Month: April 2018

Merely this, and nothing more

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Ghosts, by nature, are hard fellows to get hold of. Their presence can be haunting and pervasive but good luck catching up with them over coffee. They seem to be here and not here at the same time. A revered musician among his peers, pianist Craig Taborn has played on so many recordings by himself and other jazz/avant jazz musicians that the “ghost” moniker some of his friends sometimes refer to him as seems to be a bit of an overstatement. The man keeps a low profile and doesn’t seem so much interested in cranking out albums for self-promotion’s sake as in experimenting with various musical settings that fit his eclectic aesthetic inclinations. So when Taborn does put an album out, you’d better catch the ghost while he’s around because the music is likely to deliver on and defy your expectations.

One would be hard pressed to define the basic characteristics of ghost music. ( And now the Ghostbusters theme is stuck in your head, I’m sorry!) On his recent quartet release Daylight Ghosts, Mr Taborn displays his penchant for ethereal yet deeply grounded music. The composer/improviser is arguably one the few voices in jazz who can successfully bridge the gaps between such polar opposites as underground Detroit techno, contemporary classical music, Midwest punk rock, Sun Ra and free jazz, without the listener realizing immediately that those influences are actually there. As on his previous albums, the composer favors the transient spaces where the music seems poised to go in one direction and ends up going the other way. His deep involvement in intricate rhythms, shifting time signatures and heavy intoxicating grooves is all in evidence here. For this endeavor he convened a fitting cast of like-minded friends featuring Chris Speed on tenor saxophone and clarinet, Chris Lightcap on double bass and electric bass and Dave King on drums and electronic percussion. This modern jazz album has all the makings of a spacious ECM record straddling the worlds of classical modern music and contemporary chamber-like jazz. Taborn’s voice is particularly strong as a compositional presence, his piano playing often geared toward arranging the music at key transitional spots and setting heavy left hand bass grooves to shift gears between the sections of a song. The 9 tracks flow together in one seamless suite of through-composed themes, free-form blowing and recurrent patterns picked up by each instrument at various spots. With such titles as “Abandoned Reminder” , “The Great Silence” or “Phantom Ratio”, this is the work of a major jazz composer who strives and successfully assembles apparently disconnected elements into one cohesive piece of music. The opener The Shining One sets the tone of the album. Speed states the serpentine theme once, Lightcap steps right in to provide a contrapuntal groove and Taborn builds on the thematic material before Speed reenters and states a longer version of the theme in unison with Taborn.  And then they all move into collective improvisation. This process pervades the album and works well as it gives a creative opportunity for the musicians to steer their instruments from their usually prescribed roles. Bass and drums have no monopoly over timekeeping and the beautifully crafted melodies segue organically into improvised sections where the collective whole is greater than the sum of its parts. On the title track “Daylight Ghosts, Taborn locks into a 5/4 meter groove that he maintains throughout the last section of the song while a new theme surges on top and carries the song through. Evidently, Taborn enjoys this compositional idea as it occurs repeatedly here as well as on his much recommended trio albums, especially Chants (with Thomas Morgan and Gerald Cleaver, 2013, ECM) “The Great Silence” has Speed fluttering around on clarinet like something out of Prokoviev while the others come in and keep things simmering and sparse under the surface.

Nothing gets too intense on this album as ghosts are not the boisterous type. However, the subdued intensity is there, lurking in those melodic fragments and beautiful silences. “Ancient” starts off with a short bass solo leading into a collective cat-and-mouse chase, finally building into a techno-like anthem gone off-kilter. “Subtle Living Equations” is a feature for Taborn’s beautiful harmonies floating in an enveloping ether. “Phantom Ratio” brings the album full circle, Speed intoning a brooding chant as if coaxing over the other musicians, ghosts in their own right. Taborn obliges with a techno-ish groove on a spooky synthesizer, later joined in by King and Lightcap complementing the rhythmic foundation with unexpected counterpoint.

It is unlikely that this quartet will ever perform this music on stage. After all, you can’t just call ghosts and expect them come right in. But be sure to get this album and another favorite of mine, Chants on which the song “Speak The Name” has been driving me crazy for months and I can’t seem to fully understand why it is so good.

Craig Taborn, Daylight Ghosts,  2017, ECM

Craig Taborn   Piano, Electronics

Chris Speed   Tenor Saxophone, Clarinet

Chris Light   Double Bass, Bass Guitar

Dave King    Drums, Electronic Percussion