The piano trio format is one of the classic modes of jazz composition and improvisation, going all the way back to Jelly Roll Morton in the 1920s and becoming a mainstay of popular jazz starting with Errol Gardner and Bud Powell in the late 1940s. The modern piano trio space was defined by Bill Evans in the early 1960s, but there continue to be advancements in the form. The latest album that is worthy of consideration is Chants by the Craig Taborn Trio.
Musical Genre: Jazz
Artist: Craig Taborn Trio
Craig Taborn is one of those musicians whose name might not be familiar even to jazz fans, yet it is fairly certain you have heard his playing. He has played with Chris Potter on several albums including his recent Sirens release (which is what alerted me to this recording), and also on several of Tim Berne’s recordings (Berne appeared on Ches Smith’s recent release … small world), as well as many, many others.
Over nearly two decades, he has released five albums of his own including Chants. Two were trios, one with a quartet and one solo piano. For 2013 he returns with a new trio including musicians he has worked with through the years including Thomas Morgan on bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums.
Being a fan of jazz piano trios means having enough great recordings to last a lifetime … which also means that a new recording needs to do something interesting to make an impression. For me, the more traditional setting of a piano-focused group with bass and drums providing support offers little interest – a solo piano provides greater freedom, and frankly as a bassist I am not satisfied with recordings where the bass & drums are simply ‘window dressing’.
Which is just the first reason I love this album. Starting right off with ‘Saints’, you have a composition that is at once through-composed yet has loads of improvisation, with Morgan taking a lead role from the start and Cleaver pushing the pulse around and providing cues for directional changes. The song has a flavor of a classic Vince Guaraldi tune, yet thoroughly modernized.
The entire recording is about as egalitarian as I have heard in a piano trio: Taborn obviously occupies the upper register, but the harmonic structures are spaced to provide everyone room to take and relinquish the leadership role, and is more like an interpretive dance between three equals seeing how each will respond.
The other thing I love is the use of space – and I don’t just mean playing around silence. For me the interesting use of space involves overfilling it as well as leaving it wide open. There are some extremely dense moments on Chants, and others where there is very little being said overtly – and each one is handled deftly by all three musicians. This speaks to the high level of musicianship and the communication between the artists.
Finally, ECM has always been known for great production values, and this is another stellar release – I love in a piano trio where I can hear the tap of wood on cymbal, or the snap of fingers on strings, the buzz of strings on the fingerboard, and the breathing of instrumentalists during quiet sections. You can hear that as well as just about every overtone from the extended chords Taborn uses. I loved listening with headphones to absorb every delicious sound.
‘Quick Hit’ Song: “Beat the Ground” – starting off with a syncopated interplay between piano, bass, and drums, with Morgan providing the harmonic interest and Cleaver pressing the drama while Taborn provides support. The song slows to a more deliberate pace, but the sense of rhythmic invention and counterpoint remains and suddenly you are back at tempo. As with the entire recording it is never a matter of who ‘has the lead’, but about working to provide the greatest possible musical experience.
Would I recommend?: Absolutely! I have enjoyed Taborn’s work on a number of recordings, but this was the first of his solo albums I bought. It is an incredibly rewarding listening experience.
Suggested audience: If you are a fan of gorgeous and evocative piano-based jazz that makes you think, you will find much to love here. Definitely something fans of Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett and Vijay Iyer should check out!
Here is the EPK for Chants: