Craig Taborn has been quietly dominating the jazz vanguard for more than a decade now. Taborn, from Minneapolis via the University of Michigan, first got known as the pianist in James Carter’s quartet, where he matched supercharged post-bop licks with a saxophone player of protean skill. But it was 2004’s Junk Magic for the Thirsty Ear label that pricked the ear of anyone who was listening — as Taborn created a jazz/electronic masterpiece that demonstrated sensitivity combined with bold vision, “inside” melodic grace combined with canny avant-garde instincts, and artistic vision blended with a sense that jazz could communicate beyond its usual boundaries.
Taborn went on not only to play with a who’s who of New York jazz but also to upstage many of those leaders on their own albums. His improvisations and accompaniments were so striking, original, and thrilling that you’d wonder why Taborn himself wasn’t making more dates as a leader.
But now he is not only recording regularly but on a leading label to boot. His third release for ECM is called Daylight Ghosts, and it puts him in charge of another quartet featuring a tenor saxophonist (and clarinetist, Chris Speed) with a top rhythm section that defies expectations (Chris Lightcap on bass and Dave King on drums and electronic percussion). It is a curious band for sure, but one that is wonderfully quirky. Lightcap has cast Taborn in a leading role, serving his churning, driving tunes in a brilliant band, Bigmouth, and Lightcap returns the favor here with a strong presence. Dave King is known for his role in The Bad Plus, working with pianist Ethan Iverson, and he is versatile and utterly simpatico in his playing here. Speed plays (and/or was recorded?) with a pastel tone, blending with Taborn’s largely impressionistic work. Everything, but everything, on Daylight Ghosts serves Taborn’s tunes, and very little leaps out of the tapestry, including the leader himself.
The title composition in this collection demonstrates Taborn’s intentions and how the band works cooperatively. Set in a few different sections, “Daylight Ghosts” begins as a wistful ballad between Speed’s tenor and the piano into the which Lightcap and King add some tension as they enter after a minute. Once the melody is fully stated, Speed and Taborn overlap for a bit before the leader rolls out a stately solo followed by the melodic restatement. More than halfway done, then, Taborn begins a simple repeated phrase with his left hand that rolls in circles as Speed improvises in a calm, understated way. Lightcap thrums a single note beneath the return of the written line, as King pushes harder and harder on both cymbals and toms. This second section presses rhythm as its theme but manages to retain the mood of the beginning. No one player leaps out as the featured soloist. Just as Taborn surely intended.
“Ancient” is even more subtle and collective as it builds to intensity. Lightcap starts it off with a quiet exploration of a single chord, plucking and strumming his acoustic bass without flash for almost two minutes before single notes from the piano and tiny clicks and taps from Kind set the groove to “simmer”. Speed enters on tenor, but he chooses light jabs and tender feints rather than a long, serpentine line — and this performance extends itself into being mainly accompaniment to a punching, daring solo by Taborn. Eventually, each member of the quartet is able to match Taborn’s energy so that King is rocking, Lightcap is funky beneath, and Speed locks in with the piano, creating a percolating counterpoint that makes you want to dance.
Some other songs are grooving almost from the start. “New Glory” is a joyous romp, grooving in the pocket like one of the gospel-driven Keith Jarrett tunes from his European Quartet. The best thing here, if Junk Magic was your jam, is “Phantom Ratio”, which starts as a ballad but evolves into an electronic/trance funk, with a repeated electronic loop beneath the quartet’s groove. Speed speaks in long, held tones above the ripple for a while, but eventually all sorts of textures — toggling electric bass from Lightcap, distorted electronic tones that echo the saxophone, King’s splashes and slashes of cymbal — built into a roar of inspiration.
As much or more of the recording, however, is atmospheric and subtle. “Jamaican Farewell” is a sumptuous ballad that features Speed’s clarinet. After two minutes of “standard” jazz balladry, the performance becomes much richer as Lightcap bows a long note, King begins a thrilling metronomic cymbal pattern, and the four musicians enter a harmonically static collective improvisation that lifts, falls, and eventually fizzles into thin air. There’s one performance here just for the trio. “Subtle Living Equations” is a spare, freely expressed performance, with Taborn leaving huge open spaces that King fills with wit and surprise. Taborn is masterful in varying his dynamics from note to note. No piano trio anywhere can hypnotize you so completely with so little music.
The other potential masterpiece on Daylight Ghosts is “The Great Silence” also uses Speed’s woody, natural clarinet tone, but here mixed with chiming piano and traces of electronics, eventually pulling the whole band for a gorgeous final two minutes of sounds that might originate almost anywhere. With Taborn’s music, you become less and less aware (or. more accurately, concerned with) who is playing which notes. The soundscape simply enchants.
For my money, Craig Taborn is already one of the MVP candidates for jazz in the twenty-teens. He defies categories, of course, but he’s even better than that: all the music he engages in is an act of original imagination. Daylight Ghosts is among the best extended performances of his career. And that’s saying something.