Taylor Eigsti: The Prodigy, Revisited

Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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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.

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