Interview: Craig Taborn

Kevin Whitehead

By Kevin Whitehead

on 04.22.13 in Interviews


Craig Taborn Trio

Craig Taborn is a famously voracious listener, equally at home with 19th-century piano literature and glitchy techno. He’s covered so much ground in 20 years of recording it’s impossible to get a fix on him. He emerged as saxophone hotdog James Carter’s henchman in the ’90s, on albums including Conversin’ with the Elders (Taborn meets swing giants Sweets Edison and Buddy Tate) and In Carterian Fashion (Taborn on organ). In the same period he began a series of collaborations with Art Ensemble of Chicago saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell. Then came noisy stints on electric pianos with Tim Berne and Dave Douglas.

Taborn’s ways of sounding out acoustic and electric keyboards come together on violist Mat Maneri’s Sustain of 2001, and his own Junk Magic with Maneri, Bad Plus drummer Dave King and tenor saxist Aaron Stewart. The synthetic beats dripping onto the molasses-slow ensemble on the title track provide a window into Taborn’s open mind. The Sustain rhythm section — Taborn, longtime drumming buddy Gerald Cleaver and bass powerhouse William Parker — later became the co-op Farmers by Nature. But first the pianist had another trio with Cleaver and bassist Chris Lightcap that made the acclaimed Light Made Lighter. (They did a memorable “I Cover the Waterfront.”) Taborn and Cleaver also make a rhythm trio with bassist Michael Formanek, in his quartet.

For all that inventive work and much, much more, it wasn’t till the 2011 release of the solo Avenging Angel that a wider audience noticed how good Craig Taborn is. The music is at once quiet and thrillingly virtuosic; he plumbs the piano’s depths, coaxing out its pure and impure tones. The follow-up, Chants, is for yet another Taborn-Cleaver trio, this one with bassist Thomas Morgan: rollicking music, involved and evolved.

Speaking with eMusic’s Kevin Whitehead in late March, Taborn touched on arcane composing strategies, the influence of electronica on his acoustic music, Sun Ra, Brian Eno, Morton Feldman, and the piano sound on old Blue Note records.

You’ve spoken about approaching piano as a “pure sound source.” For all your knowledge of harmony and music history, you’re really most concerned with getting the instrument to sound.

That’s the way I hear all music. My harmonic and melodic sensibilities exist within a larger world of sound. It mitigates how I hear harmony. Timbre, coloration, overtones, they all affect my choices.

That partly comes from my always being involved with electronic music, with synths alongside the piano. I got my first synthesizer within a year of my first piano lesson — a Moog Satellite followed by a Mini-Moog. I was like 12. Around the same time I learned what a triad was, I’m turning the knobs, figuring out how to make synthesizer sound like a trumpet. The Christmas after that I got a Rhodes electric piano. That was the early ’80s, when digital was just coming in and those older keyboards were really affordable. My parents were finding them in newspaper ads for around 100 bucks.

You’re well-versed in a broad range of music. Is it hard to play one kind at a time?

No. I don’t limit my creative choices based on idiom. It’s all available; the fun is to see how to fit things into the specific music I’m playing. It’s what drives me. I feel very free in an acoustic improvised context to think of electronic, non-tonal music: What would happen if I applied some of those strategies? Bringing in ideas from other musics can help move the music forward.

With Chants, you’ve now documented three very different piano trios with Gerald Cleaver.

The history is strong. We have a language. I like making music with Gerald because we address the specific situation or group. We’re looking to really serve the context, and to see how these situations can be different. Without talking about it, those groups each settle into an identity very quickly. The trick is to let it emerge before imposing any limits on it. Thomas Morgan and William Parker have super-strong identities on the instrument, too, and that’s a key factor.

A really wide beat will set William going.

You’re dealing with that wave. William has such breadth, such a long reach I can feel. I think of Farmers by Nature as a more traditional group. I settle into a zone where I think about the jazz piano tradition, and let that operate more. Not that I block other things out, but I’m thinking of Duke, Monk, Fats Waller. It may not sound like it in the end, because I can’t really play like those guys. There’s always that temptation to play in the tradition of the jazz piano trio, but I know William or Thomas won’t make it sound normal. I can open that door, knowing they won’t box me in.

“Saints” and “Future Perfect” on Chants feature one of the signature jazz sounds of our time: ringing unisons from bass and the pianist’s left hand. It’s the piano-trio-as-power-trio sound.

In that context, it’s an easy way to get the bottom end working. It solves lots of problems having to do with how the music projects. It’s tight, it’s heavy, it speaks to precision and cohesion. It brings things into bold relief — like power riffing in rock bands. But then you can put other things over it.

You do like higher metrical games. I can count out a 43-beat Don Ellis pattern, but don’t get far with “Beat the Ground.”

You could find an ultimate pattern that you could count, but it’s not counted through in the Don Ellis sense. None of the music is constructed around metrical cycles. I deal a lot with multiples, multiple meters that make up even larger groupings. It’s more about doing things modularly; the music can go in different directions. “Beat the Ground” has a larger rhythmic cycle, but Gerald might go through it one time playing against everything, and the next time locking it in. It’s like a pyramid. There’s another rhythm strategy underneath.

I’ve been into building up forms for a long time, so a specific piece’s form is not just one thing: There are larger supportive hierarchies of different complexities. I’ll have three or four layers for people to address with different harmonic and rhythmic structures. You can switch from one to another at will and it all fits. “Beat the Ground” has a whole other improvised section we didn’t record because it would have run too long, where we play over the same form, but with chord changes that mark out a different rhythmic cycle.

As far back as the late ’50s, Sun Ra was dealing with multiples like that: one part’s in 13, another’s in 5, and the drummer plays free. He was way ahead in terms of orchestration. The rational and irrational at the same time: that’s something I work with a lot. Different meters, and then a layer that isn’t even in time, floating over all that.

Even in high school I was into writing and playing in polymeters. Sun Ra was definitely one influence. Another big one was Geri Allen — those late ’80s and early ’90s records you can’t find anymore, on Minor Music or JMT, or The Nurturer. She builds these really nice melodic structures; her ostinatos had architectural and melodic intent.

I’m always looking for ways to achieve more speechlike improvisation. A patterned, grid-like way of playing complicated stuff is too diagrammatic for me. I favor ecstatic playing. The model there is Sonny Rollins, the way he played over bebop tunes in the ’50s. What he plays fits, but it’s very loose and creative. How free can you be, and still hold to the structure? Or, if you play an ostinato with one hand, how free can you be with the other?

On Chant, a lot of the time we hold to the form, but it’s not a mandate. On “Saints,” we never break from it; we always come back around, and mark the end of the form. Intense structure and playing free: Gerald shares that interest, and Thomas too. I’ll think we’re playing free as it happens, but when I listen back to a recording, the form is still in the background. We’d internalized it so much, we never left it.

Your solo record Avenging Angel changed the way people look at you. Did it feel like a breakthrough at the time?

It was a happy day in the studio. I approached it as a way to document this solo music I’d been developing for eight years. I had been thinking about doing that before ECM came into the picture. I had already been talking to Manfred [Eicher, label head and producer] about recording the trio but we hadn’t been able to schedule it, everyone’s so busy. Meanwhile in 2010, I did a week-and-a-half solo tour in Europe, and maybe he got wind of that, because a week later he asked me to do a solo record. I was ready at that point: shedding for hours a day, just practicing and playing exercises to prepare.

It was a best-case scenario: We could record anywhere, and he really understands recording solo piano. And it was fantastic piano! But it was an improvised program, so it really came down to the particular day. That’s the crapshoot. We recorded in Lugano, and I’d been teaching that week at a Swiss jazz camp three hours away — teaching kids how to play jazz. One night I played a solo concert, and then I was driven to Lugano, arriving at like 2 a.m. I was tired the next day going into the studio. When I started playing, things seemed to be clicking. After a couple of pieces I thought, “This is going well.”

You recorded many more pieces than are on the album.

Thirty-two, maybe, altogether? It’s possible more will come out. I’ll have to go back and listen. Some pieces go to the same areas; some others I know were pretty cool. Manfred’s been talking to me about another solo project, but I don’t think it’s developed enough since then, yet.

At the beginning of “Forgetful,” you make acoustic piano sound like a Rhodes: a spectral composer’s illusion.

The piano is a pretty subtle instrument. In the right sonic space, and with an instrument that’s willing, you can get that sound. But it’s also about knowing how to record it. Close miking is good for some things. Wide miking reveals others, the overtones reverberating against the body of the instrument itself. The pianoforte was designed as a concert instrument, to project into a room. Miking has a lot to do with how hard you’re hitting the instrument. At this particular volume, 20 feet away may be optimal. You’re also working with the resonance of the room. Manfred knows how to get a good piano sound. He was very hands-on with the miking.

My ideal, when I’m playing straight-ahead jazz, is the Blue Note-in-the-’50s-and-’60s piano. I always liked that sound, but didn’t know why Wynton Kelly, Horace Silver, Herbie Hancock, Andrew Hill and Cecil Taylor all had it. It was the piano [at engineer Rudy van Gelder's studio] and the way it was miked: That sound projects an identity as much as the player does. That piano had a certain bounce to it. But they got a new one a while ago. Maybe it was beyond its time. (Pianos are like wine: at a certain temperature, they age really well. Then they peak and go down from there.) I hear it’s still in the building, but outside the studio. I’d like to play that once, just to see what the action was like.

Do you hear a relationship between quiet pieces like “This Voice Says So” and ambient music?

That Brian Eno thing is always operating. For me all improvisation is more about paying attention to sound than generating ideas. Attention and manipulation: ambient is one approach to that. It’s the philosophy of John Cage. He was really talking about a way of tending to sound, and I try to give it that level of attention. Morton Feldman always paid attention to decay, to the entire shape of a note. He composed around the idea of what happens after the initiation of events. That gives a different energy to the music.

Lots of jazz improvisation is about always generating ideas: It’s dealing with attacks, always seeking the initiation of events. When you think about Miles, Wayne Shorter, Roscoe Mitchell in the jazz continuum, these deeper guys pay attention to the entire musical event, to the entire shape and bloom of a note — where it’s going and where it ends. When it ceases to be audible and becomes imaginary. That’s the key to a deeper world of music making. The real masters are aware of that, like Gerald, or Thomas, or Mat Maneri. You can tell immediately how aware of that they are. Some musicians don’t pay such close attention — they’re moving on when things are still unfolding.