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Pianist Craig Taborn Comes Into His Own

Howard Reich is jazz critic at the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company

* * * * CRAIG TABORN TRIO, “Light Made Lighter,” Thirsty Ear

In music, there’s nothing more exciting than hearing an artist making a breakthrough, which is precisely what pianist Taborn achieves on this profound trio recording. Although best known for his work with reedist James Carter and saxophonist-composer Tim Berne, Taborn comes into his own on every track of this disc, his sound galvanic and virtuosic at one moment, serene and deep into the keys the next. An original thinker by any measure, Taborn revels in unorthodox harmonies, unusual song structures and an extraordinarily fluid give-and-take with sidemen Gerald Cleaver on drums and Chris Lightcap on bass. On the strength of this recording, Taborn emerges as one of the most exciting pianists to lead a band since the ascent of Matthew Shipp.

* * * * SIMON SHAHEEN & QANTARA, “Blue Flame,” ARK21

Toward the end of his life, Dizzy Gillespie predicted that the future of jazz would be an amalgam of musical languages from around the world. It would be difficult to name an artist who epitomizes that approach more thoroughly or eloquently than the Palestinian bandleader Simon Shaheen, a virtuoso on the violin and the oud (a guitar-like instrument that’s played pervasively in the Middle East). In this stunning recording, Shaheen proves that American jazz improvisation, African percussion, Arabic scales and Latin American dance rhythms can merge seamlessly. The musical cross-pollination works because Shaheen offers meticulously conceived arrangements in which the oud, violin, saxophone, guitar and percussion all speak a glorious international musical language. At the same time, however, each track emphasizes distinct musical elements, from the Middle Eastern melody lines and phenomenal oud technique of the title track to the sensual juxtaposition of electric guitar, Western violin (beautifully played by Shaheen) and African percussion battery on “Waving Sands.” Although some Western ears might initially find the sound of Qantara lacking in dramatic climax, the mostly even-keel dynamics offer sonic pleasures of their own.

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* * * GREGG BENDIAN’S INTERZONE, “Requiem for Jack Kirby,” Atavistic

Listeners with a taste for otherworldly sounds will savor the newest release from percussionist Bendian and his space-age, head-tripping ensemble that makes Sun Ra’s Arkestra seem tame. This is a quartet that savors odd juxtapositions: a lyrical bass solo accompanied by the relentless tintinnabulation of various percussion instruments, a passage of crashing dissonance and loopy sound effects followed by straight-ahead, mainstream swing. All of this has been assembled as an homage to Jack Kirby, the late comic-book illustrator whose gothic, sci-fi work is elegantly mirrored by Bendian’s free-form jazz improvisations. Although not for the faint of heart, “Requiem for Jack Kirby” affirms that there’s still plenty of experimental fervor in the best contemporary jazz.

* * * BOB BROOKMEYER, “Holiday,” Challenge Records

Bob Brookmeyer has been such an important force in jazz composition through the decades that he commands attention even when he’s not playing his primary instrument, the valve trombone. On this beguiling recording, for instance, Brookmeyer leads a trio from the piano (the album title is literal), and setting aside the trombone offers a fresh perspective on the man’s work. Granted, no one is going to call Brookmeyer a keyboard virtuoso, but that’s beside the point, for Brookmeyer focuses on deeper concerns: unusual harmony, unabashedly idiosyncratic melody and ingeniously crafted compositions. The unorthodox melodic leaps and pungent chords he brings to “The Man I Love” and the unrepentant dissonance with which he reinvents “I Should Care” are matched by the whimsy he expresses in his jazz waltz “Pastoral,” and the unconventional chord progressions that drive his “Summer Song.” The man simply cannot stop innovating, and the art of jazz is better for it.

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