Craig Taborn Trio
Thursday, April 5
Better than: Any live music I’ve heard this year so far.
“I’m not one for much discourse while I’m up here,” said Craig Taborn, addressing the crowd briefly before he sat down at the piano last night. He was smiling politely, offering some reassurance as he tried to shake off the mantle of entertainer during his debut as a bandleader at the Village Vanguard. (The pianist was already on the club’s schedule this week as a sideman when veteran drummer Paul Motian, the original headliner, passed last November.) “I’m happy—honored, even—that you’ve all come out to hear us,” Taborn continued, “and of course, we really want you to enjoy the music.” The audience tittered a bit at the mix of certitude and uncertainty with which he concluded the intro. “You’ll only hear more from me again if I have something, um… interesting to say.”
If Taborn’s trio trafficked in orthodoxy, his brief turn at the mic might have represented a clever feint. But what happened from the time of his minor-key opening until the band’s first breather some 47 minutes later was so riveting that any speech would’ve marred the flow. It was distinguished by invention as much as length, defined by an arc of shifting shapes and textures rather than the conventions of strict tune formation. In this way it mimicked the sweep of Avenging Angel, the brilliant Taborn solo-piano disc for ECM last year that seemed best swallowed whole despite demarcated tune titles. (The fire showing through the disc’s iciness bore comparisons to Brian Eno.)
Taborn got under way by picking out a gorgeous off-kilter melody that left the suggestion of swing to drummer Gerald Cleaver and bassist Thomas Morgan. The combination of the piano’s warmth and the rhythm section’s sensitive drive made the music feel familiar even though the piece, like every composition last night save for the balladic version of “But Not For Me” near set’s end, was an original the band has yet to record. One change in direction, at about the 25-minute mark, occurred when Taborn began marking time with double-handed, seductively spaced chords, lifting and dropping his hands on the keyboard as if he was sure of execution and yet unsure of what might transpire. It turned out to be a setup: His left kept the pace, tolling like a darkly hued bell while the right engaged in upper-register sprints. When the piece finally kicked into a Cleaver drum solo, the pendulous vibe was still there, if only by subtle implication.
The piece that took over much of the 24-minute second half seemed to mock (in my mind, at least) the contemporary impulse to make jazz into pop music that bears only the faintest resemblance to bop. It began with a rolling solo piano figure that Cleaver expanded with a mix of crash cymbal and hi-hat, and when Morgan finally punched in what became significant is how all the pieces fit together first hypnotically, then danceably, and yet without the presence of anything as rote as a repeated bass vamp or backbeat. The band clearly understood the essentials of the phrase “in the pocket” without there actually being one. Somewhere between Flying Lotus and a sun-drenched island groove before Taborn eased out of if it in waltz-time—a lullaby-like segue into a luminously slow “But Not For Me”—its unstructured beat surged forward just long enough to make clearing a dance space at the Vanguard seem viable. It was a reminder that Taborn came to prominence with sax stars such as James Carter, Roscoe Mitchell and Tim Berne, but he was also working behind the scenes with Detroit techno phenom Carl Craig.
Critical bias: Sometimes it seems like Taborn is too reluctant a bandleader.
Random notebook dump: At one point, the audience looked split between head-bobbers and those with their eyes closed in meditation.
But Not For Me