrap around something, but we live in a culture that breeds a much shorter attention span, especially in younger people. This makes a much tougher challenge for jazz. It's the whole reason that iTunes took off: people just pick one or two tunes they like off the album, and don't buy the rest. So to reach younger people, we need to understand what they even use music for—a lot of that is dance music, background, and not so much the focal point. Also, they don't use CDs, since they get everything through their computer.

I'm trying to get people my age to realize that jazz is worth checking out. One way is to focus on the aspect that I care about the most: collective improvisation. The music could sound like something from a totally other genre, as far as I'm concerned, but the people have a certain structure that they're all following: they're listening to each other, they're relating as human beings, and they're conversing in a total musical language. To me, that's a really fascinating thing to be a part of, and for an audience member to watch. Some of my friends who've never been turned onto jazz come to a show, and they like it.

AAJ: I know you're involved in teaching jazz as well.

TE: I'm actually writing a book right now about a very unconventional approach to learning jazz piano, because I don't feel that students progress as fast as they could. I think when you teach people to fully understand theory before doing it, it will take longer, and be less inspiring and fun. The working title is The Piano As a Visual and Physical Instrument. It's a little bit too long...

AAJ: It could use some tweaking, yes. Are you doing this on your own?

TE: Yes, but I'm going to include a bunch of unconventional interviews. I want to talk to people who are improvisers outside of music, to find out what do they do to get around different challenges. I want to interview Steve Young, who I think is one of the greatest improvisers of our time.

AAJ: Wait a minute. Isn't he a football player?

TE: He sure is, yeah.

AAJ: How did I know that you would somehow get football in there?

TE: Well, it fits: the wide receiver is running an X route, you have an idea in your head, but the defense is going to be different every time, they're going to change what they're doing. Then so-and-so trips, you're running around trying to find something out of nothing—what goes on in that mental process? And each time you march a basketball down the court, everything is going to be different—you have a set play, but it's always different.

Taylor Eigsti

AAJ: I guess there is jazz in sports.

TE: Exactly. I'm also putting this book out because when I give workshops or lessons, I've seen some unbelievable breakthroughs where all of a sudden people are suddenly creating their own chords easily; five or six of them actually started tearing up.

AAJ: I need that book!

TE: It will take a few years. It will come with a video. I want it to be something that hasn't been written before—with all due respect, it's the polar opposite approach to Mark Levine's, and he's written the definitive jazz piano book.

AAJ: What about Shelly [Berg] and his target note method?

TE: I got a lot from studying with Shelly. He's a brilliant educator who goes beyond typical traditional methods. He gets into teaching people how to extract emotion, and he's one of the greatest teachers in that regard. My approach to teaching improvisation is a bit different, but it incorporates a lot of those elements. I think he's one of the really good ones.

There's also a whole chapter on things I hate about my own playing. The back part is blank, and it says "Your turn."

AAJ: So tell me: what do you hate about your own playing?

TE: I'd love for that to go on record. Unless I have a moment of autopilot in my brain, I'm usually hearing all the notes that I play. A lot of times, I hear a lot of notes, and that can get exhausting. And then occasionally—I think all musicians fall victim to this—I find that if I didn't really nail the third chorus, or make my statement, I'm like, "I messed it up!" and I'll take an angry chorus right after that. Many of us go on searching for something when we should have found it two choruses ago. I really hate the way I play too many notes sometimes. Those two elements are kind of combined for me.

AAJ: Is that an anxiety thing, do you think?

TE: No, it's just being in the moment, and getting so many ideas. I'm always looking for equilibrium and balance, and trying to have restraint; I think it's one of those things I've gotten better at over the years. It comes down to shaping, really: how do you structure an arrangement, how do you create an envelope of sound that people will want to listen to? I'm making a whole chapter of this kind of stuff.

The thing is, when it involves emotion, you can play a lot of notes, or you can play just a few. If you look at some of my musical heroes: Hank Jones has a tendency to play very few notes, and makes so much music out of that, while one of my other heroes, Shelly Berg, plays a lot of notes, and he makes a lot of music too. People are on different sides of the fence in terms of how many notes they use to get their point across. And if this interview is any indication, I'm a long-winded person.

AAJ: I'll try to un-wind you a little when I transcribe this.

TE: Thanks. Another thing is that I'm always looking for ways to improve my left hand, because it feels like this old wise grandpa with arthritis, while my right hand is this chihuahua that's running all over the place, bringing his little doggy bones to Grandpa. I think they both need to learn from each other. Grandpa is so much wiser, but he needs to start getting his technique together, and the other guy needs to chill out. There are moments on the CD, especially in "Caravan," where I kind of went on a note explosion, but it was the effect I wanted, I wanted it to sound like total chaos, I wanted it to be a draining moment, kind of like a note bomb.

AAJ: Is that what the loops are for?

TE: That one little section, it had a one-second delay on it, so anything I would play, one second later, you'd hear the same notes again. As a result, a lot of them were criss-crossing. I just wanted that for about ten seconds, that moment of breakdown. We had to create something that leads to somewhere, an emotional moment.

AAJ: "Caravan" might be my favorite track on Let It Come To You. It's obvious that you were all having so much fun.

Taylor Eigsti / Chris BrubeckTE: That was the first take, too. Most of the stuff on there was first take. It was this miracle session. The [saxophonist] Joshua [Redman] track was nine minutes, but there was no way in hell we were taking it out. It was maybe the best three minutes of my life, that end vamp on "Timeline."

AAJ: I really like the way you listen when you trade fours with him: you're picking up everything he's putting down. It's such an affirmation of each other, and your conversation is almost like dancing.

TE: When we finished that track, [drummer] Eric [Harland] was literally jumping up and down in the air. He was so excited. When we listened to those trades, we were all high-fiveing—a wonderful moment—and it was to honor Michael Brecker too. I think something came over Joshua at the end of that tune; maybe Michael started coming through him. They're both such innovators and icons of their instrument; you can also feel the influence that Brecker had on Josh. It was really beautiful to see that whole thing happen. We all had goose bumps when it was over.

AAJ: At first, I found that track almost too strong, and I kept skipping over it. But as the design of the whole CD started to sink in, I realized that you offer a respite right after it.

TE: Yeah, the relief of "Not Ready Yet."

AAJ: It's nicely sequenced that way. And one of the things I like about the CD is the communication among the players: there's a real sense of bringing the music to another level, where everyone is kind of fused—like a spaceship taking off, with all the lights blinking at once.

TE: My favorite part of "TimeLine" is [guitarist] Julian [Lage]. You hear him play about five notes through the whole frickin' thing, but they're like—in the middle of my solo, he'll play something, and then I'll have to stop: it makes me totally change direction. And at the end, when Josh is blowing, every four bars there's that "eeeuu"[from the guitar]. Jules is a perfect example of that whole concept of just listening and playing the most tasteful thing possible. I really love using him in my quartet.

AAJ: How old is he now?

TE: He's 20. He can't legally do anything yet.

AAJ: Well, he could go get shot.

Taylor Eigsti

TE: Yeah, exactly, but he can't sit down and legally have a beer. What a wonderful system. In the last year we're written so much together. We could be flat out arguing—"no, no, you're not listening!"—but in the end we know that we'll come out with something so much better than if we tried to do it on our own.

AAJ: So where is all this new material?

TE: A lot of it we've been performing live, in a duo context.

AAJ: Back to the new CD: it seemed to me that there's an unusual amount of space between tracks. Most recordings aren't like that, but it's good to sit with a tune, and let it settle, before embarking on something else. Was that done on purpose?

TE: Anything is possible. The version that I sent you was a burned version, so my computer may have done it. But there's a lot of information on these tracks, so you do need some time to let it sink in. I'm glad that they finally went with "Portrait in Black and White" after "Caravan," because that's another one you need to follow with a lot of space. Certainly after the note-bomb that I dropped near the end of it, which I wanted to sound like total chaos.

AAJ: The music was building to that, almost like a whirling dervish kind of thing.

TE: The funny thing was that we had never, ever recorded that tune, so we only knew how to play it live. In fact, the whole record felt like we were doing it live.

AAJ: Maybe that's why the energy is so high.

TE: The whole first day we recorded the suite—that took 12 hours, because there's so much layering. There's not a lot of improvisation in there, and so the second day we came in just dying to play. The energy was there.

AAJ: Was that delay different from the effect you used in Montreal last year? [Eigsti did a solo concert at the 2007 Montreal Jazz Festival that was well-received by the audience, although one critic compared him to "Liberace," a dig which has become a standing joke among his friends.]

Taylor Eigsti / Brubeck Brothers

TE: Similar, similar. I think I overused it a bit in Montreal. When you have effects, you need to be careful to find a balance. For example, on "Caravan," Julian uses the whammy pedal in two places, where he goes yuh-YUH-yuh. He bought that right before the recording session. When the normal 19 year-old runs to the guitar center right before recording to buy a toy, you think oh man, everything is going to be whammy—but Julian buys something just before a session, and then just uses it twice. If that's not maturity and restraint, I don't know what is.

AAJ: Back to your "Portrait in Black and White"—being a certified Jobim nut, at first I reacted to your version with alarm, as in, "whatever are you doing with this sacred vessel?" Then I was thinking, black and white, film noir, maybe they're going there with it, OK, I get it...

TE: I first heard that piece done as a beautiful ballad, with Elis Regina. Then in the recording session, we were doing it as a duo, and Julian started picking at the strings at the end of his guitar. They were just spooky enough, so we went with it, and made a more emotionally slanted version.

AAJ: I also really loved "Deluge." Hadn't heard it quite this way before.

TE: It's about time I recorded a Wayne Shorter tune, since I'm so in love with his music. A lot of times, what he does is take something that's usually played very straight and swinging, and he'll free it up. One of the things I truly love is that he goes to great lengths of exploration, and gives it a whole new meaning, a whole new story—even his own tunes, it's like he re-routes them. I wanted to do the opposite with one of his tunes in a kind of mirror-image effect, and make it a bit more swinging.

AAJ: Where did you get the idea to use a Colombian harp on "Fever"?

TE: Edmar [Castaneda] was performing at the Tanglewood Jazz Festival a couple of years back. I was also there, doing a Marian McPartland thing. [Eigsti's agent] Mary Ann Topper was raving about him, so I checked him out on line, and it was "wow!" Edmar came into the recording session, set up his harp, and said, "I want you to know that this is a diatonic instrument, so keep in mind that I only play seven notes at a time. What do you want to do?" "Fever" is basically just an A minor vamp; I figured we'd play the melody once or twice, and then see wherever he wanted to take it. Edmar had this entirely different version of three-four, really more like six-four, and taught me a new way to clap it out. He gave me a rhythmic lesson—everyone in the studio wondered what in the world was going on, 'cause we're in there for 20 minutes, and then it was "roll tape." I was hanging on by a thread, but we got through it. It was crazy, this immediate lockup of stuff. We felt really good about it.

AAJ: The track is so exciting that it feels almost perilous, like you're navigating the cliffs at Macchu Picchu.

TE: It was definitely freaking me out to play with him. He's amazing.

AAJ: Does he do percussion too?

TE: There are four bass strings at the very end of the harp. So he's basically playing two instruments at once. One hand is just going nuts with some of the craziest rhythmic improvisations you can have.

AAJ: And now to the suite. My favorite part is the middle track, "Not Lost Yet." They're all very cool, but this one is very funky, and it reminds me of someone walking around in circles saying, "I'm not lost yet, but I'm close."

Taylor Eigsti

TE: There's a jagged rhythm in there that makes you feel a little off balance. I wanted the flutes always to be together in one harmony, almost like a siren. My classical friends were saying you can't write flutes like that, you should do single lines and put them together, but I was going for a triple instrument, something like a three-headed flautist, always talking in a triad.

AAJ: Tell me more about the multi-tracking in the suite.

TE: On each tune, there's one or two drum tracks: a straight track of drums, then Eric would come back with some percussion thing. There's usually a few layers behind the piano, including one I call "rhythm piano." It's piano-playing really loud and fast—I was sweating. But when we actually used it, we played it so far down that it sounds more like an echo. I wanted a piano-flavored reverb, a really strange, repeating thing. I'm not so into the computer effects: I wanted it to sound like it's coming from an acoustic piano.

AAJ: People won't know exactly what they're hearing, but it will register as something different.

TE: Like in the ballad right before the suite, which is kind of a honorary part of the suite. As "Let It Come To You" progresses, especially near the end, you can hear this whole other piano track of really loud and fast chords, but turned down super low.

AAJ: That track conveys a state of acceptance and calm, and then the suite describes how you found your way there. You explained a lot of your reasoning in the liners. You'll have to forgive me, Tay, but I'm more than twice your age, and there's a part of me that thinks, that's so cute that he figured out the meaning of life so young. Then I remembered that, when I was in my early twenties, I also had it down; I'd already figured out how to be One with the Universe. But it is true, as you say, that "all you can control is your sense of self and personal happiness." A lot of people never get that, and they lose a lot of stomach lining in the process.

TE: Well, I've lost my share of lining too, even at this point, just to arrive at that conclusion. When the last record was about to come out, I had a lot of personal issues. I was in Seattle on New Year's Eve, and I had nobody, I was completely alone. Six days later, I broke my collarbone snowboarding, but right after that, things started to pick up in so many ways. Now I believe that if you put your entire self into something, you should let the logistics figure themselves out.

AAJ: It also helps to know what you want.

TE: I am so fortunate in that respect. I figured that out when I was 8, when my dad told me you actually get paid to do this. I have friends my age who still don't know what they want to do.

AAJ: And I have friends my age who are in the same place.

TE: I want to be happy with myself and my development as a musician. There are all sorts of battles, since every artist has to fight for himself: "Listen, this is what's gonna go down." Luckily I have people around me who are really on my side, and it's good that at the label, they genuinely like the music. They are always going to make more money on Paul McCartney and Michael Bolton than I can make for them, but if they're willing to put out an instrumental jazz album, I really respect that. That comes from starting as a car dealership, with [pianist] Gene Harris telling them he'd record for them for free.

AAJ: Concord Records started out as a car dealership?

TE: Concord started as a small label with two people at a car dealership. Carl Jefferson had this whole concept of releasing a few albums; they got Gene Harris. And when Concord was going through some difficulties, Gene stepped up and said, "Listen, I just want to record for you guys. So that was the early mentality of respect for the music; they've held onto that, and seem to be really genuine people.

AAJ: In bringing jazz to young people, you're going to combine it with, what, hip hop?

TE: One of my goals is to do some collaborations, like what Herbie [Hancock] has been doing, but a little bit more compositional and integrated into my world.

Taylor Eigsti AAJ: Like with Björk?

TE: One of my dreams. If that happens, I'm good, I'm good.

AAJ: That wouldn't seem to be that hard to accomplish...

TE: Well, I don't know. Julian and I keep seeing these little teams of nerdy dudes getting to work on different projects of hers; we say we need to buy some small wire glasses, and own a studio together, and always be on our computers—and then we'll get the Björk gig.

My dream record—I really hope I can make it someday—would involve bringing Wayne Shorter and Björk together. In my opinion, Wayne's voice on his sax, and Björk voice on her instrument, are the two voices that are the most human and emotional, like emotion before anything. Björk has such perfect intonation when she's hitting high notes: she's yelling,, she's screaming, you can hear all the emotion, but it's right on pitch. If I could somehow be a catalyst to bring those two voices together... but that's a high-budget record. We'll see what happens.

AAJ: One more question: this is the free space part. You get to opine on anything you want—except for football.

TE: We'd be here all night...

AAJ: Is there anything you want to launch about?

TE: I want to say that a lot of my gigs are in places where there aren't a lot of young people because the ticket prices are so high. If people really want to bring jazz to younger audiences, they have to find a way to lower their prices. After all, those are the people who are hopefully going to be listening to my music in 30 years.

AAJ: Amen!

TE: I want to make music that has very visible emotion and story-telling. I'm trying to make music that people don't have to like or understand jazz to enjoy: they can appreciate the emotional language of the music, and it's fun for them to watch. I don't ever want to get too introspective that it abandons the audience, and they can't figure out what's going on. And I never want to get too dark that everyone is forced to be as dark as I am in order to enjoy it. My favorite music is music that is emotional, and listenable, with driving rhythms—but also somewhat neutral in that people can make of it whatever they want.

Selected Discography

Taylor Eigsti, Let It Come To You (Concord, 2008)
Chris Brubeck, Convergence (Koch, 2007)
Taylor Eigsti, Lucky To Be Me (Concord, 2006)
Brubeck Brothers Quartet, Intuition (Koch, 2006)
Taylor Eigsti, Resonance (Bop City, 2003)
Taylor Eigsti Trio, Taylor's Dream (DIW, 2001)

Photo Credits

Top Photo: Dragan Tasic

Center Photo: Dr. Judith Schlesinger

Bottom Photo: Courtesy of Concord Music Group

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