Taylor Eigsti: The Prodigy, Revisited

Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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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.

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