Steve Lehman Trio with Craig Taborn - The People I Love

Label: Pi Recordings, 2019

Personnel - Steve Lehman: alto saxophone; Craig Taborn: piano; Matt Brewer: bass; Damion Reid: drum set.

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Alto saxophonist and composer Steve Lehman is considered one of the most authoritative figures and highest exponents of modern jazz. However, not willing to settle down in that designation, he keeps ceaselessly looking for new ways to expand creativity. For his latest recording, he has invited the tremendous pianist Craig Taborn to join his remarkable rhythm section composed of bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Damion Reid. Allowing you to experience more resplendence than darkness, The People I Love also serves to celebrate the 10-year existence of the original trio.

The jarring melodies and polyrhythmic feel of “Prelude”, a shortly improvised sax-piano duet, lead us to the febrile drama of “Ih Calam And Ynnus”, a sensory catharsis where Lehman’s cutting-edge language stridently hits the propulsive navigation of piano, bass, and drums. Besides guaranteeing a quirky chordal thrust, Taborn shows off unhesitant reflexes at the time he starts improvising. Right after his massive flights, the forward-thinking pianist dispenses clever accompaniment for Brewer, who, after deliberating with confidence, unites his voice to the saxophonist’s.

The disconcerting additive meter of “Curse Fraction”, a tune first recorded in 2007, may be disorienting for the listener, but the soloists - Lehman and Taborn - bring their A-games while feeling completely at home, curiously opting for distinct modes of expression in order to describe similar viewpoints. In this case, the solicitous posture and counterintuitive volubility of the saxophonist deviates from the gallant mannerisms of the pianist.

If Dialect Fluorescent, the trio's first studio album released six years ago, included fresh readings of interesting tunes coming from a variety of sources - from Coltrane to Jackie McLean to Duke Pearson, then The People I Love follows the same concept, collecting a broader variety of genres and moods. The offerings include Autechre’s “qPlay”, which preserves the dark/light intermittence as well as the breakbeat-infused vibes; Kurt Rosenwinkel’s “A Shifting Design”, a strenuous, piano-less exercise retrieved unedited from a rehearsal tape in which Lehman shouts parables over Reid’s responsive, hip-hop-flavored drum flow; Jeff Tain Watts’s “The Impaler”, which is coupled with Lehman’s “Echoes” (taken from the octet album Travail Transformation and Flow) and loaded with a fresh nu-bop energy; and the accessible “Chance”, a 3/4 piece by pianist Kenny Kirkland, whose startling beauty is the product of the combination of melodious sax contours, shimmering brushwork, and just the right number of rooted bass notes not to lose the desired ambiguity.

Beyond All Limits” is another Lehman composition included in a former octet album (Mise En Abime) and subjected to a sensational arrangement for the current format. Brewer cooks up a lovely preface before putting in motion an Afro-centric dance that later modulates in a breezier rhythmic flux. Already with the impeccable harmonic work from the pianist coloring the scene, Lehman exhibits some of the qualities that define him as a peerless improviser. Discoursing with fire, he resolves his phrases with caustic notes, leaving a sensation of both excitement and suspension in the air. Taborn’s phenomenal sweeps and punctual flurries are strictly cooperative in bringing the quartet to its best. Laughs are heard at the end.

This keen-witted jazz professed with ferocity and abandon is something you can’t afford to miss.

Grade  A

Grade A

Favorite Tracks:
02 - Ih Calam And Ynnus ► 03 - Curse Fraction ► 07 - Beyond All Limits


Vijay Iyer / Craig Taborn - The Transitory Poems

Label: ECM Records, 2019

Personnel - Vijay Iyer: piano; Craig Taborn: piano.

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Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn are two like-minded improvisers that consistently venture off the rails of traditional piano playing, embracing polyrhythmic mutations, effusive lines that speed up into full-flight fancy, and reciprocal textural work that make them distinct architects of unprecedented free jazz sceneries.

They first played together in the early 2000’s, when hired by Roscoe Mitchell to take part of his nine-piece ensemble Note Factory. Now, as a duo, they bring out The Transitory Poems, a thrilling double-piano improvisation recorded live in Budapest, and whose title was excerpted from an interview given by the late pianist Cecil Taylor.

On the opening tune, “Life Line”, they ruminatively pursue an identical idea that almost shapes like a scale. Single-note lines set against dark voicings are later confronted with other bouncy counter-voicings emitted on higher registers. The piece goes through happy stages of modern classical music and boogie-woogie, takes the form of reflective and dreamy meditations, and evokes epic intonations over a simple pedal. It’s like living in a lucid state of temporary confusion, where we know that every musical puzzle will be solved.

Dedicated to painter Jack Whitten, “Sensorium” hangs on a congested interpolation of phrases before ending peacefully, shrouded in neoclassical streams of intuition.

Kairós” is initially sketched with silences and short melodic manifestations that let radiant glimpses of light in. This sort of babbling exercise expands into a smart collection of sounds loaded with left-hand rhythmic jabs and other accentuations. Expect a hallucinating folk dance to finish. “Shake Down” is also structured with celebratory folk passages, centering in a rhythmic idea apt for mercurial variations. At a particular time, bass notes quiver as new sounds shape.

S.H.A.R.D.S.” and “Clear Monolith” are definitely among my favorite pieces. The former employs a jazz-centered melodic-harmonic foil pushed forward in its last section by an electro-rock pulse, while the latter, dedicated to the great pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, is a staccato-infused impromptu turned avant epic. One can sense strong winds coming from the Far East and a spiritual current running through our bodies.

Meshwork”, the record’s final track, is externalized with bustling jolts of energy, culminating in a slower version of Geri Allen’s “When Kabuya Dances”, here tackled with deep sentiment.

Boasting a phenomenal structural discernment, Iyer and Taborn do wonders with their agile fingers, merging their sounds to form a compact and unique whole. The world trusts these top-tier creative minds to keep shaking and amazing the modern music scene.

Grade  A+

Grade A+

Favorite Tracks:
03 - Kairós ► 04 - S.H.A.R.D.S. ► 06 - Clear Monolith


Kris Davis & Craig Taborn - Octopus

Label: Pyroclastic Records, 2018

Lineup - Kris Davis: piano; Craig Taborn: piano.

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Two of the most formidable pianists and master improvisers of today’s jazz, Kris Davis and Craig Taborn, let their endless creativity fly high with a live recording session that comprises magnetic originals and ingenious reimaginations of pieces from Carla Bley and Sun Ra.

The idea came up after the studio collaboration between the two musicians for Davis’ last album Duopoly (Pyroclastic Records, 2016). Their unmistakable rapport triggered a series of live performances across the country, including the University of Michigan, the Wexner Center, and the UC San Diego, where the pieces of Octopus were recorded.

Opening with whispering invocations, Taborn’s “Interruption One” escalates into thoughtful reflections, ultimately inflating through gusts of melodic whirlwinds supported by regular sparse chords and tense strokes anchored in the lower register. Inexorable, these are consequentially transferred to high-pitched zones to work in counterpoint with other premeditated phrases or extemporaneous ideas. The finale includes an erudite cyclic movement with 14 beats per measure that easily catches the ear.

The following two pieces, “Ossining” and “Chatterbox”, were penned by Davis and are very dissimilar in nature. While the former, inspired by her recent move to the Hudson Valley, combines metallic timbres of prepared piano, smothered ticking sounds, and contrapuntal ostinatos in order to enrich the pulse and texture that lead to a serene finale, the latter sounds like a verbose abstraction of a bluesy swing song built through dense and expressionistic maneuvers delivered at a busy pace. Despite the free posture at the surface, tempo and coordination are addressed with unmistakable intuition, a fact that is noticeable again on “Interruption Three”, where the duo’s go-getting demeanor creates an untamed groove armored with agitated phrases and swift harmonic sequences. You’ll also find shrill trills and lively spirals dancing atop.

The 14-minute rendition of Carla Bley’s “Sing Me Softly of the Blues” is drowned in pure experimentalism and comes attached to “Interruption Two”, traversing the realms of classical and avant-jazz.

The album closes with a devoted version of Sun Ra’s “Love in the Outer Space”, whose slow awakening in tones of classical throws us into a state of dreamy idleness before falling into the irresistible African groove in six presented in the original.

Davis and Taborn’s fingers, like the tentacles of an octopus, have the ability to pull simultaneously this music in many directions or, in certain circumstances, make it flow within the same current. As spunky experimenters, their interplay is both surefooted and focused, aiming at a voluminous overall whose parts are congruously attached. There’s a lot to digest here, but this is definitely worthy of your time and attention.

       Grade  A-

       Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Interruption One ► 02 - Ossining ► 06 - Love in the Outer Space


Mats Gustafsson & Craig Taborn - Ljubljana

Label/Year: Clean Feed, 2017

Lineup - Mats Gustafson: saxophone; Craig Taborn: piano.

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Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafson and American pianist Craig Taborn, two dauntless explorers with an accentuated inclination for avant-garde jazz and free improvisation, had never joined forces until the 2015 Slovenia Jazz Festival. 
That singular happening, a live duo performance completely improvised was turned into a two-long-track vinyl record, entitled Ljubljana, which is now available on the Portuguese label Clean Feed.

While this is the first move of the year for the prolific saxophonist, the highly in-demand pianist saw his magnificent album, Daylight Ghosts, coming out on the ECM label three months ago. 

The Eyes Moving Slowly”, the opening and lengthiest track at over 20 minutes, begins with Taborn’s dark combination of bass notes while Gustafson sneaks in with a few air blows. A few minutes later, the latter unleashes the beast in him, showing us the power of his baritone saxophone through vociferous deep-toned outcries that can be tied in with pain, pleasure, or fear. At this phase, Taborn embraces the macabre scenario by creating continuous murky textures of distinct intensities. The verbal fury is gradually mitigated, opening space to a punctilious pianism supported by single-note lines rather than wider chords. Simultaneously, Gustafson plays with timbres and explores sounds of various kinds. The tune ends up in an oddly disjointed dance.

The almost-18-minute “The Ears Facing the Fantasies” starts out through (un)geometric figures engendered by Taborn, who takes in Gustafson’s attacks with a ceaseless, self-ruling posture.
The saxophonist puts into practice a variety of extended techniques - his famous slap and flutter tonguing, roars, growls, and whistles. He complements all this with rapid-fire phrases and the sound of his own voice. Moods range from dense/grotesque to minimalistic/graceful.

The liberties arise with an opulent fervency, drawing intense musical moments that could make this record a hard nut to crack, especially if taken by someone whose taste falls out of the free jazz circuit.

         Grade  B+

         Grade B+

Favorite Track:
01 – The Eyes Moving Slowly


Craig Taborn - Daylight Ghosts

Craig Taborn: piano; Chris Speed: tenor saxophone, clarinet; Chris Lightcap: acoustic and electric bass; Dave King: drums and percussion.

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In addition to an admirable technique, postmodernist pianist Craig Taborn owns an enviable versatility that makes him one of the most in-demand musicians of our times. Although feeling comfortable in any genre, his preferences are clearly steeped in modern creative jazz and free improvisation. Throughout his explorations and reflections, we may identify a compound of other genres such as funk, classical, electronic, and less often Eastern music.

His third album of originals on the ECM label, is entitled Daylight Ghosts and features Chris Speed on reeds, Chris Lightcap on bass, and The Bad Plus’s Dave King on drums, all of them consistent bandleaders who have nothing to prove at this point.

When you see this lineup, it would be reasonable to think of tempestuous rhythms and burning interaction, but what you’ll find here is of more cerebral nature. This doesn’t mean it’s less intense or passionate, and “The Shining One”, the auspicious first tune of the recording, is there to demonstrate that. As expected, Taborn’s piano doesn’t join the rhythm section in a typical way, but rather juxtaposes as a textural layer, rambling freely without ever losing direction. Brief-yet-swift melodic lines are occasionally thrown in by Speed, building aesthetics, and the tune ends up in an elucidatory unison.

Feathery breaths of wind slide into “Abandoned Reminder” and “The Great Silence”. Their soothing ambiance would be better absorbed if you close your eyes and empty your mind. However, while the former gets more adventurous in its final section, mixing avant-jazz and modern classical within a bold 6/8-metered pace, the latter, embellished by Speed's clarinet, acquires a gentle percussive flow.

This mood is turned aside by a couple of gratifying dances – the insidiously Latinized “New Glory”, which sways along with elegance and thrives through Taborn-Speed strange dialogue, and “Ancient”, well anchored in an unflinching cool groove and African pulse that feeds a crescendo. On both these tunes, Lightcap shows off his influential conducting capabilities and superior musicianship.

The title track is a lyrical poem that advances at a swooning 4/4 tempo, transiting to a 5/8 when King’s steady beat together with Taborn's ostinato and Lightcap’s bass pedal are triumphantly superimposed. At this phase, hopeful tones prevail over the previous wistful ones. 

Highly contrasting are the plaintive rendition of Roscoe Mitchell’s “Jamaican Farewell” and the last track, “Phantom Ratio”, a half-hypnotic half-psychedelic electronic-tinged voyage propelled by a robotic pulse.

Suffused with finesse and lyricism, Daylight Ghosts bristles with great dynamics and a very personal character, feeling pretty urban and contemporary. It shows Taborn in its maximum force and a quartet that corresponds accordingly. The power of the collective, overriding any individual moment, leads us to unexplored trajectories and magnificent discoveries. 

         Grade  A+

         Grade A+

Label: ECM Records, 2017
Favorite Tracks: 
01 – The Shining One ► 03 – Daylight Ghosts ► 04 – New Glory