Sometimes the most mysterious music is the most fetching music. For decades, I’ve been beguiled by Air’s “I’ll Be Right Here Waiting” and John Carter’s “Karen On Monday” because of the way they imply their emotion, letting it drift from the shadows rather than wax overt. The former is a curt sax trio piece from 1978, poetic in its storytelling; the latter is a quartet performance by the New Art Jazz Ensemble that moves with such warmth it feels like the most romantic chess match ever. Each brokers privacy to some degree – mildly abstruse, a tad on the furtive side.
There are several moments on Craig Taborn’s Daylight Ghosts that run a parallel course. The celebrated New York pianist had a stint playing with Roscoe Mitchell in the early 00s, and the iconic saxophonist’s “Jamaican Farewell” is rendered here as a glowing grid of hushed group interaction. It moves cautiously, respecting the delicate nature of the composer’s design, but always seems firm enough to sculpt the chamber music personality that ultimately defines it. Tricky business, but the 47-year-old Taborn is proving himself to be a musician whose presentations are often as sage as not.
Some of the wily moves that have previously shaped the bandleader’s path illuminate the action here. As a teen, he absorbed the subtle repetitions of techno and trance (as well as the riff dynamics of prog metal), and he currently paints an insightful sense of patterns and electronics into his own work. Elements of his seminal Junk Magic album raise their heads on Daylight Ghosts. The former is a 2004 experiment that conflates acoustic and electro sounds into a grid of conspiratorial notions. This third disc for the ECM label finds the virtuoso pianist leaning towards the acoustic side, with both the leader and drummer Dave King intermittently deploying a plugged-in sensibility that enhances the action on a few levels.
Each of the two approaches serves the core of Taborn’s music: pulse. The pianist distills a few parts of his process with this band. King’s drums, Chris Speed’s reeds, and Chris Lightcap’s bass lock in tightly; each of their improv choices yield to the invisible traffic cop of Taborn’s compositions. “Abandoned Reminder” is a web of interplay that crab-walks its way to and fro before launching a series of implosions and the regimented throb of single motif. “New Glory” is a feisty chatterbox of counterpoint; the musicians have a moment or two to solo, but Taborn’s dedication to group is paramount. Nothing eludes its purpose.
Momentum is also key. Regardless of where a piece starts thrust-wise, it’s usually pondering a break for the door. Perhaps that why Taborn gets along so well with occasional confrere Tim Berne, whose elaborately extended tunes often say their goodbyes by launching into a gallop. “Subtle Living Equations” begins as a stark sketch, initially cryptic, and compelling so, like the Air and Carter tunes mentioned above. As the negative space is filled in, propulsion emerges. By the end, it’s simply a glistening ring of drummed notes.
This kind of flexibility guides a few tunes, including “Phantom Ratio,” which in certain situations, you might not need humans to render effectively – it could be done by machines and still be true to its essence. But Taborn’s passion leaves its mark on this music. Each performance boasts an unmistakable warmth. The title cut is cross-hatch of ascending and descending lines that nurture a Bernard Herrmann eeriness, especially as the pianist perpetually reframes the band’s approach. Mysterious, yes. But always willing to reveal its secrets right in front of you, like delivering a density to a spot that was dominated by light just moments previous.