As a music major I am given a number of really interesting and unique opportunities at the University of Washington. Yesterday, pianist Craig Taborn gave a masterclass to students involved in the jazz program. He played just a bit and then fielded questions from the thirty of us in attendance. It was stimulating to say the least, I had never heard anyone talk about music at such depth.
A good portion of modern musicians in the classical and jazz mold are of a mindset that structure has been played out. Composition has become increasingly devoid of any traditional form. The concept is that it has been done before, so let’s break traditional form completely in search for something that still speaks to a listener. Taborn embodies the modern aesthetic in this way. He spoke at length about his current artistic vision, one in which he approaches the keyboard from a purely improvisational standpoint. He sits down and plays, letting motifs and themes come to him as he goes. This is the current evolution of jazz.
Jazz had it’s beginnings in minstrel shows as strange as that sounds. The blues of course played a major role. Big bands emerged, with a structure dependent on group figures. Everything was written out for sections of horn players and a rhythm section. As jazz moved forward, the big band began disappearing as combos became more prominent. The dynamic of typical combo music was this: a melodic head followed by solos and a return to the head. As jazz steps into the 21st century, even structure this simplified is being eschewed for something seemingly more primal, something technical and dense. It’s hard to delve into, it’s not immediately pleasing (or ultimately pleasing in some cases) to the ear. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t speak or that it’s nonsense.
Listening to Taborn speak, I can feel that his music does mean something. He is able to reach for something that emerges past the drone or cycle of modern music. It’s hard for the ear to find, but it is there. Something I am working towards as a listener is to begin to identify at a deeper and more technical level what it is that makes music what it is. For now, it’s something primal and something that captures attention, captures feeling. I feel that that is what Taborn, and many modern musicians, are searching for.