What Once Sounded Like the Future Still Sounds Fresh on Craig Taborn’s ‘Junk Magic’

Compass Confusion is the long-awaited sequel to Craig Taborn's groundbreaking 2004 recording that mixed jazz, electronica, and new music composition. What once sounded like the future still sounds fresh.

Compass Confusion
Craig Taborn Junk Magic
Pyroclastic Records
30 October 2020

At least one central idea of the new jazz of the 21st century is the flat-out rejection of the neo-traditional jazz purism represented by Wynton Marsalis during his first decade or so. That purism was laced with a rejection of The Other, as articulated with such self-righteousness by critic Stanley Crouch in so many syllable-rippling Marsalis liner notes. The encroachment that so horrified the late cultural pundit was that of—gasp and horror!—popular funk, soul, and hip-hop on the rarefied air of J A Z Z.

When pianist Craig Taborn recorded Junk Magic for Matthew Shipp’s Thirsty Ear label in 2004, he was still mainly thought of as the accompanist of saxophonist James Carter, playing in a quartet that largely presented neo-traditionalism on steroids. In fact, Taborn had begun a solo career that was starting to veer into originality and a form of creative post-modernism. Not only would he venture into the ambiguous territory between structured and “free” playing (as on 2001’s Light Made Lighter), but he also started to use the tools of beat making that were part of electronic music. Enter Junk Magic.

The 2004 band included saxophonist Aaron Stewart, the experimental viola player Mat Maneri, and drummer Dave King, whose main band the Bad Plus had just broken as the Cool New Thing, even though the jazz critics liked to criticize the band because, if you can believe this was still a thing, “the drummer plays too loud, like a rock drummer”.

The 2004 recording dared to use loops and beats, spooky synth lines and textures, viola playing that was both gorgeous and sliding into the spaces between regular notes of the chromatic scale. It made us think that Taborn had some ideas that we didn’t know it was possible to have. As is too often the case, the new decade and century started a few years later than the calendar said it should. Here, at last, jazz was starting to sound wholly new even as it did jazz things, but did them with tools and textures drawn from elsewhere. Not funk and soul as Crouch had feared, either. Junk Magic was coming from European art music as well as hip-hop, though those two have their own historical overlap. This music was the opposite of dumbed-down or sold-out. It was breaking ground in new ways. Over time, it has also emerged as less rebellious than it is, well, refined. Conservative in its discipline and focus.

The band would play together over the years, but the new Compass Confusion is Taborn’s first Junk Magic (now the name of the band, of course) recording in all those years. The saxophonist, doubling on clarinet, is now Chris Speed, and bassist Erik Fratzke is the fifth member, but King and Maneri remain. In 2020, the ideas that Junk Magic pioneered 16 years ago are now all over the place. Jazz and electronica have mingled in music by Mark Guiliana, and Dan Weiss and Brad Mehldau, beats and jazz have been mixed up together by Robert Glasper and many others. Composed “new music” has bled into jazz composition, making it more extended in form and technique. That warning bell from Taborn’s 2004 recording has been heard by every creative musician around, one way or another.

Compass Confusion, then, might be Taborn’s reaction to his initial concept. As a musician who has collaborated with so many important improvisers in the new jazz, Taborn has been absorbing and trading ideas with the best. He now returns to his Junk Magic format with a greater sense of composition and refinement, although its expressions vary widely.

The set comes out of the gates with joy, using all its tools at their most thrilling. “Laser Beaming Hearts” creeps in from silence very, very slowly, with moody synths that sound like they are being tuned in from a cross-galactic broadcast. But in short order, we get electronic beats and a synth pulse, quickly followed by a riff-based melody that is so punchy that it seems fair to call it Basie-esque. Fratzke’s bass gives the groove heart, and Taborn orchestrates it all so that woodwind and string textures blend in just as it all busts up into a cool, time-signature-scrambling counterpoint. There isn’t any improvised soloing, but the sense of momentum means it is, somehow, jazz.

What is striking about this first track is how it may remind us just a bit of the 1970s-to-1980s band Weather Report, which was always the weirdest and most ambitious of that era’s fusion outfits. Weather Report wasn’t using beats in this way, of course, but on the strength of Joe Zawinul’s synthesizer imagination and Wayne Shorter’s ripe tone, it could sound like a space-aged big band. “Laser Beaming Hearts” is better, though. Weather Report had great rhythm sections, always, but its synthy bursts sounded a little too eager to please, maybe the result of the band having that one radio hit (“Birdland”) that it would never reproduce. Junk Magic hit their great, popping groove, then Taborn complicates it just enough to give it an edge. The music never strikes you as cloying.

The band have so many other gears, however. “The Science of Why Devils Smell Like Sulpher” also has moments where it dances, but it leaves big swaths of room for free improvising—the kind of slightly atonal, no-clear-tempo stuff that Weather Report only noodled with a tad on its earliest record. Here, Taborn’s clanging piano and Maneri’s unafraid viola go at each other as if they met at an Art Ensemble of Chicago concert. King prattles, and Fratzke plays scrambled guitar lines, all while a produced beat starts to gear up in the background, preparing us for a hypnotic section in 5/4. Maneri improvises on top of this groove section like a gospel singer who is channeling the Lord. Amen.

If the sound of Junk Magic tends to be dominated by the rhythm section and the programming that integrates it, “Sulpher” proves that a great improvised solo is still a key elevating ingredient, sometimes. “Sargasso” is the feature for Speed’s tenor saxophone, built on an atmosphere of a bell tower pings and chimes over which his processed horn plays a stately melody. King makes the stuttering groove beneath the horn seem to move into double-time as Speed begins to improvise collectively with Maneri. The array of organic and inorganic sounds is integrated ingeniously: reed and string squiggle against each other, sure, but they also rub up against looping percussion, synthesized blurts, and syncopated squeaks.

Perhaps Junk Magic function best when they still sound something like a jazz ensemble, a band. For all the electronic textures and programmed soundscapes that make Junk Magic sound utterly different than most of the new jazz, it is the interplay of flesh and blood that brings it to the level of thrill.

“Dream and Guess” may be built around a series of atmospherics. Still, the melody uses a classic jazz arranging trick, with a lead “horn” (in this case, the viola) being doubled by a contrasting sonority (one of Taborn’s keyboards, sounding something like an electric guitar). Later in the composition, Maneri’s viola and Speed’s tenor sax play lines that gently chase each other, mimicking each other’s phrasing—more like jazz, even if the band is not swinging behind them.

When the material sounds less like a band, as on “The Night Land” and the first half of “Compass Confusion/Little Love Gods”, it sounds more listless, more like a diary, and less like a drama or a conversation. However, the final two-plus minutes of “Little Love Gods” invite in a snaking layering of clarinet, tenor sax, viola, synthesizers, textured whooshes of harmony, digital cowbell, and ringings of dark piano chords. It comes to life as if an arid planet were suddenly hit with a rainstorm.

To these ears, the proportion of popping moments or riveting conversational moments could be greater. The set ends with “Sunsets Forever”, which is mainly a series of synthesized swells that is less dynamic than the best part of Compass Confusion. On a track like this, the band are largely absent, with less of the interesting interplay that makes the bulk of the recording so repeat-listenable.

But even on the tracks that most allow Maneri, King, or Speed to lift their voices over the crests of electronic sound, this second Junk Magic outing maintains a strict sense of the collective. Except for the compositions of the leader and his larger concept for the sound of the band, no one element ever takes over for long. Again, echoing the mantra that was supposed to be the guide for Weather Report, “no one solos, everyone solos”. That is not to say that, on a theoretical blindfold test, you might not identify one of the players. Their voices are recognizable, but their purpose is always collective.

The achievement on this second recording is that Junk Magic seem to make that collective balance work most of the time. Like some of the other electronic outings in the jazz of the 21st century, there are nods to 1970s fusion, but the larger conception is more original and true to itself. So much of that old fusion sounded (sometimes quite excitingly, but) like hyped up bebop or smarty-pants rock ‘n’ roll. Junk magic requires the talent of master musicians, but it wouldn’t think of having them show off their chops.

There is a refinement to Craig Taborn’s vision for this band. Compass Confusion is almost conservative in its focus and discipline. After all these years, that has become clear.

RATING 7 / 10