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Into the Labyrinth

For Your Consideration: Craig Taborn's 'Chants'
Jonathan Wertheim
Staff Writer
jon.wertheim@gmail.com

As much as I like Keith Jarrett and Colin Vallon, I always like to hear an ECM record that doesn't quite sound like ECM. It's a contemplative label - a quality exemplified by the five seconds of silence that start every disc - but it's refreshing when a group doesn't let itself fall too deeply into the ECM groove.

That's not to say we don't get our ballads on Chants, the new record from Craig Taborn, Gerald Cleaver and Thomas Morgan. "In Chant" is a beautiful one, as is "Silver Days Or Love," and they belong on ECM as much as anywhere else. But the record has a restless, forward-leaning sound that keeps the dull and sometimes slightly pretentious aesthetics of the label at bay.

The prime mover behind this is undoubtedly Gerald Cleaver, whose drums and cymbals ring, pop, crash and expand over the whole disc. The time of each tune lies in Cleaver's hands - he is the catalyst for their shifts, their skips and hops, and their aggressive momentum. This is not to say that Cleaver is merely fulfilling "the role of the drummer" - far from it. If anything, he's fulfilling a far more melodic role (check out "Speak The Name").

Morgan is right there every step of the way. He makes the most of his prominent role on the ballads, and lends a deepness to the other tunes. He manages to lock in with drums and piano simultaneously, which at times produces the effect of having two basses, a la Andrew Hill's Smoke Stack, rather than one.

Taborn's melodic sense is fascinating. Its complexity can sometimes take on aspects of Steve Reich ("Speak The Name") and its simplicity can seem almost akin to nursery rhyme ("Saints"). It is a wide-ranging style, and one finely attuned to Taborn's bandmates. He has the skill of playing busily without becoming busy; filling our ears without confusing them. His melodies and improvisations are labyrinths, mazes that we follow eagerly, ready to see where the next turn will put us down.

Jon Wertheim, a jazz writer and reviewer, writes at his jazz blog, The Disgruntled Jazz Critic and here at Nextbop.