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Pianist Craig Taborn practices the art of instant composing on 'Shadow Plays'


This is FRESH AIR. Our jazz critic, Kevin Whitehead, says Craig Taborn is one of the most inventive and resourceful pianists in improvised music today. In recent years, Taborn has recorded in acoustic and electric trios and in piano duos with peers Kris Davis and Vijay Iyer, among other projects. Kevin has a review of Taborn's first solo album in a decade, and he says, like the previous one, it's a stunner.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Craig Taborn, from his lyrical and adventurous new album "Shadow Plays," improvisations recorded live early in 2020. Taborn practices the art of instant composing, of making spontaneous pieces so clear and shapely, they can sound worked out in advance. Sometimes they unfold like traditional pop songs with short motifs and variations.


WHITEHEAD: Craig Taborn has a refined touch at the keys, but he's not always genteel. He'll use piano as a percussion instrument, as improvisers do, but not necessarily in a thick, slabby way. At one point, he hammers a single note for a couple of minutes till piano twangs like a one-string banjo.


WHITEHEAD: Taborn likes to sustain distinctive textures like that for their own sake and in contrast to other textures. It's the minimalist in him. Most of the music on Craig Taborn's album "Shadow Plays" unfurls in long, episodic suites. At one moment, he moves from a sequence of bright staccato chords to softer ascending lines, but with a fancy patchwork transition going back-and-forth between the two, wrapping up the one as he previews the other.


WHITEHEAD: Taborn's "Birds Templar" offers a grand example of an instant composing. The suite begins with an endless, heavenly trill, eventually joined by a very slow, somber descending line that ends with Rachmaninoff grandeur in the bass. The whole sequence takes more than a couple of minutes. Here's a sliver.


WHITEHEAD: From that bit, he moves on to another episode, but a few minutes later, he circles back to recreate that leisurely opening but in compact form, squeezing all the emptiness out, an improvisation edited.


WHITEHEAD: He brings that whole sequence back one more time at the end of the piece, 11 minutes later. It's not, I think, that Taborn knows where he's going way in advance, but that he recall where he's been. He's both improvising in the moment and standing apart, taking the long view. A nine-minute arc of the sweet "Shadow Play" pivots on a repeating left-hand figure that starts gently, ripples on calm water.


WHITEHEAD: Gradually, that left-hand figure becomes loud and insistent, an autopilot undercurrent to a blizzard of right-hand counter lines and cross rhythms. It's as if two pianists are involved, Taborn drawing on the complex energy of his piano duos. Craig Taborn's pianistic and conceptual dazzle on the album "Shadow Plays" makes a point about improvising in general. Inspired ideas come to the well-prepared mind.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed "Shadow Plays," the new album by pianist Craig Taborn. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how Trump's GOP might subvert the 2024 election, with the loser certified as the winner. My guest will be journalist Barton Gellman. In his new article in The Atlantic, he describes how Republican operatives have been building an apparatus of election theft and how right-wing extremists are willing to fight by any means necessary for the cause. I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.