The first time Craig Taborn felt impending danger in a different country, he was standing on a golf course in Mexico. First, there was an earthquake, then, a few hours later, there was a tsunami warning.
As Taborn looked at the coast and saw the waves pounding, it reminded him of playing a jazz solo: delving into environments, absorbing the unknown, and changing the music.
Ultimately, the weather cleared and no tsunami came. But Taborn interpreted his life in a brand new way after that half hour.
“Your lens shifts,” he said.
Taborn is an American pianist, keyboardist and composer who has been exposed to music since adolescence and now works mostly in jazz. By mid-2017, Taborn had released nine albums as frontman, and had appeared on more than 90 as a supporting artist.
For his Spoleto Festival debut this year, Taborn will perform solo for two nights, and in a trio with bandmates Gerald Cleaver (drums) and Chris Lightcap (bass) for another two nights. They will perform songs from Taborn’s albums, “Avenging Angel” (2011) and “Light Made Lighter” (2001).
For Taborn, playing jazz is a process of managing inspiration.
“It depends on how things are unfolding in that performance,” he said. The moment informs what he plays, and he never plays the same thing twice.
Lightcap, an American double bassist, bass guitarist and composer, has worked with Taborn for 20 years.
“(Taborn) usually doesn’t have a specific program worked out ahead of time,” Lightcap said. “He likes to leave things open to spontaneous choices.”
Taborn thinks of music as architectural.
“The jazz solo is the skeleton, and I put layers on top to create new things,” he said. “I am not rolling in, trying to achieve a specific goal. I am going in, trying to work with what’s there, to make the best thing possible.”
Born in Minneapolis, Minn., Taborn began working professionally in the 1990s and was influenced at an early age by the freedom expressed in the recordings of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (based in Chicago), Sun Ra, and Cecil Taylor. During college, Taborn toured and recorded with saxophonist James Carter as well other musicians in electronic and acoustic settings. He was named best in the electric keyboard category by Down Beat Magazine in 2011, and a “rising star” in both the piano and organ categories.
Tabor, a curious sort, loves film, photography and visual art. He is always seeking to link his music with anything that could be an inspiration.
“Craig is not afraid of something that sounds strange, or out of tune,” Lightcap said. “For him, everything is the sound can be used.”
Taborn said when inspiration, introspection and opportunity combine, some evocative work can result.
“The music mind has to be sharp so you can deliver things in the moment,” he said. “When you have a chance to do more than one performance, you can go deeper.”
He said it’s easy to disconnect from real life because of all the devices and distractions, so he wants to reconnect people to their immediate surroundings and to each other.
“Always stay awake and alive to what’s going on,” he said. “That’s why I like the kind of music I do.”
Chunzi Shi is a Goldring Arts Journalist at Syracuse University.