Among the absurd, almost comedic amount of jazz subgenres, lies a series of contentious sets dedicated to being "out there." Avant-garde, post-modern, free jazz, and plenty others are lauded by some for their pioneering experimentalism and rebellion against standards, but also detested by many for their aggressive atonality and a perceived lack of structure. Jazz purists, music obsessives, and anyone who's accidentally found The Shape of Jazz to Come while making a coffee house playlist have all thrown their opinion into a surprisingly contentious music issue.
Pianist and keyboardist Craig Taborn could be the mediator between the two verbally warring camps. Skimming through his discography of solo music, work as a sideman, composer, and musician, Taborn shows his ability to perform high-wire music. Every note of his virtuosic piano style is dissonant, jarring, and off-beat — but all played with a sonorous composure, finding a gripping elegance in the discordant.
"I just consider it kind of a contemporary improvised music," says Taborn. "I'm not afraid of the word 'jazz,' but it often doesn't reference that. The problem is that there are a lot of different personalities and different guises, depending on what the project is."
Although Taborn lives by his deft improvisation, the pianist crafts his on-the-spot music as if it were painstakingly thought out months in advance. That trait is found in many of his varied projects as a sideman, like the free hard-bop of the Mat Maneri Quartet, the outrageous jazz-funk of Chris Porter's Underground, or the sci-fi dance music of Innerzone Orchestra.
Taborn indisputably shines the brightest in his solo group, the Craig Taborn Trio. "Mystero," from his ambient 2004 album Junk Magic throws as many influences into the stew as it can, each one adding a distinct flavor. The drums play a loose, malleable, funky beat, in the midst of an electronic keyboard wave, and a classic jazz sample is woven through. The composition is tied together by an atypical instrument to jazz: the viola. Many artists love to claim that their influences are wide and varied, but Junk Magic is one of the few pieces of music that allows those factors to be distinguishable. "It's pretty natural to me, how I've always listened to music and been interested in it. I freely try to make music that reflects my influences," says Taborn. "I'm not thinking about how I want to put a hip-hop thing with a bebop thing with rock. I don't think about it in those terms, but I can hear it manifesting that way."
Being in love with the music that influences his work has made Taborn expand his sound in a few different directions. 2011's Avenging Angel saw the pianist taking the solo aspect of his work very literally. The album is an hour of acoustic piano compositions, with no accompaniment. The title track embraces the classical influence in Taborn's style, as he comps his way through syncopated instrumental rhythms. In typical fashion for the artist, Taborn plays outside of the key, exploring the sonic possibilities. "Phantom Ratio" from the recent Daylight Ghosts is a wintry, long-noted, and simply haunted piece of music. Examples of this sound are littered throughout Taborn's collection of LPs, but the artist never cradled it quite like he did on Daylight Ghosts. Each album is its own thing, while still sounding like it came from the same composer.
With Taborn's ability to mix subgenres in a natural way, many critics are left scratching their heads trying to evaluate his music and what genre to designate it. "I have a lot of descriptors, but it's almost of tune to tune and group to group," he says. "I have the most fun when I'm blurring all those edges. I like stuff that moves that way. I think of it that way — kind of a hybrid of all those things, like you can move from one to the other really quickly."
Although Taborn's been a prolific presence in the modern free jazz scene, it's been noted that he does not release music under his self-titled trio as often as some of his contemporaries or influences. And in a musical landscape like jazz, where some artists have released two albums a year for most of their career, it's surprising to see a talent like Taborn only release six solo albums since 1994. "Things are going to get out anyway — there's so many bootlegs of concerts that are released," says Taborn. "I just felt a responsibility to really have some curatorial scrutiny on what I'm releasing and also create some pace so there isn't flooding."
The good news for Taborn's rabid fans is that he's always got something in the works. Even if it doesn't have his name on the album cover, you can guarantee that the unique piano part will have his name imprinted in its DNA.