A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Peter Gannushkin.

Photo by Peter Gannushkin.

This week, pianist Craig Taborn heads into the studio with a quartet of longtime associates—saxophonist/clarinetist Chris Speed, bassist Chris Lightcap, and drummer Dave King—to record his next album for ECM. But before then, Taborn is stopping by The Jazz Gallery to put the new music through its paces. Jazz Speaks caught up with Taborn this past week to discuss the concept for his new album, how he keeps creative, and how his compositions grow and develop over time.

The Jazz Gallery: How is the interaction between players in this group different than say your trio?

Craig Taborn: I’ve played with all these guys for a long time. It’s similar to the trio in that sense, and also in the sense that they’re very individual players, rather than players coming out of a certain bag. I’m not as interested in super-pro guys who just do what’s required in terms of style. I need that, because I like to throw stuff to people and let them do what they’re gonna do with it.

TJG: And so they can throw stuff back at you.

CT: Yeah. I need it! Otherwise, my creativity kind of bogs down. I need people to throw curveballs and make some executive decisions on their own. I’m an improviser in that way—I’m not that much of a control freak.

TJG: That’s interesting, because with your solo work, I feel that you can get so much going on your own.

CT: Yeah. That was the big thing with the solo project—trying to figure out how to make that spontaneity happen for myself. If I’m too set, if I know what’s going to happen and it’s just a question of executing it, then I can lose the thread. It’s hard to find inspiration when that happens. I need to be challenged in the moment.

TJG: What do Chris, Chris, and Dave bring to the group in this regard?

CT: It was definitely based around a certain concept: a sound, an affinity. It stemmed from using organ—not a Hammond organ, but a transistor organ—so it had a certain 1960s Sun Ra inspiration. I don’t want to say too much about style because I’m not really thinking that way, but everyone has a certain sound-approach coming from an appreciation of electric sounds. It’s not as much of an electronic thing as Junk Magic is, but it’s definitely an electric thing, if that makes sense. It might be a bit of a rock thing, or have this other ’60s kind of stuff in there.

Chris Lightcap is a really great electric bass player as well as upright, and so he does a lot of stuff with that. And I’ve known Dave since we were twelve. Dave likes to play with electronic drum pads as well as his regular kit, and Chris Speed plays both tenor saxophone and clarinet, so there’s definitely a broad palette between all the players. We can go fully into a more synth world, or fully into an acoustic world. The group has that mobility, and I like playing with that. It can have more of a chamber vibe, or go straight-ahead or go electronic at will. Everybody is up to that task and really into that.

TJG: Does this interest in electric instruments and those kinds of sounds relate at all to your work with the quartet Prism, with Dave Holland, Kevin Eubanks, and Eric Harland?

CT: I play a lot of Rhodes in that group and with this group, and in Tim Berne’s and Chris Potter’s groups. I wanted to get away from that sound a little bit. I love that sound, but I thought about what would happen if I played with something completely different. A Farfisa or Vox organ has a trashy and kind of limited sound. Those limitations are important to me, which is why I don’t want to bring the full battery sounds that a computer can make. So I’m working with a piano, a transistor organ, and a small synth, and seeing what I can get out of that setup.

This is related to using the Rhodes in Prism and in Chris Potter’s Underground. I wanted to focus on Rhodes to create a limitation for myself. With all the possibilities of electronics, it can be overwhelming, and it can limit creativity in a way because there are too many options. I feel my creative reaction to things is spurred on by having access to a more limited palette and then trying to force it out. A transistor organ is perfect for that, because you have to work with it more to make it do stuff.

TJG: Igor Stravinsky has a quote about how he felt most creative when he put the most restrictions on himself.

CT: Exactly.

TJG: What kind of material have you guys been working on for the Gallery gigs? Is it more open or more composed?

CT: It’s all my compositions. It’s all newish music, some very new music, some older pieces that I haven’t documented before. We’re recording this material on Thursday and Friday for ECM, so the gig is a bit of preparation for the recording. Because of that and time constraints, we’re really focusing on the new stuff. We’ve done arrangements of tunes from other projects, like Beat the Ground from Chants, but we’ve got to really lock in this new stuff when we rehearse earlier in the week.

Like with the trio, I like to go into a bit of a sprawl with each set—like have a structured set list but then let some pieces merge into others and figure out how to get from one place to the next, basically have a set be uninterrupted in that way. I’m not sure if we’ll completely do that at the shows. Since we’re going in to record, we might do some shorter versions of some pieces. We have to decide as a group on that.

Interesting things happen when you play tunes a lot over a short period of time, like you go in the studio all day and then you play it again in a show. Playing the same music that you’ve been recording all day has a feeling of being unleashed. All the things that you were uptight about in the recording studio are now gone, and there is a different energy. Even if you’re tired, there’s another level.

TJG: You’ve developed particular relationships with different venues in New York during your time here. How does that relationship affect the way you play in that space?

CT: I’ve played at the Gallery before, but I haven’t played there enough. I guess I’ve been a friend of the Gallery since it began, but I actually haven’t played there that much, and rarely with my own groups. The relationship hasn’t been that frequent, so I’m excited to play here. The Gallery is really a home for nurturing young musicians and developing music there. I play more at The Stone, and it’s a great space, but it has a different ethos and serves a different kind of function in the community of musicians—just the way it’s set up with the residencies, and the way it’s curated. It lends itself to a different kind of development. At the Gallery, everybody there is playing their own music, and they’re part of the next thing. There are some other places like that, but the Gallery is where you would see Vijay Iyer with Marcus Gilmore like ten years ago. I remember seeing those gigs at The Jazz Gallery and being like, “Who are these guys?”

TJG: You’ve worked with Vijay and just played with him during his Met Breuer residency, yes?

CT: Yeah. The Met Residency was great. We had done that for a number of years but we hadn’t done it in a while. It felt good to get back into it and it was the best so far.

TJG: A lot of your music has a lot complex stuff going on from a metric standpoint. What has made you interested in these rhythmic forms?

CT: I like multiples. Sun Ra would talk about multiples, which is mixed meters and things. He is an early influence in terms of that. There was a time in the late 50’s when you had Dave Brubeck and a lot of jazz people were exploring odd time signatures but basically just singular odd time signatures, or shifting meters like Don Ellis. But even during that time, Sun Ra was exploring multiples at different levels on his records. Multiples meaning not just superimposing multi meters, but also feels. I liked the sound of that from Sun Ra and the idea of Concentric Circles. It’s very space oriented and orbital, with things moving at different rates in cycles. Its very African of course. I like things that move that way because it creates a rhythmic harmony and rhythmic voice leading. I’ve like that since I was a pretty young musician around 12-13. I started thinking that way and hearing things that way at an early age, by trying to put two different things together and hearing each identity, and the rhythmic voice leading that happens within it, and how that influences the melodic voice leading and the harmonic movment as well. I tend to hear things that way when I start writing now.

There is a lot of electronic music that does this, but I was particularly drawn to some of the techno in the 90s where that was going on. I try to think in that way even when I’m at the piano, so with larger groups I can work out those things in more detail that a solo pianist couldn’t accomplish. It’s an interesting sound to me. It’s a beautiful sound. I like the way things move and shift. You can have a certain harmonic or melodic movement going on in isolation but then its identity is changed just by virtue of another one that going on in a different rhythmic cycle. You can revisit it so that on the second iteration it’s changed by virtue of its context being changed. It’s just colors to me and I like things that sound that way.

TJG: Does your interest in rhythmic cycles come from experiences with Indian classical music at all?

CT: I’ve certainly checked out a lot of that music, enough to understand the basic principles and have derived a lot from it although I haven’t studied that music in any in-depth way. I’ve worked with Dan Weiss who has been heavily involved in it. That approach and those methodologies are of great interest to me, like African music, especially the concept of Multiples and Polyrhythms. I don’t know much about African music either but I know a little more about it than Indian music.

TJG: One of your tunes that uses these processes is “Speak the Name” from your album Chants. I’m struck by how the tune came from material that you had been playing before and that it has transformed and taken on new meanings over time. Can you talk about long term development of ideas in your music?

CT: “Speak the Name” comes from an etude that I was doing and it has kept evolving.

It starts with that ostinato, and then pyramidal development allows you to keep hyperexending the modules or kernels of information by using the same rhythms, or inverting rhythms and also by changing the harmonic information or the pitch information that they are dealing with, and then evolve larger and larger structures but still keeps close to the core. A lot of things that I work on or shed a lot have to do with me developing that kind of stuff. Sometimes I’ll use a known entity like that ostinato as a starting place to see how I can further extend it, and then its yields other ones. That is one that I particularly like.

The thing I am not thinking about (though I am aware of it) is the meter, or the number. That is kind of circumstantial based on the building blocks that I am using, and how I am manipulating them. I have to shed it, but its more experiential. Being able to hear these larger cycles and voice leading is something that you have to experience. You have to spend time. Maybe certain people don’t have to. You could write it all out, and just read it accurately maybe if you are a good sightreader but I am not really interested in that.

A lot of trying to work in this way came out of my experiences from playing with Steve Coleman. He was working on such long cycles things then, and now that I realized that the only way to really confidently improvise over that stuff and negotiate it and to be able to also respond to what else is going on, is to really internalize all of that information instead of just grabbing your part. Its important to know what the drums or bass, etc are doing at any given moment. The more you can know what every element is doing at any given point, then you you can’t really get lost. There’s just a confidence and a creative empowerment that goes along with that. So I just keep working on hearing these things.

The ostinato serves as an anchor point but then I often break away from that to try to hear other things. The practice keeps going but I do not practice it to be able to play it, I practice it to be able to hear it.

Overall, I don’t think metrically, I think in terms of rhythmic chunks. I don’t count it until I need to, which is usually when I want to work out how something fits against something else.

TJG: It’s as if when you count out these rhythms, they don’t chunk together or feel like a groove. It’s like a mathematical computation.

CT: That’s a thing. One reason I don’t always write things out is that the groupings and rhythmic cycles that are notated don’t line up with the groove that I’m feeling—that can be something else entirely. When you’re dealing with multiple grooves simultaneously, you have to write in one meter, and then write accents for the other things, which creates a hierarchy. Whenever someone is reading this, they’re thinking about one thing as the master pulse or master rhythmic cycle, and then the other thing as a syncopation against that. That whole cognitive thing affects how you can groove it. A lot of what I really like is truly cyclical, so I don’t really like writing things out against a meter. Like I’ve never written out the “Speak the Name” thing. I never start it anywhere, it’s a big circle for me now. I can start anywhere in it and lock in. That was the goal. There’s no “1” in that once it gets going. There’s just a series of relationships.

That’s a very African thing. They’ll just start a bell pattern anywhere [sings bell patterns]. You can hear where you are with that, and you can give yourself a 1, and if there’s a harmonic rhythm you want, you have to give yourself a 1 as an orientation point. But being dependent on that 1 to start, that’s what I wanted to get away from. I wanted to jump in anywhere in the big circle and know where I am. Until I know that, I don’t really consider that I know the rhythmic changes. For a big cycle, waiting until it gets back to 1 is too long to really have a handle on it. That’s what I learned from the Steve Coleman thing. Like now, he’s dealing with cycles that can last like two minutes. Threadgill’s kind of like that too, where I’ve noticed that if you miss the start, you have to wait like two minutes before you can jump in again. It’s hard to do, but it’s possible to hear where relationships are. You can hear if it’s “dut-doooh” versus “daaahh-do,” and then know what part of the cycle that you’re in. So I work on internalizing all of that stuff.

That’s why I avoid the metrical terminology until I have to write a chart. Then I have to figure out what to do and what to privilege. A lot of times I’ll write things in an odd way, and people say that there is an easier way to write this. But then I’ll say I want you to feel these 5’s. Like I’ll write something that’s clearly in 7, but write it in 5/8 because I want them to put the strong beat there. If they’re readers and really visual, then they’re forced to address the 5. So I write things that way just to force the issue for people who process the information that way. Like it’s helpful when someone else is playing a pattern against yours, like if a drummer is a playing 5s against your 7s.

TJG: We’ve been talking a bit about the patterns in “Speak the Name.” How do bassist Thomas Morgan’s and drummer Gerald Cleaver’s parts fit in with what you’re doing?

CT: Thomas’s part is a mirror image, it’s just an inversion of what my right hand is doing. He’ll start with that, but the cool thing about Thomas is how he can develop the information within his part to make something different.

TJG: Something like changing the phrasing of a 5 beat pattern from 2+3 to 3+2?

CT: Exactly. That’s what he’s doing there, and on the side of the form as well. Like from a harmonic standpoint, he’ll start on the other side of the circle. So it’s really just a retrograde of what I’m doing a lot of the time, but I wasn’t thinking of it like that.

Thomas just takes any information he’s given and runs with it. Some people will just start and internalize that set, but Thomas has the other ideas and works them in right away. He’s using everything you put down as a matrix in which he can start manipulating stuff. It’s so good to work with him because he can immediately internalize things and start developing them. He’ll even learn all the parts of my pieces, even stuff he doesn’t have to play. It helps him process the information and give him more to work with.

TJG: So how does Gerald work with the material?

CT: We all kind of work the same way, but Gerald works particularly well by countering or not countering what else is happening, and makes sure things move. With grids and matrices, if you get too locked into that, it just becomes that thing. It’s hard to keep the poetry. Talking about all of this stuff makes me sound like a geometry, math-y type person, which I am, but my aesthetics run a little differently in performing these structures. They’re there to elicit something else. My goal when practicing them is to internalize them and have a strong experience of them so I can do other things with them. That’s my big thing, as opposed to just playing them through or demonstrating the structure. I’m interested in what it can evolve into.

The Craig Taborn Quartet plays The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, May 4th, and Thursday, May 5th, 2016. The group features Mr. Taborn on piano & keyboards, Chris Speed on tenor saxophone and clarinet, Chris Lightcap on bass, and Dave King on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $22 general admission ($12 for members). Purchase tickets here.