Craig Taborn: More people are listening to jazz now than in the '50s
Originally from Golden Valley, Minnesota, jazz pianist Craig Taborn isn't just a local boy done good. Taborn is considered one of the foremost pianist and jazz composers of our time. Since leaving for study at the University of Michigan he eventually graduated to the big leagues of modern jazz, and maintains status as a heavyweight in New York City.
Dropping just this week, his latest recording, Chants, on German imprint ECM Records, finds Taborn and his piano trio delivering a gratifying mix that hovers between ruminative baroque style improvisations and abrupt structured composition. Coinciding with an extra special homecoming to the Walker Art Center this Friday a return to the local stage seems all the more overdue and the perfect occasion for Taborn to showcase the immeasurable depth of his career as he'll perform solo and with two quite disparate ensembles.
Gimme Noise caught Taborn by phone at his apartment in New York. We discussed the new record and the numerous inspirations he witnessed as a young jazz student on the very stage where he'll perform on Friday.
Gimme Noise: How many times have you played at the Walker?
Craig Taborn: Yeah, a handful of times. I don't know. Is this the 4th or the 5th? Let's see, there was the one with Drew Grass, David Torn, Dave King, Susie Ibarra. I'm forgetting one. This is my first as a leader though. It's exciting. I grew up with the Walker. Saw many of the most influential shows for me there. Most the people I used to see when I was in high school at the Walker I ended up playing with.
Oh man, it's a random list. Tim Berne, John Zorn, Bill Frisell, Craig Harris. Roscoe Mitchell. Lester Bowie, tons of people.
Chants is a nice progression as you listen to it. It starts out with more structured tunes and then sort of dissipates and become more sparse and ambient sounding. Musically, is it a more collaborative thing?
Everything is. But then also not really. [Laughs] In a way it's probably the least collaborative. It's a lot more of me as there is a lot of my writing. Most of the time spent on that record was really alone in it's initial form. But I really made these pieces for Thomas [Morgan] and Gerald [Cleaver] to play on. Since we've been playing live together I wanted the sound of how we respond to one another and create the shapes of the music. Just being in separate booths in the studio wasn't my favorite thing as far as working with one another. The dynamic of sound when we play live was really different in the studio. There's so many thing we rely on from the live experience. I like studio projects for what they offer. But I'm not so interested in presenting the same music the same way live. It definitely comes out as more of a collaboration live.
We've been a group since 2007. Been touring a lot so the music has developed over time. The way we play it and approach it it's a live group thing. We just finished our sixth tour a few days ago in Europe. I don't recall much of a setlist. We just start playing and each chosing different pieces. There's a lot of written music that we can reconfigure live. They either go or meld into each other. The structure from one tune with the melody of another.
It seems your efforts as a side man have allowed you to be pretty open with your trio.
I'm pretty hands off in terms of the fulfillment. All the writing is my stuff that we are working with. But the way it comes together is very open. The recording is really different as that process wasn't as easy to do in the studio. There was a lot of music. There was a lot of tunes that didn't make it on the record. There was talk about doing a double CD. We wanted to make a certain shape for the record. It was hard to fit it all on the record. Some of the decisions are built around that.
What's your perspective on modern jazz and the audience? It doesn't seem as pervasive as it may have been during the golden era of jazz music?
It may appear that way. I suspect, I have never really studied this. All that's a question of percentages. I have a feeling there's probably more jazz listening now than they ever even listened to it in the '50s actually. It was more popular in the larger culture. Popular music was rooted in jazz. From the '20s through the '50s it was the popular music like Frank Sinatra and big bands. As an individual artist these days, not so many people listen that way. It's been a niche market for a long time. But there's so many niche markets now. You can draw a thing around jazz. It's not commercial pop music, but I play all the time.
You can play the music for different people and they come out and listen. Who listens and who sells is a different thing. Certain kind of jazz, it's way more students but I am pretty sure there are more musicians studying than ever before. That makes a market for it in a way around the world. It's a lot more gender balanced too than it probably was before. It's still out there and there's more people than were back in the '40s. Relative to that there is really just more of everything really. For jazz and improvised music it's a performance art and it's different every time. Especially if you invest in the process for real like the audience really does. People who know this music know that it's worth spending money on as they won't ever see again the same way. That's why they are into it.
Craig Taborn will perform solo piano, with Junk Magic and his trio for Heroic Frenzies: The Music of Craig Taborn, Friday, April 26 at the Walker Art Center at 8pm. Tickets are available here. The full concert will also be broadcast live on KFAI, 90.3 FM and 106.7 FM in Saint Paul.