“Chants” is the first release by the Craig Taborn Trio. Recorded in New York in June last year, and produced by Manfred Eicher, it marks out some new musical ground, with its strikingly original compositions and inspired improvising. Just as the “Avenging Angel” album subverted expectations of solo improvised piano, so does “Chants” find its own response to the vast tradition of the piano trio. The pieces that Craig Taborn has written for his trio are set up to generate new group music by channelling the particular skills of drummer Gerald Cleaver and bassist Thomas Morgan. For Taborn, the personnel are the all-defining factor. “I knew that if I created a context and then deferred, fully, to Gerald’s and Thomas’s sensibilities it would inherently be stimulating and would also challenge the context. I wanted to invite that challenge: I’d much rather engage with the group, always, than have the format as ‘piano adventures with supporting cast’”. Morgan and Cleaver share the leader’s concern for compositional shape and multi-layered improvisational detail, as the music is pulled between the poles of density and spaciousness, to dramatic and often thrilling effect.
These are players who know each other well. The trio has been together for eight years, and toured widely, but Taborn’s relationships with drummer and bassist stretch back further still. Taborn and Gerald Cleaver first played together 25 years ago when they were students at the University of Michigan. “I was from Minneapolis and didn’t know anybody. Gerald was from Detroit and was already playing. He had connections and we started working together in Detroit, with James Carter and others.” Taborn and Cleaver made their ECM debuts together in 1997, when both of them were members of Roscoe Mitchell’s Note Factory (see “Nine To Get Ready”), and they have played in many contexts since, including earlier incarnations of Craig’s trio. Both pianist and drummer play in Michael Formanek’s quartet, an association documented on the ECM recordings “The Rub And Spare Change” and “Small Places”.
Taborn has known Thomas Morgan since the bassist was a teenage student at the Manhattan School of Music, and has closely followed his development. Craig played with Thomas in saxophonist David Binney’s group, by which time Morgan was drawing a lot of attention as the most interesting young bassist on the New York scene. “I don’t think I could play this particular music [on “Chants”] with a different bassist. Thomas is perceived perhaps as a great ‘free’ bassist but if you give him material there is nobody who honours the compositional fabric more than he does. He is really rigorous about holding onto the essential concept and helping to realize it. There are challenging aspects to this music and quite complex structures – he welcomes that. So does Gerald.” As the group has gone forward the structural devices of the material – polyrhythms, nesting rhythms etc – have been internalized by the players, to the extent that the “difficulty” of the music is never its subject. “There are some parallels in things I’ve played in the past with Tim Berne’s band, perhaps, or Roscoe Mitchell’s. You might look at the music and think initially: ‘Is this even playable’?. As you explore it you learn that it is, but it makes conceptual as well as technical demands and you have to wrap your head around playing several separate things at once. Familiarity with the music and developing a relationship with the music is key.”
For all the music’s complexity, a sense of breath and a feeling of room to move remain in these pieces, even when layers of density pile up. “If there’s any musical goal it’s allowing for that space. There’s always the option to fill it up and it can be used. I like to keep the options open. A lot of my interests revolve around trying to extend the boundaries you can create in. I’m not interested in quiet and delicate music for its own sake, but the softer you play the more impact you can have when the loud enters. As a listener my affections tend to go toward louder, more dense, more extreme music and it’s always in my sights. But I don’t want to expend all my energies as a player going there: there’s a lot to be said for allowing things to arise out of musical necessity in the whole arc of the story being told.”
Intuition has a big role to play. “To the extent that I’m open to the improvisational moment, I really try not to break the spell by over-defining things. If you’re going to have everybody play free then you’re not a composer. But if you dictate the stylistic approach too narrowly, then you’re not using the potential of the players. If you have strong improvisers – like Gerald and Thomas – and give them musical information, they will key in on that. To my mind the question of ‘feel’ should be self-evident in the material. If there is a question, it’s because you intended there to be a question, and the improvisation is the answer.”
Gerald Cleaver and Thomas Morgan continue to refine their deep musical understanding inside and outside the Taborn Trio. The two musicians currently also comprise half of Tomasz Stanko’s New York Quartet (see the new double album “Wisława”). Cleaver’s many recording credits also include ECM discs with Miroslav Vitous (“Universal Syncopations II” and “Remembering Weather Report”), while Thomas Morgan’s appearances on the label include John Abercrombie’s “Wait Till You See Her”, Masabumi Kikuchi’s “Sunrise”, and the newly released “City of Broken Dreams” with the Giovanni Guidi Trio.