Radically Unfinished: Vijay Iyer & Craig Taborn

Student reviewer, Peter Robertson, stopped by Miller Theatre on Saturday, October 9th to check out the first concert in the Jazz series for the 10-11 season featuring jazz pianists Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn.

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The sound of two pianos at full volume is really something else.  It helps, of course, when those pianos are played by two amazing pianists, which they certainly were Saturday night at Miller Theatre.  Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn, the pianists, are both spectacular, and both sadly not all that well known outside the world of jazz.  They share a lot: they both have absolute control of the sound their pianos produce, they both enjoy exploring the entire range of the keyboard, and they both look like they’re having tons of fun on stage.  They’ve worked together before, which seems strange because they each have such completely different voices:

Craig Taborn, Minnesota-born and Brooklyn-based, looks like he just wandered in off the street.  The only formal attire he wears is a sports coat, and he quickly discards it on the stage floor.  His shirt is wrinkled and untucked, and he digs into the piano like a famished man digs into a ham sandwich.  He does not hesitate, he just expresses, no holds barred.  His hands move across the entire keyboard in seconds, but there is nothing random about the notes he hits, or about how he hits them; he’s somehow able to change his emotional expression on each note, so that in milliseconds he alternates between angry, tender, playful, sad, loony, and any number of other emotions that words can’t even express.  It’s as if you have one of those days in which its your birthday, you get fired, get hired, fall in love and break up all within twenty-four hours – except there are three of those days in every minute, each as hard and as happy as the next.  Craig clearly knows the keyboard inside and out, and in fact frequently sees to it that it is turned inside out.

Vijay is just as skilled, but he takes a different approach: he doesn’t take every single instance of the day and compress it, he takes the emotion you feel in the second of sinking into bed and expands it, pulls at it like at a piece of dough until it becomes so thin that you can see the individual strands, and then stretches more, so that the emotion takes new forms and hints at different component parts.  Vijay enjoys every moment, and he always seems as though he’s trying to figure out what makes his music work – what makes it tick.  He plays a lot more reflectively than Craig does; he listens to himself, and as he plays, you get the sense that there are roads he isn’t taking, that there are things he’s holding back.  His appearance is equally self-conscious: he’s well-groomed and handsome, wearing an immaculate grey suit, shirt, and tie, and shoes that are practically an instruction to consider him hip.  It’s not so noticeable that it feels like a shtick, but one can’t help being aware that one’s seeing Vijay acting his own part.

Hearing them separate makes them feel irreconcilably different, but in their own quirky way, Craig and Vijay have chemistry.  Vijay becomes more sedate and quieter only to whip himself into an excited froth, and Craig grows into a kind of obsessive focus, repeating short phrases over and over while Vijay adds runs and melodies on top.  Craig doesn’t always play many notes, but what he does play adds a tang and an edge that Vijay is missing.  The two listen to each other – but also surprise each other, with Vijay cheekily ending a piece in a heartbeat, to an appreciative snicker from Craig, or Craig coming in with a startlingly beautiful chord that Vijay was not expecting.  The two of them – spectacular as they are – work with each other to create something neither of them could quite have created on their own.  And it is incredible to behold.

Peter Robertson (’11 GS)

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