Calling it: Craig Taborn is the most mysterious figure in contemporary jazz. This is true even if you ignore his stylistic diversity, the ability he has to play with any bandleader and find a style that fits their project while remaining true to his own sound. (That could mean funking it up on Fender Rhodes for the Chris Potter Underground, or else deftly accompanying the chamber-like pieces on Okkyung Lee’s latest album for John Zorn’s Tzadik label.)
The underlying, and more frustrating puzzle, is why Taborn hasn’t played or recorded as a leader more often, especially since his solo piano sets have gradually acquired legendary status among jazz insiders. While Taborn has been in leader-less groups here and there, we haven’t heard his self-determined voice in some time — not since 2004′s Junk Magic. And while that album’s subtle IDM inflections qualify it as a minor masterpiece, it also declined to show much in the way of Taborn’s own considerable improv chops. For that reason, Avenging Angel — 70-plus minutes of Taborn by himself at a grand piano, with no electronics in sight — now stands as the most important entry in Taborn’s strangely self-effacing but brilliant catalog.
Though he doesn’t get too far “out there,” per the ECM label’s well-established aesthetic, Taborn does manage push a few boundaries. Witness how the purposeful modulations that move against a single note in opener “The Broad Day King” give way to an almost Debussy-like fluidity in “Glossolalia.” Rarely does such a hard left turn seem so gentle. And when Taborn — a prodigious keyboard abuser — finally does start in with the contrapuntal pounding (during the title track, among others), Avenging Angel emerges as a candidate for album of the year.