(Vortex, Wednesday 25th May 2011. Review and drawing* by Geoff Winston
Nothing, they say, can beat live performance at its best – even a superb studio recording. An assertion which could be no better borne out than by Craig Taborn‘s mesmerising solo sets at the Vortex, which kicked off a short European tour promoting his first solo ECM release, ‘Avenging Angel’.
The album, produced by Manfred Eicher, was recorded on the Steinway in ECM’s hallowed Lugano recital room and beautifully captures Taborn’s haunting improvisations. The Vortex, with its treasured Steinway placed centre-stage (its welfare the subject of their ‘Tip the Piano’ campaign), the sympathetic acoustics and living-room intimacy, was the perfect platform for Taborn’s intense, virtuosic improvisational process.
Taborn had just flown in from New York, but that did not temper his vibrant creativity and the technical and intellectual challenges he sets himself. Watching his physical style adds another dimension to those captured on disc. It is as though there are no rules for either hand, as his left freely takes over the melodic role from the right and both share the percussive initiatives and independent rhythmic metrics. Taborn embraced the Steinway and at times appeared to dwarf the instrument as he responded to its singularity – its timbres, clarity and resonance.
As on the recording, Taborn makes a point of maintaining the sustains. Letting go of the vaguely Frere Jacques trickle in his second piece he allowed waves of ethereality to drift in and gradually scrunched himself up foetally, head by his hands at the keyboard, with the dying sound leaving a sense of purity which defied description. The ensuing dynamics saw the broad spans of his hands bouncing vigorously, as if off a trampoline, weaving dense rhythmic complexity in the spirit of Nancarrow, with a sprinkling of Tatum.
His hands were ever-active, grabbing clusters of notes or placing chords on to the keyboard with deliberation. Taborn’s grace and phrasing can be reminiscent of Satie or John Lewis’s solo works, so it was no surprise when he explained that he’d just done a week with Paul Motion revisiting the MJQ’s songbook, and that he “had to get [his] head back”! There was power and brilliance to Taborn’s execution – a rare instance which invites comparison with Solal. A performance from the core in an environment he loves – “the Vortex feels like home” – and, ultimately, the piano was Taborn’s stage.
* Drawing copyright Geoff Winston 2011. All rights reserved.
Avenging Angel is on ECM Records