Saturday, April 07, 2012
On fire: Craig Taborn at the Vanguard
Growing up in Kansas City, I played a lot of video games. During one phase, my friend Drew and I became obsessed with a cartoonish basketball title called NBA Jam. A key feature of this game was the possibility of one of your players achieving "on fire" status, awarded after they had scored three consecutive baskets.
After a two-basket streak, the game's announcer would say, "He's heating up…," and then, if you were able to land that crucial third basket, he would yell out, "He's on fire!" At this point, pandemonium would ensue: Your player suddenly became superhuman, gaining the ability to sprint turbo-speed and to take off from half-court for monster anti-gravity dunks. There was a wild ecstasy to these moments, your player turning into some kind of supernova. All you had to do was press a few buttons and rack up the points.
It seems silly to say so, but I couldn't help thinking of "He's on fire!" last night as I watched Craig Taborn perform at the Village Vanguard. I cannot remember the last time I witnessed a performer so utterly ablaze on a stage: pulling off so many dazzling technical achievements while exercising such a purely musical imagination. The show demonstrated that virtuoso skill doesn't have to get in the way of ideas; the two can coexist in a feverish frenzy, the hands doing the bidding of the sparking neurons and the overflowing heart.
Last year, Craig Taborn released a very good solo piano album, Avenging Angel. Around the time that I interviewed Taborn for my Heavy Metal Be-Bop series, I listened to the record obsessively. I found it beautiful but, in the end, somehow impenetrable, one reason I left if off my all-genres-in-play year-end top 10 list for Time Out NY (it did rank on my jazz-only list); I had to come clean and admit that I respected it more than I loved it. On my CD shelf, it's a hushed museum piece, to be savored in rare moments of undivided attention rather than to be really lived with in a practical sense.
For me, the performance I witnessed last night, a trio set with bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Gerald Cleaver, was like the fulfillment of every hope I'd had for Avenging Angel. The album enthralled me with its strange, austere logic (in Time Out NY, I wrote of one piece that it "[felt] like stepping out of a spaceship onto an ice planet—vast and iridescent, but with a lurking malevolence…") but in the end, I was yearning for some kind of warm blood pumping through the chilly atmospheres.
That passion, that human pulse flooded the room last night. If Avenging Angel feels like a classic shut-in record, the sound of a man burrowing deep inside himself, this trio set was all about communication. Taborn, well known for his self-effacing personality, was clearly loving being in front of an appreciative crowd (there were whoops and hollers during several climactic moments) and communing with his bandmates, both of whom achieved their own kind of "On fire!" status.
Taborn mentioned at the outset that he wasn't one to do much "mic work," and that we shouldn't take his lack of announcement as an indication that he wasn't thrilled by our presence. I'm paraphrasing here, but he went on to say something to the effect that, rather than taking breaks to speak and catch his breath, he preferred to dive into the deep end and remain submerged for the duration, the better to focus on (I believe this was the phrase he used) simply "creating music."
And thus it was so, especially during the first piece in the set. I have no idea how long it lasted; my guess is somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 minutes. (No titles were given, so I can't help you there.) The piece felt to me like an expanse, a onflowing river that the players waded into and then ever so gradually began to attune to, growing more and more powerful, joyous, daring, until they evolved into some kind of collective superhuman aqua-being, capable of harnessing the water's enormous energy and using it to his own creative ends.
Okay, that's an out-there metaphor, but I'm struggling to convey the sensation of this piece. It had a feel that I'd liken to midtempo electronica, a steady, almost breakbeat-ish drive, but without the clichéd sped-up James Brown groove; there was no sense of typical jazz swing, just a subtle, airy funk laid down by Morgan and Cleaver. Sometimes Taborn would hammer on the rhythm, constructing these ingenious hypnotic vamps that sometimes sounded to me like sped up Tim Berne themes. Other times, he would let the left hand handle the vamp and unleash the right in a fit of wild expressionism, smearing it across the keys or leaping between distant notes. If the moment grabbed him, he'd let both hands free and let fly with a downward-stabbing, knitting-needle-like frenzy.
You couldn't not think of Cecil Taylor watching these outbursts, but I'm hesitant to invoke the Maestro, simply because the effect was so different. With Taylor, there's often this sense of private ecstasy, a feeling that he'd be playing exactly the same way if he were at home alone; with Taborn on the other hand, I felt a real exuberance, a "Come along with me" feeling. Juxtaposing these daredevil flights with infectious rhythmic drive had a "Eureka!" affect: Taborn's playing had all the extroverted thrust of McCoy Tyner comping behind John Coltrane—but employed in the service of a much more contemporary-sounding groove—combined with the unbounded imagination of Taylor. For me, it was a whole new kind of chocolate and peanut butter: two great tastes I'd never thought I'd get the chance to taste together.
I can tell that my description is doing a disservice to the pervasive collectivity of this performance. In a sense, yes, Taborn was the leader and the star. But in another sense, he was more a servant to a vibe than its master. The piece (I'm still talking about this marathon opening selection, which moved through several transitions and likely included two or three distinct compositions) was the real focus and all three players were giving themselves over to it. Taborn was going off, as it were, but it rarely felt like he was soloing in the traditional sense. At all times, the three players were building something, participating in something collective. There were no clear cues to orient you in terms of foreground/background: "Now he's soloing; now he is," etc. Taborn eased back just as often as he surged forward, and you felt the music playing itself.
Cleaver was absolutely unflappable throughout this piece, keeping up an airy future-funk texture—I hesitate to even call it a groove; it was more of a sensation; you felt that you were moving forward, even though it was hard to tell at what speed or for what duration. What he and Morgan (who like Cleaver, gave himself over to this strange, enveloping onrush) were providing was a kind of endlessness. When I was describing above how the music felt like the players were wading into a river, what I was trying to get at was the idea that this imaginary river had already been flowing for eons before the musicians waded in; they were participating, communing with, thriving on the strength of some kind of preexisting current. In that sense, the music did feel a whole lot more like great electronica than like jazz. It was an unmarked superhighway, and however turbulent Taborn's embellishment got, you still felt like you were just cruising. That's a testament to Morgan and Cleaver's marvelous attunement to Taborn's strange, ambitious, very un-jazz-like concept. (The cohesion makes sense b/c this trio has been touring Europe regularly for several years; you can download two 2009 concerts here, though, respectfully, as good as these bootlegs are, they pale in comparison to what I heard last night.)
The piece finally did stop, but there was no break. Taborn played alone for a little while, entering into what sounded like traditional jazz-ballad territory, but extremely slow and tender. It was a startling juxtaposition. Again, back to my earlier point that yes, Taborn often reminds me of various piano giants, but he seems much more willing than, say, Taylor to employ relatively conventional devices. I don't mean to say that he's somehow reliant on clichés; I mean that he seems totally okay with dipping into traditional modes for moments at a time if it suits his overall purpose. When you hear Cecil Taylor, you're hearing Cecil Taylor; and that's it. There's a wall there. Taborn has a very different kind of humanity to his playing; he wants to blow your mind—and, maybe, his own—but he wants to welcome you through the door. I guess what I'm saying is that this particular solo ballad section was straightforwardly gorgeous, and juxtaposed with the magic-carpet ride of the previous long piece, it felt like a revelation. You're exploring the ice planet, this vast, alien landscape, and all of a sudden you come across an inviting little cabin, with smoke coming out of the chimney.
The band worked back up to another Berne-ish prog-groove peak in the final piece. Morgan took a poetic bass solo somewhere in there; Taborn and Cleaver both laid out for several minutes, and then Cleaver reentered not with a sound produced from the kit, but by rubbing his palms together. Somehow, you could hear it perfectly. There was a real sense of meditation in that club, of everyone knowing they were experiencing something rare and magical. When the band finished, stopping together on a dime, there was a glow in the room, not to mention wild applause.
In case it isn't clear from the above, I'm feeling evangelical about this performance. If you live in New York and you've ever had any interest in Taborn's music, you must see this trio play tonight or tomorrow (sets at 9 and 11pm; check the Vanguard site or Time Out NY for details). With respect to his existing body of work, this was, idiomatically, some whole other shit. I always know that a show is going really, really well when I shoot astonished glances at my wife and she mirrors them, rather than simply humoring me. We were both floored by this show, and I'd have a hard time imagining that any attentive, open-minded listener (no "jazz-fan" credential needed) wouldn't be. I cannot wait to hear where this trio goes in the coming years; right at this very moment, they are my favorite band on the planet.
P.S. Before the Taborn show, we caught Billy Hart's magnificent quartet, discussed in the previous post. I don't mean to short-shrift that set here; it's just that they're a known quantity to me, about whom I've already written at length, whereas I was encountering this Taborn band more or less fresh. I will say that Hart himself was on the warpath last night; I can't remember the last time I heard a drummer of any kind thwack a floor tom or bash a cymbal with such conviction. You can still catch the Hart band too; they're closing out their Birdland run tonight.
P.P.S. There's been some good Taborn-trio buzz building throughout the week. I've deliberately held off reading Ben Ratliff's review or checking out too much of the archived set (plus very cool A Blog Supreme interview) that's up at NPR b/c I knew I wanted to attend myself and approach the music without too many preconceptions. Now that I've seen the show and weighed in myself, I'm looking forward to catching up on the conversation.