It's a sign of a musician comfortable in his own skin that Avenging Angel, Craig Taborn's much-lauded solo debut for the ECM label in 2011, is not some chest-beating display of instrumental technique.
The Minneapolis-born pianist certainly has the wherewithal to dazzle but Avenging Angel is the deeper sound of an enquiring mind, alive to the momentary possibilities of eighty-eight keys, sifting the harmonic possibilities of the instrument for hidden meaning.
Over the last two decades, the unassuming Taborn has become one of the most respected innovators in contemporary jazz, in constant demand as a sideman with forward-thinking saxophonists including Roscoe Mitchell, Tim Berne, Steve Coleman and Chris Potter.
The 47-year-old has also led his own highly original trios, including on 2017's revelatory Daylight Ghosts, and he stands now alongside contemporaries like Jason Moran and Vijay Iyer as an original voice on an instrument that one might have thought had already been thoroughly plundered for its harmonic potential.
But it’s Taborn’s solo performances that have really set him apart and revealed the breadth of his vision, and it is in that mode that he lands in Ireland next week to perform in Dublin and Belfast.
“Solo is a special context” says Taborn. “It’s just you, contending with all the elements – the pacing, your interaction with the audience, everything is really intensely personalised, because it’s focused on this performance and the music that is being created.”
“Any solo performance is that way,” he adds, “but because I trade on the improvising aspect, that’s intensified I think. The decisions are coming to a large extent in real time, and I find that pretty exciting.”
A child of the American mid-west, Taborn was raised in a prosperous western suburb of Minneapolis, the son of an Afro-Studies college professor father and a social worker mother. The environment was predominantly white, “like, overwhelmingly”, he says with a rye laugh, but he sees a positive side to the diverse musical culture of the Twin Cities in the 1980s.
“Prince is a prime example,” he says. “When you live there, you’re absorbing everything, so the fact that Prince is such a diversified rock musician is not an accident. You can’t escape the other cultural influences that are going on there. And you don’t want to,” he adds, “you just kind of draw on them all.”
His father was a keen amateur pianist, and he remembers hearing classic jazz pianists like Wynton Kelly and Horace Silver at home, as well as innovators like Henry Threadgill and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. But his early inspiration as a jazz musician came from a more unlikely source.
“I remember in fifth grade, I hadn’t got into music that much yet, and everybody was going around the class saying ‘Who’s your favourite band?’ and everyone had a favourite band, and I didn’t. I just said Led Zeppelin because I had heard the name on the radio. So I went home that day and said, ‘If they’re my favourite band, I’d better find out what they sound like!’”
And when he started listened to his favourite band, he noticed something about the lead guitarist’s role that attracted him.
“I remember at the time, something about Jimmy Page’s guitar solos, I realised that in jazz, the piano gets to do what guitars get to do in rock, you know, stretch out and take solos and be featured. So I said ‘Oh, so if I’m playing piano, I should learn to play jazz, because that’s where you learn how to do that!’”
The breadth of Taborn’s sound world, from ear-craning acoustic experiments to full-throated electric grooves, tells of an artist unwilling to be boxed in or defined by any particular style. Nor is he necessarily interested in originality for its own sake. Though as a rising player on the fertile Detroit scene, he gained an early reputation for harmonic adventure, he sees it less as conscious innovation and more as a natural consequence of being a jazz musician.
“I think it was just there because I didn’t know any different”, he says. “The tradition seemed to be people [innovating] and if you’re going to engage in that tradition, you have to make some kind of contribution, otherwise you’re just stealing. So it’s kind of incumbent upon you to offer something new to the stew, otherwise what are you doing, you’re just going to eat it all and not put something back in there.”
Taborn’s solo performances are certainly adding new flavours to the jazz stew, embracing the whole tradition of jazz piano but always fresh, always searching for new and unexpected sounds.
“For me, the solo improvising thing, when you do it over and over again, it’s about trying to stay out of habit space, to try to invite the possibility for new creation each time. And it gets hard, because you know you could just do the things that you know will work. So a lot of it is trying to find something else to do. It doesn’t have to be the greatest thing, but it opens the door to new discovery each time, and that’s kind of what is exciting about it. I think that’s what improvisation offers that other things don’t, that you’re really hearing something that is unique to that time and that place, and it can be very special.”
Listening to Taborn alone at the piano, it’s hard to disagree.
Craig Taborn plays the Kevin Barry Room at the National Concert Hall, Dublin, on Friday 15th February and the Sonic Lab, Belfast, on Saturday 16th February. More at improvisedmusic.ie and movingonmusic.com