Everyone was walking out of the theater. Piano wunderkind Craig Taborn had just finished a blistering one hour set of solo instrumental improvisation. Some looked stunned, others were laughing out of excitement, and one man in the crowd said, “my hands hurt.”
Sure, it was a funny comment, but it also summed up the performance. Taborn is a monster on the keys, and he made it known almost immediately. In his opening 20 minute song, the pianist toyed with the crowd’s expectations by applying a surprising dynamic to his treble and bass interplay. The song gradually became louder, as Taborn’s arms flailed farther and his fingers twitched faster in an unsettling dissonance. He showed the piano’s beauty and its ugliness at the same time as he switched back and forth between a heartfelt tonality and an anxiety-triggering atonality.
Often described as a free jazz artist, the pianist quickly proved himself to be versatile at melding styles together. Obviously jazz was a present force in the show, but Taborn played a powerful mixture of classical, blues, ragtime, and a small amount of baroque to create a unique playing style that will be hard to match.
In his free improvisation fashion, Taborn played with form in subtle ways, like using silence as a part of his songs, playing a steady and complex rhythm with his left hand while burning down the house with a wild right hand, or making a normal 4/4 time signature sound like a cacophonous irrational rhythm.
What a lot of piano players will find truly frightening about Taborn’s skill is that almost everything described above happened in the first song. I filled out a page of notes trying to comprehend that one piece, and I know I didn’t do it justice.
In the midst of Taborn’s performance, it became apparent that he is more than his skill. It’s so easy to be thunderstruck by the lightning fast playing, but this human piano roll is a fantastic off-the-cuff composer. He has the ability to make fine riffs and progressions in a heavily improvised manner. It may sound chaotic, but just like Ornette Coleman did over 50 years ago, Taborn makes music that’s too well put together to be cast off as nonsensical noise.
At the end of the day, Taborn’s music needs to be experienced. He’s a master craftsman who uses the piano as a primitive instrument, making beauty and violence at once. Plenty of people will be turned off by this, but Taborn’s music wasn’t for them. It was for people that are willing to open their minds and attempt to understand that music’s true lack of boundaries. And, as Ranky Tanky drummer Quentin Baxter alluded to in his introduction to Taborn, the improvisational nature of the music means repeat visits to his live shows will yield different music every night.
Taborn’s show on Thursday June 7 will be another solo show, but his performances on Friday June 8 and Saturday June 9 will feature Gerald Cleaver on drums and Chris Lightcap on bass.