Jazz pianist Craig Taborn: Influenced by greats, but no imitator

Craig Taborn
Craig Taborn is acclaimed composer and performer who grew up in Golden Valley, Minn.
Photo courtesy Craig Taborn

Craig Taborn would be the first to admit that at times his music echoes the work of the jazz masters that came before him. But when he sits at the piano, in no way is he trying to imitate them.

An acclaimed composer and performer who grew up in Golden Valley, Taborn is unquestionably linked to the blues-based culture that produced Duke Ellington, McCoy Tyner and Ahmad Jamal, one in which reinvention has long been essential to surviving a hostile social environment.

As a child of the 1970s, however, Taborn's circumstances are much different. His early musical explorations were in rock and jazz fusion, an immersion that later expanded to international musical currents. In his compositions, he aims to reach his own, modern conclusions.


That's not to say that Taborn, who performs Friday at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, doesn't acknowledge his cultural and jazz roots. Indeed, the influence of stellar jazz innovators is ever present in his music.

"That's going to be there because it has to be there," Taborn said from his New York home. "Otherwise, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing at all."

But he has no desire to be a custodian of a particular tradition, however, hallowed.

Listen to the Craig Taborn Trio live in concert

Beyond creating imaginative music, in part Taborn is contributing to an increasingly broad way of expressing and living black culture — one in which jazz musicians pursue their ideas without worrying about any notions of artistic or cultural solidarity.

It disturbs him that a hero of black American music like saxophonist Anthony Braxton, known for his abstract compositions and improvisations, has been criticized for producing music that some consider too tied to European music.

"What does that even mean?" Taborn asked. "First of all, there are things in it that I definitely hear [that say] 'OK, this is an African-American individual making this music' ... What do you want — blues licks? Is that going to make it feel like the blues?

"The idea that ... there's some coded way that you're supposed to look, sound, [and] deliver music that identifies you correctly, you know, socially, I totally reject categorically. There are so many ways it can manifest."

Still, in the jazz world some listeners might yearn for tradition, while others listen for signals of authenticity.

Taborn knows that, but he doesn't worry about such hang-ups. For him, it's pointless for jazz musicians to wander in a museum of tradition when there are thriving sounds outside its doors.

However much the pianist is influenced by those who preceded him, he has no wish to rest on their laurels, or pay tribute to an earlier time.

"If people haven't found the core of that stuff in their lived culture, it always sounds kind of lame to me," he said. "It may be exciting for a second because it's like, 'oh this sounds like it used to sound.' But then it's like, 'but ... kind of doesn't,' because it's not new, because it's not going to be that thing anymore."


Instead of focusing on the past, Taborn is intent on hearing what's in front of him, finding the core of feeling he encounters in everyday life.

His approach has yielded stirring results, including his widely-hailed 2004 recording, "Junk Magic," a multifaceted celebration of sound.

Taborn, who grew up with drummer Dave King and bassist Reid Anderson of the Bad Plus, has been searching for the new thing since he cut his teeth in Detroit a couple of decades ago, after attending the University of Michigan. He's viewed as a leading experimental voice in jazz.

He departs from the approach of a classic improviser like Keith Jarrett, who allows the music to unfold, often in long journeys — a style that many would argue set the standard on solo piano and for the jazz trio.

Instead, Taborn takes a compositional approach that builds on a few musical elements, as he did on his 2011 release "Avenging Angel."

"I'm still using intuition and following things but I'm definitely designing it more with a sense of like how I can like structure with limited materials," he said.

From WYNC: An in-studio performance by Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn

On Friday, Taborn will deliver three distinct sets. For the eclectic music on "Junk Magic," he'll be joined by King, bassist Erick Fratzke, sax player Chris Speed and viola player Mat Maneri.

He'll also perform fully improvised selections on solo piano and in his trio, with drummer Gerald Cleaver and bassist Thomas Morgan. Their newly released CD, "Chants," owes much to the pianist's propensity for taking risks.

Employing multiple voices and rhythms, the musicians will use a limited framework to create imaginative and spontaneous music in real time — the essence of improvisation.

"I offer enough context clues in the writing so that Thomas and Gerald can sort of enter a little bit [into] maybe how I was thinking about something and then apply themselves to it," Taborn said.

As they do, the pianist will be guiding the tunes, in ways that show how he is helping to remake a cherished largely black American art form merged with European musical ideas.

But although the jazz tradition and the larger black American musical tradition have always been about expanding the music to embrace new concepts and people, the legacy of their standard bearers is inescapable in Taborn's playing.

"When I'm at the piano it's definitely kind of this Duke Ellington, Cecil Taylor, [Thelonious] Monk world that's going on," he said. "I'm not trying to give people clues of recognition or anything. I'm just trying to deal with the music that's coming through."

Focused on offering original statements, however, he won't be worried about providing any coding to assure anyone that his music is sufficiently black. The definition of authenticity, he said, has to expand.

"In that redefinition there's a lot of growth," he said, "because that's what jazz is. That's what that tradition has always been. That's what most black American music is, and always has been."

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