For Craig Taborn’s Birthday, a Downbeat Feature From 2008

The magnificent pianist/keyboardist/soundshaper Craig Taborn turned 46 yesterday. For the occasion, I’m posting a Downbeat feature that I wrote about him in 2008.

* * * *

Home in Brooklyn during the first days of spring, Craig Taborn was engaged in research and development. Among Taborn’s various self-imposed tasks was to memorize 10 new Tim Berne compositions in preparation for a three-week April tour in Europe with Berne’s Science Friction group, to which, during the winter, Taborn had contributed—as he had done with David Torn’s Presenz, which enfolds Berne’s band—slamming grooves and an orchestral array of sounds from keyboards, synths and home-brewed “junk” electronics.

“With Science Friction, there’s a lot of electronics and reading,” said Taborn, pointing across his living room to a concert upright Bechstein piano on which Berne’s scores shared space with piano music by Arnold Schoenberg. “Sometimes I’ll want to do a particular part on one keyboard, another part here, then another there. It would be a real problem to read music and also think about all the knobs and dials, or to look at a computer screen and problem-solve while the part is coming.”

Taborn’s penchant for sustaining creative fluency through a 360-degree span of stylistic taxonomies, in contexts “inside” and “outside,” acoustic or electronic, makes him a singular figure among improvisers of his generation. But at this moment, his keyboard wizardry was posing a peculiar problem. “I’m still deciding what to bring,” he said. He wasn’t talking about clothes.

A half-full fiberglass camera case, neatly stacked in two tiers, lay at his feet. “Flights in Europe have been strict on overweight,” he said. He added that during his winter travels he had drastically exceeded the 20-kilo limit beyond which a 10 Euros per kilo fee is imposed.

“Now, this case is actually light for its kind,” he said. “Nothing happens to it—it’s waterproof and you can throw it down the stairs. But it’s 7 kilos empty, and there’s no way to avoid the overweight. So now I’m thinking, ‘What do I want to deal with? What do I need and how much do I want to take?’”

A possible option would be to place the contents of the case into the square bag that sat across the room, transforming it into an unprotected, carry-on satchel. “You get on these little connecting flights and they want to hand-check your stuff,” he said, nixing the notion. “So you’re giving $1500 worth of stuff to somebody in Italy, and God knows what happens once it’s out of your sight. You get to the gig, and it’s just gone.”

Taborn would bring a laptop with a hard-drive loaded with software emulations of all the instruments he plays, and a contract rider stipulated that each venue would provide an acoustic piano, a Rhodes, and a virtual Hammond organ. “I’ve been trying to phase out my laptop thing, because it takes me out of improvising,” he said. “It’s wonderful, but I find I get more mileage out of one or two nice things that do something.”

Deciding upon those “nice things” was therefore the task at hand. One essential was a coil of high-grade electrical cord in a corner of the case. “This is the thing that makes the weight,” he said ruefully. Below the cord was a Line 6 Delay pedal, for echoes, and a Berenger mixer with two stereo and two mono lines.

“A lot of people send everything to the house soundman, but I like to mix myself,” he said. “I’ll plug in the Rhodes and the organ and a couple of synths, then send all the lines to my own amp, and have them mike the amp. That gives me complete control over my sound.”

Taborn considered a keyboard and a wood-trimmed, knob-loaded Creamware Pro-12 ASB synthesizer, built to capture the essence of the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, a popular synth at the cusp of the ’80s.

“I’m an improviser, and I don’t know exactly what sound I want to make until I hear what’s going on,” he said. “During the ’70s into the ’80s, as synthesizers became refined, the emphasis was put on programmability and keeping presets—you designed your sounds at home with the luxury of time and silence, and then could call them up with, say, button No. 1 at a specific spot in the music. It’s like tuning your TV to your favorite channels. You always know that exact sound will be there, balanced the way you want in the environment.

“I’m interested in the process of making and designing the sound as part of the improvisation,” he continued. ‘I come more out of Sun Ra, who approached synthesizers by turning the knobs, playing in real time, and figuring it out as he went along. Those instruments were new, so people didn’t know them, and they weren’t designed to be pre-programmed, so you couldn’t call up a sound. Throughout the ’90s, hardcore musicians from hip-hop, techno and electronica were buying those older synthesizers to be able to personalize and improvise in real time. The marketplace went way up, and now it’s hard to find things that don’t have knobs and switches.”

Taborn continued to ponder the issue of weight. “I have this whole rig inside my laptop,” he said, referring to his Macbook Pro. “I could plug it into the system, and use a little controller to do all this. I could even emulate the knobs. I always take the laptop with me, and I’ve used it a lot in the last couple of years—although I like to have things dedicated, and I prefer the real thing, I don’t prefer it to carrying all that stuff around. I do hear qualitative differences in the sound. Also, if your entire setup is on the laptop and it crashes, then what do you do? If I run one thing, for instance, it will probably be OK. But if, to emulate a sound I get in real time, I layer a software version of a Prophet-5 and then a software version of a delay, the processors have trouble handling it. It takes a lot of number-crunching in the computer to program things that have the subtle play of an analog oscillator or analog filter, and their imperfections, such as going out of tune a bit when it heats up. For what I do, a lot of real-time manipulation, turning knobs frantically, the Sun Ra kind of thing, the computers will freeze up.”

Offering to demonstrate the virtual gear, Taborn transitioned to his studio, a converted second bedroom. Among other things, it contained a Mac Power desktop, Event 2020 reference-quality speakers, a Mackie 1202-VLZ3 mixer, a MOTU-2408 interface, a Kurzweil K-2500 synthesizer, an Oxygen-2 mini-keyboard, and a model 240B Wurlitzer electric piano from the early ’70s with a broken speaker. A larger wood-body 140B from 1962 was in the closet. His personal Rhodes was parked at his parents’ home in Minneapolis.

Taborn turned on the Mac, clicked Applications, pulled up his Prophet-5 knockoff, a Native Instruments Pro-53, and waited. The response was sluggish. “Something weird is going on,” he said. “If I were live and it started doing this it would be a drag.”

He opened the B-4 Hammond organ sample and uncorked a grooving line on the QWERTY keys. “I don’t play the keyboard computer like that, but that’s how it’s mapped,” he said. He switched the setting from “Funky Kingston” to an idiomatic Joey DeFrancesco-generated B-3 sound.

The computer was balking, so Taborn went to the closet. He pulled out a bright-red keyboard-synth labeled Yamaha PSS-470, the kind musicians once used, in Taborn’s words, “to play a cheesy samba.” Its wiring and circuitry were transformed into random pathways and patterns by Taborn’s friend Ryan Olcott. “You can’t emulate this on a computer,” he said. “I have two of these. You could get them in pawn shops for $50–$100, and then go inside it. Ryan is into these real improvising machines. This one came out in the ’80s, and it has a WHAM! sound, like George Michael, in its original functionality.”

He played a skronky, distorted line. “It can do something like this almost immediately, and when you turn on the switches it gets you into some abstract areas. The mentality is avant-garde; it’s made to be random, so you don’t know what it’s going to do. That’s why I like improvising with it—responding to the sounds and dealing with them is endless.”
As if to emphasize his affinity for radical esthetics, Taborn turned to a pile of books on a shelf, topped by the anthology Film Theory And Criticism. “Film, dance and music all deal with time, and how these events unfold in time is very influential for me,” he said. It was observed that, like experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, well-represented in that text, or, for that matter, such formative musical heroes as Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner and Cecil Taylor, Taborn thinks like a Modernist, focused on the purity and elaboration of a particular idea, rather than translating styles into ironic cultural signifiers in the Postmodern manner. You’re not likely to hear David Torn play hardbop chordal lines as Taborn did with James Carter during the ‘90s, or Berne to limn the melody of Ellington’s “Stevedore Serenade” in an idiomatic manner, as Taborn did with Carter some years ago at a Jazz at Lincoln Center concert. But Taborn seems not to recognize hierarchical distinctions between the idioms. He’s as committed to generating fresh ideas in one environment as the other.

After his April tour with Berne, Taborn would return to Europe for the first three weeks of May with Scott Colley and Brian Blade in David Binney’s quartet, interpreting Binney’s harmonically dense, long-form jazz compositions on acoustic piano. Over the previous six months on continent-hopping long hauls with Chris Potter’s Underground, he had donned his Fender Rhodes hat, juxtaposing crisp, surging odd-meter bass lines with simultaneously improvised melodic variations, supporting the proceedings with informed, tasteful comp. Briefer trips and local one-offs—with Roscoe Mitchell, William Parker, Gerald Cleaver, Drew Gress and Susie Ibarra—augmented Taborn’s mix, as did a September 2007 acoustic trio engagement at the Monterey Jazz Festival with Cleaver and bassist Thomas Morgan.

A broadcast of the latter performance documents a six-tune, 55-minute suite marked by fresh ideas and unending musical conversation. It fills a gap—although Taborn, 38, has a large enough backlog of solo, trio, electronic, and ensemble material to fill several CDs, his last acoustic recording appeared in 2001 on Light Made Lighter (Thirsty Ear), while his most recent leader date is 2004’s Junk Magic (Thirsty Ear), a seven-track suite on which Taborn convened violinist Mat Maneri, tenor saxophonist Aaron Stewart and The Bad Plus drummer Dave King to investigate themes executed with various circuitry and computerized synthesis.

“I’ve postponed my leader thing,” Taborn said with a shrug. “Because of finances, I take the tours as they come, then everything fills up.”

Taborn’s employers state unequivocally that his incessant sidemanning in no way inhibits his ability to project his sonic personality.

“It takes a lot of confidence not to go along with the crowd,” Berne said. “If Craig wanted to, he could eliminate all this other stuff and impress everyone with his piano trio. But he based all his decisions on his interest in the music he plays, not only his career or being seen as the great pianist he is.

“I wanted to do away with guitar and bass, but somehow have the power and range of both instruments,” Berne continued, explaining why he first recruited Taborn around 2000. “I didn’t want synthesizers, and I didn’t want somebody to play like a keyboard player, so to speak. I wanted somebody who just played music on the keyboard.”

“Craig is an idiosyncratic genius, which is a word I don’t use lightly,” Torn said. “He’s not a chameleon in the studio sense of the word; he has strong conceptual ideas about what he’s doing in any context. But with the exception of his acoustic playing, which is remarkable, he’s incapable of pinning himself down to an idiom or particular sound. He’s the rare musician who takes the approach, ‘what can I do with this instrument?’ rather than playing through its book of techniques. Regardless of its organic or electronic nature, every instrument is an expression of technology; Craig is able to eschew the technological aspect in order to get out the sounds that he feels are suitanble for the music he’s playing.”

Furthermore, as Berne noted, Taborn directs his speculative investigations towards the function of the moment. “Even playing something complicated, Craig simplifies it to its fundamental components,” Berne said. “He won’t do anything just to show he can; if one note does it, that’s what he’ll play. He also has the guts to lay out, to not play, when most people would feel obligated to. He’ll always take the opposing view. He’ll pose another question or look at things in a way you didn’t consider.”

Potter noted that Taborn’s experimentalism stems less from a contrarian sensibility than a desire to explore the ramifications of the multiple vocabularies that comprise his frame of reference. “Craig has spent a lot of time learning and thinking about the lessons of past masters in the jazz tradition—and other traditions, too,” he said. “When he improvises, he keeps the essence of what makes his influences work musically but takes care not to copy what they did. Perhaps he’ll introduce elements from other sources. He’s intellectually thorough enough to take his own angle.”

Particularly when deploying electronics, Taborn hews to textural imperatives not dissimilar to those that impelled Mitchell and the members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago—an early Taborn influence—to incorporate “little instruments” into the sonic flow 40 years ago.

“I’m always aware of sound,” Taborn said. “I approach the acoustic piano somewhat as a sound device, which it is, but my relationship to it contains a lot of pianism. I learn the Rhodes, the Hammond, the Wurlitzer, the electronics, so that I can use them as devices to work with ideas, but I don’t practice them like I practice piano. Electronic music isn’t playing certain scales over certain chords, or working over a particular form. You might play with the delay, or the rate of an echo, or modify the reverb. It’s less about technique on an instrument, which a lot of jazz is, and more related to visual and conceptual art.”

But it’s also about being able to execute almost any idea he thinks of—Taborn possesses a surfeit of technique. He doesn’t use it, as he puts it, “play in one bag and then shift to another.” Rather, Taborn prefers to borrow fluently rendered vocabulary from the diverse musical languages he commands to create contextual gestures that support and augment the flow. The architecture trumps the facade.

“Prescribing notions of the parameters of bebop or hardbop or avant-garde is to posit a sort of fixed thing that was never fixed anywhere,” he said. “It’s useful as a model to construct and look at things, but it doesn’t have much bearing on the creative process. I draw specific influence from Frank Zappa, Blood Ulmer and Wayne Shorter, not the note choices or harmony, but in phrasing and sound. What’s interesting is that it doesn’t translate to piano or keyboards at all, but comes out sounding like something else.” DB

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