The Chronicle Interviews Craig Taborn: Jazz’s Innovative Free Form Adventurer

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(L-R): Jazz pianist, composer and arranger Craig Taborn being interviewed by The Chronicle’s cultural critic Hakim Abdul-Ali at the Embassy Suites Hotel on Thursday, June 7, 2018. Photo: Jenny Ouellette

By Hakim Abdul-Ali

Whenever most serious lovers of jazz think of it in its most purest expressions, it usually is thought of as creative free form, improvisational music. Well, I’m of that same vein also, in that, I think that jazz is so unique a coordinated playing and listening musical experience until it takes someone who’s really gifted, trained and committed to this culturally rooted art form to supplement it and make a difference.

For your information, there’s a relatively young pianist, composer and arranger in the field of jazz named Craig Taborn who definitely is true to those creatively free form roots of jazz. He was here in the Lowcountry all of last week performing on six different occasions for Spoleto Festival USA’s Wells Fargo Jazz Program.

I interviewed him for The Chronicle on Thursday, June 7, 2018 at his hotel, and it was an opportunity for me to get inside this proficient jazz man’s head. And believe me, he’s a down-to-earth, warm, knowledgeable and an extremely motivated musician.

I found out that he’s a native of Minneapolis, Minnesota, coming from a very educated background. His father was a psychologist and a professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Minnesota and his mother was a professional social worker.

Mr. Taborn’s musical interests and development took place early on in his life as his father played gospel and blues piano. “My sense of musical awareness sort of started from there,” is how Craig emphasized his entrée into music.

He began elaborating that he has a multi-diverse approach and interest in presenting and playing “his” type of jazz music. Ranging from a lot of electronica vibrations to classical elements to, well, you name it, Craig Taborn’s musical aesthetic is what I believe a serious critic would judicially label musical free form analysis covering every imaginable genre.

In describing his music in our interview, Mr. Taborn said, “My aesthetic was always and has been kind of the fact that I see music as a special way to express many the different moods and things about life that I see and feel, including me. This was enhanced early on in my life when I used to listen to my dad’s record collection which featured the likes of musical giants like Horace Silver, “Cannonball” Adderley, Ahmad (Jamal) and other imminent musicians like that. I listened to and was influenced by them all.”

When you interview Mr. Taborn, 48, you can sense that he’s a very astute and conscious thinker about his craft. A respected recording artist with seven CDs under his own umbrella, and having performed on more than 120 others with some of the biggest and most revered names in jazz over his career, certainly qualifies this intense performer, arranger and composer, who studied at the University of Michigan, as a burgeoning talent to be recognized and respected.

This polite spokesman of jazz said in describing his music is that he loves the improvisational aspect of jazz, because it allows him to be himself, along with allowing whoever he plays with, to do their own thing within the context of whatever they’re playing. I interpreted that to mean that everyone who plays with him, no matter if it’s in trio or quartet format, has an equal role in bringing forth and performing high quality improvisational, stimulating  music.

Being that that he’s from Minneapolis, I couldn’t help asking him of his knowledge about or experiences with, if he had any, of Prince, the late ultimate musical genius from his hometown, who died in April 2016. Oddly, Mr. Taborn said he only ran into, or bumped into, Prince only once, but his mom and Prince’s mother did work together at one time in the Minneapolis school system, but he wasn’t sure what position Prince’s mother held.

Craig Taborn also added that his aunt was the principal at Minneapolis Central High School when Prince was in high school. In addition, Mr. Taborn mentioned that the celebrated R&B songwriting and record production team of Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam, along with the band The Time, practiced around the corner from his parents’ home at a neighbor and friend of his family, Dr. Reginald Buckner’s basement at one time.

The Craig Taborn Trio Review

I caught the band’s performance on Saturday, June 9, 2018, at the College of Charleston’s Simons Center Recital Hall, in Mr. Taborn’s next to last of six performances for Spoleto Festival USA and it was a magnificent performance from start to finish. The musical program was a forty-five minutes long nonstop tour-du-force presentation.

It’s to be noted that Mr. Taborn performed singular solo presentations on June 6-7 and the trio performed two shows on June 8. On June 9, the trio featured the final two performances, including the first of the evening which I covered in this review.

Mr. Taborn’s trio consisted of his longtime friend and band mate of thirty years, Gerald Cleaver on drums, and Chris Lightcap on bass, and they were a well coordinated unit as they played continuously through five signature tunes. It was an adventurous exciting musical repertoire.

Beginning with the dramatic opening number, “Speak the Name” and segueing into the thrilling “Hot Blood”, the Craig Taborn Trio was taking no prisoners, so to speak, as the captive audience at the recital hall sat back and enjoyed the trio playing to their heart’s content. All of the trio’s unique individual playing personas and synergy set the stage for the evening’s harmonious continuing musical flow with “All True Night”, a tune that showcased the drummer’s definitive dexterity.

Again, I have to remind you that this was a nonstop musical presentation for the Spoleto audience as they sat quietly, but intently, and savored what the trio was displaying with silent astonishment. The audience’s approval was further extended to enjoying the fourth piece,”Enchant”, where Mr. Taborn skillfully and adroitly made the piano keys “talk” to those in attendance with an intensity and seriousness that few will hear coming from other like-minded pianists today.

Saving the best for last, the trio ended in show-stopping highlight glory with the reflective “Ancient”, a free form tune that had me leaning forward to hear how together each musician played with controlled ferocity in tandem with each other, and I mean exactly that because that’s what they did. The concert ended at 6 p.m., and I honestly believe that they could have played another hour if they had chosen to do so because the receptive audience, upon leaving, was heard by me to utter words of resolute approval of what the Craig Taborn had performed before their eyes and for their ears.

I have to concur with the overall audience’s reaction to hearing this dynamic trio play. They are a tight avant-garde, free form exploratory ensemble in the best sense of the word and with the inimitable Craig Taborn on piano leading the way, the trio is one that will continue to amaze and excite listening audiences throughout the world.

Spoleto Festival USA pulled a meaningful coup by unearthing and presenting the Craig Taborn Trio for this year’s jazz venue. They were a welcome scintillating sight to see and hear.

(left to right) Hakim Abdul-Ali poses for a photo with Craig Taborn after his interview. Photo: Jenny Ouellette

       

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