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"Oh my God, I don't know," says keyboardist Craig Taborn, when asked how many working bands can claim him as a member. "Regularly? Let me see." One can hear him counting to himself in a whisper over the phone from his home in New York City. "You could say 15 to 20. But if you're talking about the ones that are regularly working right now, I'd have to say seven or eight."
The Golden Valley native will return home with two of them Friday at Walker Art Center. The headliner will be the Prezens Quartet, a fiery, improvisational group helmed by guitarist David Torn and primarily designed for spontaneous combustion. Blues and funk are buried in caterwauling skronk and textural noise, so that, even with some tidy rearranging by Torn (best known for his film soundtracks), the group's CD, "Prezens," contains some of the most blistering music ever released on the ECM label.
"It's an electrified, improvised group where the aesthetics are pretty wide open," Taborn describes. "It's not really a jazz thing at all. We're really loud live with some sound texture stuff and some ambient and rock things." Taborn plays a Rhodes, a B3 organ, a Mellotron, and some bent circuits. "Yeah, circuit-bending is basically taking any consumer electronic device and rewiring it to do different things and make different sounds," he explains.
By stark contrast, Taborn will be on acoustic piano for the other band on the bill, Drew Gress' 7 Black Butterflies, featuring heavily composed songs from Gress, who doubles as the bassist. Three of the four members of Prezens are also in Butterflies, which plays an intriguing blend of bebop, avant garde, and chamber jazz.
"This is kind of a relay race for two tours," Taborn says. "We're out [on tour] with Drew's group and then come to Minneapolis, where we hand off to David's group and go out with him. The Walker is the only place where the groups intersect."
It's the kind of nonstop workload that has prevented Taborn from releasing music under his own name since the critically acclaimed "Junk Magic" in 2004.
"Time is a factor, just because I am doing so many things," he says. "I like a different pace when I'm making a recorded document; I like to home in on things. Otherwise, some things don't have time to season."
"Junk Magic" obviously benefited from such fermentation. Its seven tracks (all composed by Taborn) give full flavor to his eclecticism yet hang together comfortably. There are drum loops, washes of synthesizer fuzz and some violin on "Mystero," some spare saxophone funk and fidgety beats on "Prismatica," the handsome, wistful, light-blue ballad "Bodies at Rest and in Motion," and a two-step finale that includes the clattering "Stalagmite" and "The Golden Age," which cruises into a chromatic sunset.
The Golden Valley gang
The drummer on "Junk Magic" is David King, timekeeper for the quirky and very popular jazz ensemble the Bad Plus. King, Taborn, and Bad Plus bassist Reid Anderson grew up within blocks of each other in Golden Valley and have known each other since junior high. It's not surprising that when Taborn and King first got together in their early teens, the already-original music they were making was influenced by the cerebral, outlandish jazz-rock of Frank Zappa, or that the most-Minnesotan ensemble to which Taborn belongs, Gang Font, includes King, former Hüsker Dü bassist Greg Norton and Happy Apple bassist Eric Fratzke.
"My high school experience happened at the same time all that Replacements and Hüsker Dü stuff was going on, and it had a major part in my sensibilities and possibilities for live music," Taborn says. "Doing Gang Font and playing with Greg Norton gets me back to some things I was always into but didn't get to do."
Truth be told, Taborn has always been pretty much "into" everything since age 12, when his parents bought him a Moog for Christmas.
"What attracted me to music from the beginning was not specifically jazz or rock or anything," he says. "It was the different sounds you could make and the songs you could write."
In addition to Zappa, the Replacements and Hüsker Dü, he credits the Walker for opening his mind. "Even in the '80s they were bringing people in like Tim Berne and John Zorn and Roscoe Mitchell," he enthuses. Now, Taborn plays regularly with Berne (who is likewise in both Prezens and Black Butterflies) and is a member of former Art Ensemble of Chicago saxophonist Mitchell's working ensemble.
Yet Taborn always seemed to want to keep these influences at arm's length and give himself "time to season." After graduating from high school, he didn't head straight to New York City or enroll at a prestigious music school. He went to the University of Michigan as a liberal arts major, albeit largely because its music school included such contemporary classical composers as William Bolcom and William Albright. By the time he received his diploma (a general studies degree), he'd already appeared on three high-profile records by multi-reedman James Carter.
When Carter burst upon the jazz scene 15 years ago, playing everything from Duke Ellington to Sun Ra with an inimitable swagger, Taborn was his 23-year old peer and partner in precocity.Taborn stayed in Detroit until 1996, then moved to New York and never looked back.
There is a large piano in his living room, while the electronic keyboards are in a studio elsewhere in his apartment. "I don't approach the piano at all the same way I approach the electronics," he says, noting that he has played more solo acoustic during his recent visits home, and recently collaborated with a French poet for an acoustic record.
After the current tour, he's going back out with saxophonist David Binney and the superlative rhythm section of drummer Brian Blade and bassist Scott Colley. Soon it will be time to tour again with Chris Potter Underground, which brought him to Minneapolis in February. Susie Ibarra and Roscoe Mitchell also might call.
"It's crazy," he says of the wild stylistic mix that is his career, "but even as a teenager, I definitely had this idea of how I wanted it to go. This is how I envisioned the music world. My myth when I was in high school was that I didn't want to define myself; I just wanted to do things the way I wanted. And I guess it has manifested itself that way."