Craig Taborn
Avenging Angel


His first album under his own name recorded for ECM, Avenging Angel is also Craig Taborn's first-ever album for solo piano. A fact that really surprised me, for two reasons. By the time I listened to him for the first time - in 1999, on the album by Roscoe Mitchell and The Note Factory titled Nine To Get Ready - Taborn already had a long C.V., which has since seen many new chapters being added to his discography. Also, for a long time now, Taborn has repeatedly shown he possesses those qualities that are ideally suited to the solo piano dimension. So, if we assume the usual difficulty when it comes to being au courant about what's released worldwide nowadays (not to mention the fact of actually listening to those albums!) as a given, it will be clear why I thought that, "somewhere", there had to be an album featuring "Craig Taborn, solo".

Totally by chance, I caught Taborn live with Mitchell and The Note Factory, at the Roccella Ionica Jazz Festival, during the summer of 2000. Just like on the album, Taborn played alongside Matthew Shipp, and I have no trouble admitting - something which I wrote in my review of that concert - that on that night, at least to me, Taborn's performance sounded more fresh and incisive than that of his illustrious colleague.

Talking about Mitchell's output, it's at one's peril that one forgets the fine work by Taborn on the recent Far Side (2010), the album by The Note Factory where he shares the piano parts with Vijay Iyer (whose name today surely needs no introduction, but whom I saw - about ten years ago - valiantly struggling to get inside Mitchell's complex music grammar while subbing for a no-show Matthew Shipp!).

I was offered a chance to see a different side of Taborn's personality in close-up (for real: I was sitting about two meters from the piano keyboard) the night I caught the trio "Folkloriko" by Susie Ibarra, Taborn being perfectly at ease while complementing the exotic airs of a line-up featuring violin, and the leader's thin, melodic percussion work.

Avenging Angel is an excellent work. Whether listeners will actually like it... well, it obviously depends on one's taste and attitude when it comes to attentive listening. Silence being a prerequisite, of course. Excellent recorded sound by Stefano Amerio, at first I was a bit puzzled by the piano's "round" sound, my memory of Taborn's touch being of a sharper, "spiky" entity. Playing a fine instrument, here Taborn makes perfect use of the pedals, the keyboard's full range, the piano's full dynamics.

But what about the musical language? I have to admit that at first - literally: track one - I was reminded of Lady Of The Mirrors, the solo piano album by Anthony Davis released in 1980. Listening to both that album's opening track, Beyond Reason, and The Broad King Day, the first track on Avenging Angel, also refreshing my memory about the angular composition by Davis titled Under The Double Moon, I saw that the actual similarities were fewer than I first thought. One can compare the hand independence factor; the use of the complementary - or opposing - roles played by both hands with regards to tempo and tonality; also, having the piano's timbre as a very important part of the whole. Taking into account the different personalities involved, when it comes to the aforementioned albums I think it can be said that, while Davis's goal at the time was to create an "elastic" compositional framework suitable for invention, here Taborn's goal is to investigate a "teleological" dimension of improvisation as a "reflexive" practice. (At least, that's my impression after quite a few attentive listening sessions, not assisted by any liner notes whatsoever. This music is not "easy" to get.) For the most part, Taborn doesn't use a lot of notes, a kind of "filter" being at work before the thought process gets to his hands; which for me is a highly preferable approach - dunno about those who really like "fireworks", though.

The Broad Day King is the track that at first reminded me of Davis, for "structural" reasons. A high note works as a "backdrop", a "canvas", a "hinge", related to the slow, melodic, chords, only to be "engulfed" by them. There's a nice - also brief - Monk moment, 4'09" - 4'12".

Despite its name, Glossolalia is a fast arpeggio for both hands, quite jazz-like.

Diamond Turning Dream is a slow, full-keyboard arpeggio, six or seven notes that are progressively dehydrated. In the end, only three notes remain. To me, this piece shows Mitchell's influence, especially that of his dry explorations on curved soprano.

Avenging Angel features a distinctive rhythm in the keyboard's lower portion, then a "theme", variations on a "basso continuo", which at the end of the piece comes to the fore.

The only long track here, This Voice Says So opens with a slow, repeating, three-note figure played high on the keyboard. A slow process brings the piece to a complex two-hand part, where the left is, first, early, then, late to the right hand pulse. (OK, when it comes to describing a piece of music this is not a great description. Listen to the piece, then!) Bass " la Hopper", then we're back at the start of the piece, with the three note figure.

To me, Neverland is a piece sounding halfway between a "Baroque string quartet" and a counterpoint by Bach.

True Life Near has a light-sounding theme, almost like a musical box. Coming at about halfway, it works like a charm as the album's natural rest point, the end of Side 1, if you like (in my opinion, the album is a bit too long - 72' - to be listened to all in one sitting).

Gift Horse/Over The Water is in some ways quite "jazzy", maybe with a pinch of Muhal Richard Abrams, the final part sounding (to me!) like "Scott Joplin meets Conlon Nancarrow" (!).

A Difficult Thing Said Simply has a "heavy-sounding", "quasi-neoclassic" development, then a two-hand minimal figure with a light sound.

Spirit Hard Knock sounds quite "jazzy", it has a fine theme at the end.

Neither-Nor is fast, then it gets faster. Abrupt close.

Another long track, at first Forgetful sounds like Monk playing Ellington - or like Anthony Davis playing both. There's a fantastic compositional moment starting at 3' 06", with a ray of light produced by the right hand which travels towards the high notes. The piece then pleasantly wonders here and there, in the end going back to the "bluesy" atmosphere.

An appropriate close, This Is How You Disappear has a slow start featuring the bass notes, then a "mandolin" appears, then it's a minimal-sounding part played at both ends of the keyboard. Totally unexpected, but in a way inevitable, a bass note takes us to the end.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2011 | June 7, 2011