The Thirsty Ear Blue Series, an ambitious attempt at fusing free jazz with the textures and beats of electronic music and hip-hop, has made it a point to try and create something new. However, the title of Craig Taborn’s latest album, Junk Magic, may be the best shorthand summation for what this series has accomplished. Many of the CDs in the series have taken influences and sounds from disparate genres and mashed them together quite beautifully, creating true junk magic — collages of dark and dirty parts, musical cast-offs, so to speak, that have been artfully reattached.
For his second Blue Series album as a leader, Taborn has scavenged through a lot of territory, both jazz and electronic, to create an intriguing album. Junk Magic often sounds like a plugged-in version of a Tim Berne ensemble: quirky, squirming rhythms that are offset by laptop flourishes and the various cracks and hisses of electronic percussion. It’s an apt comparison, especially if you take Taborn’s varied past into account.
After graduating from the University of Michigan, this pianist and keyboardist spent a considerable amount of time playing with some of New York’s best avant-garde groups, including ensembles led by Roscoe Mitchell and Tim Berne’s Quiksand project. This jazz experience was offset nicely with a stint in techno legend Carl Craig’s Innerzone Orchestra and his debut on Thirsty Ear’s ambitious Blue Series, 2001’s Light Made Lighter.
However, what surprises this listener after hearing Junk Magic is the expanded textural depth and compositional experimentations Taborn’s willing to embark upon this time around. He labels himself as a keyboardist and programmer for this album, and he takes a much greater interest in splicing and building layers of electronic sounds around the performances of his ensemble members, as he does on the title track. The digital influences on this album are much more prominent, elevating electronics to more of an equal partnership with jazz in the composer’s mind.
Taborn starts out with tracks that slowly build, layer upon layer, and feature disjointed drums, like the in-and-out drum ‘n’ bass beat that ambles along the beginning of “Mystero”. At first, it seems like he’s building up a fast-paced fusion of electronic rhythms and jazz instrumentation, akin to the glorious squeals and hyperactive pace of the Cleveland band Birth. However, the music stays at a steady, stumbling pace, content to explore textural, as well as rhythmic, diversity. Many times throughout the album, the music appears poised to turn a corner and accelerate, yet it never speeds up. The hiccupping drums of David King play a huge role in allowing a track to stretch out, yet never languish too long. On “Prismatica”, for example, crisp drum hits and cymbal crashes maintain a funky beat that doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the track.
During many points in the album, Junk Magic takes on many of the characteristics of Blue Series albums of the past. After a beautiful, blues-laden start featuring great saxophone phrases, “Bodies at Rest and in Motion” turns into a prolonged series of wandering piano lines that roll under and over each other like a mobius strip while Aaron Stewart’s saxophone line corkscrews throughout. It’s a prolonged set of sonic waves, occasionally cresting, that recall much of the piano experimentation of Matthew Shipp.
However, Taborn definitely has his own muse, and finds ways to create diverse textures with electronic backgrounds. On “Stalagmite”, he adds an ominous synth line that anchors a series of glitched beats. On “Shining Through”, he incorporates an ambient background into Mat Maneri’s viola musings. Towards the end of the track, the electronic crackles recall a chorus of chirping crickets. To be fair, Taborn utilizes a lot of crackling, unsteady rhythms or sounds that have been used many times before by other electronic musicians. But that’s not the point — he’s figured out new ways to incorporate them into organic music, leaving his own signature on many of these tracks. Just listen to the way that he makes popping bursts of noise chase after the viola, piano, and saxophone in “Bodies at Rest and in Motion” — it sounds like the aural equivalent of someone gleefully popping bubble-wrap.
Overall, the album does live up to its name. Taborn and Co. have created lush, enjoyable, and sometimes downright funky music has been culled from unlikely sources. Though it certainly has a very dark thematic tinge on most of the album, it rarely, if at all, crosses over into the overtly academic and self-important territory that free jazz can sometimes occupy.