Pianist Craig Taborn hasn’t released a solo album since 2004, when Junk Magic put jazz and electronic music in a mix, playing with beats until something heady came out. He’s been busy as a sideman, and his explorations of different sounds and influences has led, perhaps surprisignly, to a solo piano album, Avenging Angel. The format makes perfect sense, though, as it allows him to focus on sound and space, putting his improvised experimentation into an isolated format where we listen to piano-as-piano, and think about what that actually means.
The album takes the listener through a range sounds and styles without losing focus. The transition between the title track and “This Voice Says So” represents the stretches Taborn makes in the process. “Avenging Angel” starts on a dark, percussive groove, with Taborn working far down the piano, using the timbre of that end of the instrument integrate mood with propulsion. As he explores with his right hand, the song further increases in both energy and tension. We never quite get a release, as the upper register brightens, the lower rhythm continues to grind and impose a darker tone. The song pounds at us for nearly seven minutes.
And then we get “This Voice Says So”, a cut that opens so quietly that the single, high-pitched notes are barely audible. Taborn skips from deep rhythmic playing to high, well-spaced notes that take most of their first minute to coalesce into anything coherent, and even then Taborn provides and initial challenge to reveal what he’s putting together. By the middle of the ten-minute track, we start to get a better picture, but his use of silence matches his tonal progression as the relevant composition, plinkings eventually submerged under crescendoing progressions.
“Forgetful” does the best job of combining Taborn’s interest in digging at small spaces with his lyricism. The piece starts softly and slowly, as he gradually builds a framework. He works single-note repetition before a melody starts to shake loose. Every bit of traditional-sounding jazz that comes through here, almost reminiscent of a Hollywood lounge scene, gets played off either contrasting chords or the ambient pick up in the room, creating a tone to the piece that shifts the loveliness from the keys to the sound itself. As Taborn plays his way through, the song develops into a grander picture.
The album is thoughtful throughout, if not always contemplative (the extreme study in dynamics throughout the album limits a fully contemplative approach). A track like “Neither-Nor” provides brief, skittery examinations, while opener “The Broad Day King” provides more brightness and expansiveness. Throughout these tracks, though, the range, uses, and sound of the piano remain foregrounded. The recording quality is essential to the effect of the album, and the excellent sound of the recital room it was recorded in only enhances Taborn’s ideas.
One of the meditative pieces on the album is named “A Difficult Thing Said Simply,” and while there’s a journalist optimism for concision there, the title’s a red herring. Taborn is saying difficult things, but he’s not saying them simply. He’s saying them straightforwardly by himself, without making his music impenetrable, but with Avenging Angel, he’s created a set that invites continual reflection and negotiation, and one that demands as much energy as patience from the listener, even in the silence.