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Craig Taborn - Shadow Plays (ECM)

8 October 2021

Rightfully acclaimed as one of the most impressive and imaginative pianists currently treading the jazz boards, Craig Taborn has played everything from hard bop to avant-garde to fusion to electronica, sitting comfortably in every situation and bringing his own distinctive style to all of them. His fourth album as a leader for ECM, Shadow Plays is also his second solo piano record for the label. Recorded live at the Wiener Konzerthaus in Vienna, the show features the Detroit native improvising his way through what the press materials cheekily dub a “recital.”

Though every note is unplanned, it doesn’t sound like it – “Bird Templars,” the longform piece that opens the record, comes off like an epic piece of concert music given life by a particularly committed performer. The thread with which Taborn begins seems comprised of strains of classical music more than jazz, but Taborn follows it with logical precision, weaving a majestic tapestry by letting the music tell him where it needs to go and why. Expansive, challenging and, above all, musical, this track could well become a standard in the repertoire of solo pianists everywhere.

Elsewhere, Taborn begins “Concordia Discors” as a dreamy ballad before ramping up into a keyboard-equivalent to John Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” approach, ending on strains of minimalism. The eighteen-and-a-half minute “Shadow Play” advances aggressively into its creator’s avant-garde side, with adroit use of dissonance and a steady groove that prevents the music from ever riding off the rails. One of the shortest pieces, “Conspiracy of Things” looks back to the era of stride and boogie-woogie, recasting it in Taborn’s image for one of the most rollicking tracks. “Now in Hope” ends the record with one of its most meditative and melodic tunes.

Given Taborn’s maverick abilities as both improviser and composer, it’s tempting to compare Shadow Play to similarly boundary-pushing solo piano LPs by fellow iconoclasts Cecil Taylor and Keith Jarrett (also an ECM mainstay). But that’s a lazy person’s move – as an artist, Taborn stands on his own.