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New York jazz pianist Craig Taborn talks to Chicago's Rob Clearfield

'I'm not a classically trained pianist at all'

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Craig Taborn and Rob Clearfield are both known as jazz pianists, but their musical interests and projects range far and wide. Minneapolis native Taborn first attracted attention as saxophonist James Carter's pianist in the early 90s; since then he's worked with a mind-blowing array of bandleaders including Roscoe Mitchell, Chris Potter, and Dave Douglas. He also was a close collaborator of Detroit techno great Carl Craig in his Innerzone Orchestra. He's a true ensemble player, improving each project he's involved with, but that's come at the expense of his own career as a leader; he's made only four albums on his own. But his newest effort, a solo recital called Avenging Angel, has been deservedly turning heads.

Rob Clearfield - JOHN BROUGHTON
Clearfield is just as ubiquitous in Chicago, playing with Fareed Haque, Zach Brock, Matt Ulery, Greg Ward, and the prog-rock band District 97, as well as his own rock outfit Information Superhighway. He released an solo recital of his own, A Thousand Words, last year. Taborn performs with drummer Gerald Cleaver and Danish saxophonist Lotte Anker Sun 9/11 at the Hungry Brain. —Peter Margasak

The new record sounds really great. Was it your idea to do a solo thing? I had been talking to Manfred [Eicher, who owns and runs ECM] about doing a trio [recording]. But corralling everybody's schedule turned out to be a challenge, and then Manfred said, "Why don't we do a solo thing?" He asked me in April or May, and I had just finished a solo tour in March. I had never done a solo recording.

How much of the record is improvised? I would say 90 percent. A couple of the more rhythmic, long-cycle things were preconceptualized. I wanted to have stuff that's more developed. I can't improvise stuff that's that complicated. We had two days to record. I recorded 33 or 34 individual pieces on Saturday, and when I went in on Sunday, Manfred said, "Do you want to play some more?" I was like, "I think we're good, let's just start listening." I felt so fried. I had no objectivity at that point.

A lot of people ask you about your relationship to metal and punk. I was curious about your relationship to classical. That's a huge piece of my musical interest and compositional thinking. I'm not a classically trained pianist at all.

Do you work on pieces not to perform but just to work on them? Oh yeah. When I was in high school, I was into composition and I had a mind to be that kind of composer. My school had a music track that had college-level composition courses. The school no longer does that. The people in charge of the music department had doctorates in music. They taught theory and comp for two years, and I was able to get a head start on some of that stuff. They took us into grad-level thinking on creative composition. There were only, like, four of us in the class. At the time I was getting into a lot of free jazz and some contemporary classical stuff. I was just into it all.

So what are you checking out now? I tend to listen really schizophrenically. I've been listening to a lot of Wynton Kelly. I mean, I've always listened to Wynton Kelly. And then avant-garde post-black metal, this band Virus that's Czral's—Carl-Michael Eide's—band. They've been around for a while. It sounds like Bauhaus plays something avant-garde. And I've been trying to get into this Beethoven sonata.

So, you're coming to Chicago next weekend. Who are you playing with? Gerald Cleaver and Lotte Anker. Lotte's a great saxophonist from Copenhagen. It's all completely improvised. There are few groups where you can really go into a zone where it's about complete trust and confidence, and that's probably one of the most special groups I get to play with in terms of that. It's just great chemistry and energy—the most pure improvising that I get into. Not that the music sounds austere. We had a tour maybe five years ago where we were supposed to play the Hungry Brain with Lotte. We were coming from Toronto and Lotte got held at the border and couldn't finish the tour. We had to leave her in Windsor, Ontario, in some hotel, not knowing what would happen to her. Gerald and I finished the gigs [as a duo] so we could get money together to [help pay for] her flight back. It was a great tour, but at the same time there was this dark energy around our circumstances. So we're really looking forward to this.

How'd you originally get connected to the guys you know in Chicago? I've seen you play with Mike Reed and Joshua Abrams. With Mike, I think it was initially because of that gig at the Hungry Brain that Lotte couldn't play. He was one of the people putting on that festival. Mike called me to do a trio with Josh at the Velvet and it kind of developed from there.

What else is on the horizon for you? I kind of rolled the dice this fall. I have a gig with [Polish trumpeter] Tomasz Stanko, I'm doing this record with [saxophonist] Chris Potter, and then I'm going out to Seattle to do some duo gigs with a great pianist named Gust Burns. And then I'm doing a trio tour with Thomas Morgan and Gerald Cleaver, and I have a solo tour in December. But the rest of the year is largely my own projects, and in my time off from that I'm trying to write. Next year is sort of full; I'm curious to see how that'll work. Like, I'll be okay, but usually I'll have a couple tours that I'm sure will make me a bit of rent money. Now I'm sorta like, "Oh, wow"—just 'cause it's my own tour. You never know what can happen.


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