Craig Taborn

Shadow Plays

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Shadow Plays Review

by Thom Jurek

Pianist and composer Craig Taborn began his relationship with ECM Records in 1997 as a sideman on Roscoe Mitchell's seminal Nine to Get Ready. Since then, he's become a label mainstay -- though he records elsewhere too -- in a variety of settings. Avenging Angel, his widely acclaimed improvised solo debut, appeared from ECM a decade ago. Shadow Plays, a sequel, was improvised live in 2020 at the Mozart-Saal of the Wiener Konzerthaus in Austria.

A decade is a long time in the life of an improviser. Thought and technique develop and shift according to experience. The seven pieces on Shadow Plays range in length from just over five minutes to more than 18. Remarkably, these works seem to emerge directly from one another and return like a Möbius strip. "Bird Templars" is built on bell-like chord voicings that resemble birdsong, tempered with the ghost traces of folk, liturgical music, and jazz. "Discordia Concours" answers by emerging from its final notes with a lower-register, minor-chord sequence played in alternating patterns and threaded through middle- and higher-register keys until it haltingly changes shape to investigate each note and cluster with elements of inversion, repetition, and logic. "Conspiracy of Things," over its nearly six-minute runtime, offers a dazzling, deeply inquisitive look at the influence of Bud Powell's compositional thought on bop and post-bop, as well as the harmonic and rhythmic possibilities of stride piano. The entrance moment in "Concordia Discors" is a shard-like timbral set of brief notes, longer spaces, and ethereal, interrogatory chord voicings before Taborn engages classical piano technique and experiments with single notes, octaves, and prolonged, textured ambient silences. "A Code with Spells" begins abstractly but gels quickly as trancelike chords and single note patterns engage, commingle, and split off with increasing drama until they reach an apotheosis and transcend the frame. While the title track embarks with a punchy, percussive, upper-middle-register chord pattern, it gets turned inside out as single notes interact contrapuntally before replacing them even as the flow becomes softer, more elastic, and spectral. Closer "Now in Hope" emerges with a songlike chord progression. It offers a gorgeous lyric and bluesy fills that touch on everyone from Vince Guaraldi and Phineas Newborn, Jr. to Mal Waldron and Harold Mabern. The stride notions show their faces again, but they are disguised by counter harmonies. Shadow Plays is as full of surprise and imagination as it is canny, musical logic. Where Avenging Angel opened our ears to Taborn's consummate abilities to compose and organize simultaneously without surrendering his creativity, Shadow Plays extends that by offering a profound sense of intimacy with instrument and audience. It delivers fantastical groups of ideas that flow without undue force or ego to become something that is at once wondrous and revelatory.

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