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.

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