Taborn's Finessed Tapestry Of Textures Finds Glorious Voice At London's Vortex

 Taborn

The large number of musicians at this sold-out show says a lot about the significance of the artist on stage. Craig Taborn is an American pianist held in the greatest respect by his peers, and whose tuition of younger European players, such as Kaja Draksler, has been important. With a body of work for labels like Thirsty Ear, Tzadik and ECM the 48-year-old has kudos, and has appeared in London many times as leader and sideman to the likes of Tim Berne and David Binney. But this solo gig gives a prized opportunity to really enjoy the breadth of his imagination and depth of technique up close and personal. It is a chance to hear a whole range of traditions within the broad church of improvised music filtered by a mind that is very contemporary in outlook.

Though he opts for one long set instead of two shorter ones, Taborn subverts the expected format of the uninterrupted suite. The performance is broken into several pieces that give the evening the feel of a live album instead of drawing room recital, and the downtime between tracks also releases the tension between artist and audience. It underlines Taborn’s affinity to a looser, modern pop culture as well as to the buttoned-up gravitas of high art. The highpoint of the set is a perfect example of these worlds colliding. A lavishly syncopated middle-register riff jockeys and jostles into life to the accompaniment of strikingly hard, curt right-hand stabs, the intonation so sharp and precise it feels as if the notes are being sliced by a cursor on the screen of a laptop rather than by hands on a keyboard. The metronomic push holding all the ugly beauty together implies house and techno in the most vivid terms, reminding us of Taborn’s serious engagement with the electronic dance music scene of Detroit, as well as his avowed interest in state-of-the-art audio software and Macbook arranging.

Prior to that piece there is a dazzling display of orchestral-like composition in which Taborn’s touchstones, from Andrew Hill and Jaki Byard to Cecil Taylor, are evoked and personalised so as to create intricate entwinements of phrases that go off on tangents without ever losing momentum. Many of Taborn’s chords are voiced with an eye-of-the-needle finesse, but he never relinquishes an edginess and awareness of how effective a relatively straightforward shift of harmony can be. In one very compelling moment a mischievously twisted latin number is boiled down to a jittery, hypnotic left-hand riff that is allowed to run for what seems like an age before Taborn jumps down an octave, and the stark surge of bass threatens to shake the piano on stage.

If the muscular rhythmic drive of the songs has everybody in the room rapt, there is also textural invention to admire. Taborn makes timbres hiss and crackle through a smart blend of foot pedal and overtone manipulation to suggest something close to an analogue synthesiser, a kind of unprepared prepared piano. And yet amid this endless stream of ideas there is another crucial episode when Taborn draws an ageless anthem from daringly spaced single notes left to hang in the air with a church bell reverence.

This is a solemn statement, broadening the emotional canvas of the whole evening by conveying vulnerability amid the virtuosity. Taborn ends with a diptych of two of his inspirations: Geri Allen and Sun Ra. It is a marriage made in heaven. Or on Saturn.

Kevin Le Gendre
– Photo by Roger Thomas

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