Well-traveled Craig Taborn speaks on homecoming gig, new album and more



JamesOnJazzsquareIn a big push forward, Golden Valley, Minnesota prodigy, Craig Taborn’s new album, Chants, (ECM) will be released on April 23. This will be followed by a tour which will be aided by a big headlining mini-festival, “Heroic Frenzies: The Music of Craig Taborn” on Friday, April 26 at the Walker Art Center’s McGuire Theater in Minneapolis.

The Walker was one of 11 Chamber Music of America (CMA) 2013 nonprofit presenting jazz grantees and as a result will be presenting the Craig Taborn Trio. A total of $116,875 was distributed by the CMA— which is the national network for ensemble musicians— to assist with concert-associated costs.

In the past, the Walker has presented the music of provocative and influential jazz pianists-composers Jason Moran and Vijay Iyer. It makes sense to add Taborn, a jazz keyboardist-composer, to that impressive list. It’s hard not to appreciate the breath of his experience and the range of his talents.

The MSR caught up with Craig Taborn (CT) prior to the kick-off of his European tour on April 2 to discuss preparations for his upcoming Walker gig and new album among other topics.

Craig Taborn to head  his own mini festival  at the Walker Photo by John Rogers  courtesy ECM records
Craig Taborn to head his own mini festival at the Walker
Photo by John Rogers


MSR: Where and when was the last time you performed in the Twin Cities?

CT: I am not exactly sure the last time I played in the Twin Cities, but it was either with Dave King at the Walker or it was with Chris Potter Underground at The Dakota. At least two years have gone by, perhaps three. As far as my own groups are concerned I have not played in the area for almost 17 years!

MSR: The Craig Taborn Mini-Festival at the Walker on April 26 is a big headlining presentation for you as a leader (solo, the trio and Junk Magic). With a big gig — celebration and homecoming — comes big expectations. How do you plan to juggle it all?

CT: Well all three projects have a long performing history and have master musicians so the biggest task for me is to make sure I don’t get in everyone else’s way. The music making with each of these groups is always a pleasure and I find it usually exceeds my expectations.

With regards to the trio, we will be coming off of a European tour so that music will be well in hand, and I do continual solo concerts. Junk Magic is logistically the most challenging and we have not played in two years, but for the most part the music builds upon the musicians encountering the electronics in the performance context, so a space like the Walker is ideal for that experience.

It will actually be the most relaxed live performance that group has done since we have mostly played in the context of large multi-artist festivals (Pitchfork, Saalfelden, Gulbenkian, etc) with harried set-up times and very short line checks. So this will be a treat!

MSR: Your new album is Chants, with all compositions written by you, and featuring a trio that’s been together for eight years and has toured the world. In terms of tracks, what pushes you most outside your comfort zone?

CT: Ideally each piece is designed to challenge certain conventions in performance and push the musicians into unfamiliar spaces that require creative responses. I find that the only way that I feel satisfied playing music these days is to challenge my own aesthetic limitations in order to expand my awareness of possibility and develop strategies to engage those possibilities. Every performance brings both aesthetic and personal growth.

MSR: There’s a rich and vast tradition of the piano jazz trio, which is informed by the Nat King Cole Trio. With Chants and the supporting tour, how are you hoping to make your own unique contribution to that growing tradition?

CT: Well the trio was formed in an effort to discover and develop an ensemble grammar that would at one level be an extension of the piano trio tradition and at another level be unique enough to offer something to that lineage. Specifically this trio idea relies on the knowledge and musicality of both Thomas Morgan and Gerald Cleaver.

I was not so much interested in having an instrumentation of a traditional piano trio (piano, bass, and drums) as I was in having an ensemble in which my piano approach was challenged and enhanced by the other musicians. It just turns out that Thomas and Gerald play those instruments, but my decision to use them was based on their musical personalities and not on the instruments they played. It could just have easily been another instrumentation.

I knew that because of our shared reverence for the tradition, but also our shared interest in not making a prior aesthetic assumptions, that whatever the group approach was it would involve enough risk and insight that it would in some way be unique. I think in most instances the jazz ensemble tradition is ultimately about the group identity that evolves between the players and allowing that to be fully realized.

MSR: In terms of rising-star status and those with hard-driving swing, diverse artistry and impeccable technique, who are two young pianists on the scene that interest you most today, and why?

CT: It is very difficult to single out individual pianists because I think there are quite a number of strong young players. Also owing to their youth some players may have arrived at some kind of personal voice but others are just on the verge, and so given another year or two, many may suddenly flower in wonderful ways.

I can say that I greatly enjoy David Virelles’ musicality and commitment to discovery. He has a remarkable facility already but he is more invested in taking chances and challenging himself which are the qualities of true innovators. A few pianists that come to mind are Matt Mitchell, Robert Glasper, Kris Davis, John Escreet, Kaja Draksler, David Bryant, Angelica Sanchez and far too many more to list easily. I am already excluding too many by naming only a few!

MSR: Last May you participated in two-tribute concerts to Cecil Taylor at New York’s Harlem Stage Gatehouse with Vijay Iyer, and Amina Claudine Myers. Iyer spoke of Taylor’s impact on his aesthetics to DownBeat. How has Taylor impacted your aesthetics?

CT: Cecil Taylor is one of my earliest and most central influences in making music. In his very singular and innovative synthesis of the jazz piano tradition and his example as an unwavering pure creative artist, his life and work stand out for us all as a standard to be met. I can’t think of another living musician who has held their ground in quite the same way.

MSR: What are your thoughts on today’s jazz music? Are we in a creative slump, or do you see this as time of great creative growth?

CT: Definitely not a creative slump! On the contrary, I think there are more accomplished musicians, and more musicians working in a wide variety of contexts from traditional to avant-garde, than ever.

Throughout the history of music there has continually been creative growth in the music. That never ceases. But there have been variations in how much of that work is visible to different scenes or communities. So there are times when it may seem that things have ground down creatively or that the quality level has regressed but that is never really the case. It is just that the people doing that kind of work may not be in view. But they are always there.

At the present time I know that there are more young musicians doing more different kinds of improvised/jazz- related music than I have seen before in my lifetime and it is inspiring.


For more information and tickets to the Craig Taborn Mini-Festival at the Walker on April 26, go to www.walkerart.org.

Robin James welcomes reader responses at jamesonjazz@spokesman-recorder.com.