Craig Taborn - Avenging Angel (2011)


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After more than four years of noting on this space his key contributions to other people's records, including list-topping performances led by David Torn, Chris Potter and Michael Formanek, we get to talk about a record actually led by one of the very top keyboardists working in downtown New York today. That's because a few months ago, Craig Taborn had issued his first album in seven years.

Minneapolis-born Taborn, having first attained notice as James Carter's pianist in the mid-90s while still a student at the University of Michigan, remains an enigma some fifteen years after in NYC. Like his contemporary Matthew Shipp, his playing style suggests the influences of the giants (Monk, Evans, Hancock), but in the end, sounds like no one else. And he adapts his style to the setting, an immense ability that's enabled him to fit in naturally within environments running through nearly the entire gambit of jazz, from the far-out improvisations of Farmers by Nature and Tim Berne's various combos to the neo-traditional leanings of Carter. But Taborn is a avant gardist at heart, and his rich sideman discography reflects that (click on the “Craig Taborn" tag for a fat cross section of the projects he had been involved within the last 4-5 years). His own catalog has been rather thin, but each of his prior three records marked a leap in his reach for ideas. The last one, Junk Magic (2004) was a jumping off point from mainstream jazz, delving into abstract electronic jazz. After seven years of contemplating his next move, Taborn finally shows his hand with his ECM debut, Avenging Angel.

Turns out, the follow-up to Junk doesn't really follow it up at all; Taborn ditched the electronics and all other players; it's just him and his piano. Coming in what seems to be in the midst of trend of jazz pianists making solo piano records, the revival probably wouldn't be complete without Taborn weighing in with his own a cappella statement. Angel does possess one important similarity with its predecessor, though: the music goes beyond—and often stands outside entirely—the realm of jazz.

Freed from synchronizing and interacting with other players, Taborn sat down in front of a Steinway D piano in a studio's recital room and proceeded to create thirteen tracks from a pool of ideas. The sound coming from that kind of piano in that kind of room throws off a classical music ambiance, and Taborn seems to run with that vibe, weaving music that explores harmonics that matches his setting. It's insular, intimate and introspective. As accomplished a pianist as Taborn is, he is wholly unconcerned about brandishing technique on these sessions, although it's apparent on cuts like “Spirit Hard Knock;" musical expressions of his trains of thought is the ultimate goal. He attained this goal using a wide array of tactics: improvising over ostinatos, as in “Gift Horse/Over The Water," leaving behind large expanses of silent voids between notes on “Diamond Turning Dream" or tossing out a scampering, flurry of notes on “Neither-Nor" followed by the complex emotions of “Forgetful."

Avenging Angel is, admittedly, a difficult album to embrace; the artist isn't making music that comes out and greets the listener's ears. No, you have to come to it. If you're willing to delve inside these dark, sparse performances, you'll find a luminous musical mind.

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