Craig Taborn

Golden Valley

Reid Anderson, Dave King, Craig Taborn, GOLDEN VALLEY IS NOW

This is a godsend. Good music, like all things good, defies easy categorization. That the music on this first album was composed by such maverick figures as Reid Anderson and Dave King – of The Bad Plus fame – and like-minded composer/pianist Craig Taborn, immediately catches the music lover’s attention.  To top it all off, the three Midwesterners have known each other since they were teenagers, so getting together to make and release a first album at this particular time feels like a long overdue no-brainer. It’s coming out now for a reason. It took 25 years to come to be.

Bassist Reid Anderson is on the electric bass and electronics for this album, an appropriate choice for the rock-ambient soundscape unfolding across the ten tracks, and an ideal companion to Craig Taborn’s array of acoustic and electric keyboards. Dave King plays both acoustic and electronic drums, and fans of the versatile drummer will no doubt recognize his deft touch on the kit.

So, what shenanigans did the three friends forming this triumvirate pull this time?  In a nutshell, music that sounds immediately familiar, poppy, accessible, and yet so unclassifiable.

The opener “City Diamond” sets the tone for an album that meshes pop catchiness with jazz braininess, and before you know it, you’re nodding your head to its simple melody,  glossing over the broiling rhythmic foundation of Anderson and King, tossing curveballs left and right.

“Sparkles and Snakes” sounds like an 90s indie rock anthem Sonic Youth could have written while jamming out during the making of their Dirty album. Minus the shifting time signature and Taborn’s electric guitar-like synthesizer.

When it comes to acknowledging and embracing your musical roots regardless of genre and synthetizing them into a full-fledged offering a quarter of a century later, this comes close to perfection. Having grown up in the same cultural and musical environment, the three friends have a common ground to explore and do so with unrestrained enthusiasm and a keen sense of composition.

On the spacy slow-burner “This Is Nothing”, the music simmers out of a dream, plodding along to an unmapped destination. Taborn’s seemingly detuned organ-like keyboard keeps the mood spooky and vibrant at once.

The album has an enveloping quality that takes the listener on a dreamy adventure but not one where the brain just goes to sleep. Arguably all the tunes are hooky in a pop kind of way, but they all have a specific shape and unlikely foil that makes them more than what they seem to be on first listen. You’d expect no less from three experienced musicians equally at ease with jazz improv, 20th century classical modernism, alternative rock and what not.

“Polar Heroes” is a testament to these musicians’ surreal capacity at stacking blocks of sound and paring them down to their essential core. The song remains airy while building up momentum all the way through.

Now “You Might Live Here” is quite something. It has the kind of definitive inevitability that will make you wish you had grown up in Golden Valley, Minnesota, – small town America where three kids playing out of their garages somehow envision a path toward quality music. King’s four-to-the floor beat and Anderson’s even-note bass line bring to mind mainstream 80s pop dance music and make it sound actually lovable, eroding the strongest biases you may have against the 80s sound. Don’t hold back, eat your cotton candy and go for a joy ride.

For music that pulls on such a wide variety of influences, the album is tied together by a unity of vision and purpose: the fun of making music with your friends that celebrates common roots and textural diversity. On “Hwy 1000”, King’s Aphex Twin-style skittish drumming powers the layered motifs down a Californian – in fact Midwestern – road stretching away into the distance. You’re zipping along, windows down, but as usual, it’s not about the destination, it’s about the trip.

I have not read any reviews  for this album as I didn’t want to be influenced in any appreciable way. If you somehow stumbled on this post, here’s my recommendation on a long commute, or just any time of the day. Play this album through and just enjoy the vibe. Golden Valley, wherever you are, some talented musicians picked up on your hidden treasures. It’s about time.

A complex emotion

How did you come to jazz? To this question, I often find myself scratching my head and typically settle on a vague answer only made more vague by an impulsively apologetic shrug. “Well, you know, it just happened”. There was never any kind of jazz-related music playing around the house and even my childhood piano lessons didn’t put the genre on my radar the whole time I took them. It wasn’t exactly frowned upon or disregarded by my circle of friends and relatives. It simply didn’t exist. The closest I ever got to an awareness of the music growing up was a scuffed compilation CD of Glenn Miller my parents had left sitting on a dusty bookshelf in the living room. How did it get there in the first place? I will never know. As I moved into my late teens, I picked out a Coltrane retrospective CD while shopping with my parents at a grocery store in my hometown in France. I remember it had the song Russian Lullaby on it, the last track. I had never heard anything played with so much intensity and fire, at that breakneck speed. And no amp or savvy production to give it a boost. What the heck is this, I thought. This beat is infectiously fast! Is this humanly possible? From here on out, I went on a Coltrane binge – mostly the late and supposedly less accessible recordings – that didn’t leave much room for any other jazz artist or other music style for a while. After wearing out Stellar Regions and the Live at the Village Vanguard sessions – which ripped apart any sense of metronomic stability – I worked my way back through the earlier records and slowly gravitated toward the more straight-up swinging jazz I had only had a glimpse of before at the time. That’s when Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue caught my attention. Low and behold, it had my new hero on it, blowing his heart out on every tune. So, it is possible to make a truly distinctive and individual statement  in the most collective setting one can think of, I mused. Thus began my sinuous initiation to this thing called jazz. Twenty years down the road and a new instrument to practice – the double bass – I’m still struggling to define the contours of the art form. There are times when I just can’t take the polyphonic quality of some of the music and  go into a jazz-free regimen for days, only playing rap, classical and what not,  or no music at all.  Jazz can be overwhelming as complex emotions are.

I guess that’s where I’m getting at with his post.

As much as I have denied it defensively for years, I came to realize that yes, jazz is complex.  But complexity is not a sanctuary for intellectuals or an elitist class of the Enlightened. Human emotions are complex. To me, when played sincerely, jazz is the epitome of a complex human emotion, one that ties the cerebral to the elemental seamlessly. At the risk of overstating the point, we all have something jazz inside us. Sure, the term originated under unfavorable auspices. As the BAM (Black American Movement) controversy made abundantly clear, the word jazz itself is morally problematic when we look at its racist and derogatory beginnings. It’s no wonder, then, that most jazz lovers and haters are still fairly opinionated about where to draw the line between jazz and non jazz, not realizing that this line has never been and will never be scored in indelible ink.

To me, the difficulty of defining the genre is a testament to its cultural importance, enduring appeal and vital energy. It will not be pigeonholed because it has change, difference and human interaction at its core. I’ve always been struck by the fact that in the early days of the nascent jazz idiom – predominantly in the music of New Orleans – performers often played over each other and rarely got a solo spot to shine. They all soloed together simultaneously,  so to speak. Yet it was the combination of individual talents that shaped and guided the overall sound of the band. In that way, people like Louis Armstrong  or Duke Ellington clearly deserve the jazz originators label that they usually get credit for. Their music served as a catalyst of the marriage of Black folk culture and European classical-inspired white America.

Ask your friends if they listen to any jazz and the handful of those who do will likely mention a couple of classics from the 60s but probably nothing past this golden age of the music. I understand that, that’s what I started listening to when I was first turned on to it. It’s probably harder to know where to look for jazz artists today as the music is stylistically more varied than it was sixty years ago, and paradoxically a lot more accessible, just a click away on social media or the Internet in general. Yet, in this day and age of hip hop, pop or other-infused jazz, even today’s up and coming artists always have some kind of connection to these foundational roots, however unconsciously buried they may seem to be. 

Since this is a place where I should recommend things, I’d like to share some of the relatively recent releases that I have been listening to over the last year or so. Inevitably, they reflect my personal inclination but hopefully also the diverse range of music that today’s  “jazz” artists are creating. Jazz alert: the styles range from the post-post-post (are there more?) bop vernacular to plain esoteric stuff. As guitarist Bill Frisell simply puts it on his recent solo album, Music Is, “music IS”.

If any of you out there reading this wants to share their story of how they encountered jazz and how they look upon the music, I’d be very happy to feature their story as a guest post on wellyouneedit. So, fire away.

Matt Brewer  Mythology

Brad Mehldau   Gabriel

Flash Pig Year of the Pig

Andrew Cyrille Quartet  The Declaration of Musical Independence

Bill Frisell  Thomas Morgan  Small Town

Craig Taborn   Daylight Ghosts

Eric Revis  Sing Me Some Cry

Glenn Zaleski    My Ideal

Mary Halvorson   Code Girl

The Bad Plus  Never Stop II

Mark Guiliana  Quartet   Jersey

Etc…

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In steady rotation

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As 2013 draws to a close, wellyouneedit celebrates its one-year anniversary. How did that happen? It’s been a bumpy road and I’m still not sure why I bother to put these thoughts out there. Oh well, for writing’s sake, I guess, which is a pretty good reason, isn’t it? Here, I want to thank my handful of faithful readers scattered around France and the globe. You know who you are.

The year-end lists are flooding the Internet. With a jazz-heavy listening and playing schedule to handle, I simply don’t have the time to check out the plethora of good “non-jazz” music released in this day and age. As a music fan, though, I like to think that this thing called jazz is not as insular and monolithic as the naysayers would have you believe. Today’s prominent improvisers tap into all kinds of music and extramusical sources to shape their path in the continuum. The result of that blending process doesn’t always work but it is integral to this art. As the aggressive debates raging on the Internet and the blogosphere show, the term jazz is very restrictive and contentious in many ways. Specifically, it doesn’t acknowledge the shape-shifting qualities at work in spontaneous collective improvisation, and it doesn’t do justice to the musicians who have continuously pushed the envelope to move the music forward. But for lack of a better and all-embracing term, we’re just going to have to stick with it for a while! If there’s anything to change about the presentation of jazz to the neophyte, it might involve defining it not so much as a music style per se as an approach to addressing and appropriating musical content – Duke Ellington or Bjork, it doesn’t matter.  The purists will take issue with that view, but the purists are wrong. Get real, purists! Trying to dictate what an art is and what it is not is a pointless struggle. The following list is a random and unrated selection of albums that played on a regular basis or caught my ear, here at wellyouneedit, in 2013. Inevitably, a lot of it is jazz, but in my book good music transcends category. Enjoy.

Dave King, I’ll Be Ringing you (2012)

With fellow Minnesotans Bill Carrothers and Billy Preston, the drummer revisits the standards with haunting introspection.  A well-tended fire smolders through this quiet record.  Huddle up, make some tea and kill the lights. And swing by the wynit archive for the short album review.

Brad Mehldau Trio, House on Hill (2006)

I finally decided which of Brad Mehldau’s albums I would take on a desert island. Right down to the enlightening liner notes (on Bach, Brahms and Monk), this one is a stellar document of the early trio (with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy). Strong compositions and high-caliber playing for all involved.

Orrin Evans, Flip the script (2012); Blessed ones (2001)

The ability of these tight trios (bassists Eric Revis and Ben Wolfe and drummers Nasheet Waits and Donald Edwards) to bend the swing tradition and honor it at the same time keeps astounding me. The demotion job on Autumn Leaves will have you scratching your head first time around but sound magically obvious after a few listens.

Matana Roberts,  Mississippi Moonchile (2013)

A powerful artistic statement from the great alto saxophonist and multidisciplinary artist. This beautiful suite is Roberts’ personal take on Black American history, specifically through her female lineage. The music is a seamless collage/conflation of the various strands of African-American music. The fascinating story continues.

The Bad Plus, Made Possible (2012)

Epic melancholia, joyful abandon, frantic energy and telepathic cohesion. The trio does make anything possible. In the words of drummer Dave King « this band contains some of the most punk energy I’ve ever seen or heard as a musician ». But make no mistake, this is unquestionably as tight and honest a modern jazz trio as it gets. Watch the EPK for their 2012 record and check out the amazing discography.

Vijay Iver Trio, Accelerando (2012)

The award-winning pianist has the critics divided. Undaunted, I listen to the staccato rhythms of bassist Stephen Crump and Marcus Gilmore and nod to the vibe.

Glenn Gould,  Bach English Suites , Inventions & Sinfonias (1982)

To think that all of Bach’s keyboard music was conceived for the harpsichord is confounding, especially when played by Glenn Gould on piano. Timeless.

Mark Turner, Yam Yam (1994), Dharma Days (2001)

Whether the album cover of Yam Yam was a wise marketing decision is a matter of personal aesthetics but the music shows off Turner’s tasteful lyricism and hugely influential voice on tenor. Dharma Days is the one to get. Features Kurt Rosenwinkel (guitar), Reid Anderson (bass), Nasheet Waits (drums).

Eric Revis, Parallax (2012)

The potent bassist delivers a fine inside/outside jazz offering. Serious chops and burning grooves across the board. Features Nasheet Waits (drums), Jason Moran (piano) and Ken Vandermark (tenor sax and clarinet)

J Dilla, Donuts (2006)

The legendary hip hop producer probably owned a sizable record collection. This album splices together a nice selection of soul and rap cuts from the 60s onward. I usually play the first song and find myself listening through the album.

Geri Allen, The Life of a Song (2004)

In the company of such heavyweights as Dave Holland and Jack de Johnette, Geri Allen found sympathetic support to deliver her groove-packed set of originals and rearranged standards. There isn’t a weak moment in this program. Highly recommended.

Darius Jones & Matthew Shipp, Cosmic Lieder (2010)

Smooth-flowing dialogue between two singular voices of free forms. Shipp’s dark low-end tones take on a welcome brightness against Jones’ honking enthusiasm.

Melanie De Biasio, No Deal (2013).

With the pared-down instrumentation of flute, drums and keyboard, Melanie De Biasio’s enveloping vocals push through the ether with grace and a sense of subdued drama.

Drew Gress, Black Butterflies  (2005)

Lush writing, infectious grooves and free blowing make up this alluring album.For Craig Taborn’s solo on the song Bright Idea alone, this one is worth a good listen. Features Tim Berne (alto sax), Ralph Alessi (Trumpet), Craig Taborn (piano), Tom Rainey (drums).

John Coltrane  The Classic Quartet – the complete Impulse studio recordings (1961-1965)

Immortal. What would jazz have sounded like if that quartet hadn’t existed? Eternally inspiring.

Thelonious Monk

Do I really have to drum the point home? You have to get with Monk. Period.

Craig Taborn Light Made Lighter (2001)

Taborn’s debut album amply demonstrates his versatility in the classic piano trio format. A good place to start.

Butcher Brown – A sides B sides

On their self-released and generously free (cop it on their website) debut, Butcher Brown make instrumental groove music that sounds oddly new despite the overt references to 70s funk. An ideal moodsetter that doesn’t sacrifice musicianship for chilling’s sake. Check it out.

Elmo Hope, Complete Studio Recordings

What a tragic life his was. It’s time to restore Hope’s profound contribution to modern jazz piano music. No less than Monk’s best friend and favorite player.

Julia Holter  Loud City Song (2013)

Wow. This one almost didn’t make my list. There is definitely more than ambient and pop to this music. But for now I’ll settle for uncategorizable.

And countless more to satisfy the music junkie’s appetite but that I’m too lazy to write a single word about.