There are few things more boring than listening to someone play standards like Satin Doll more or less the same way they’ve been played for decades, without a scintilla of originality, without one new idea. Taylor Eigsti is the polar opposite. When he plays a standard, he hits you with a new idea every five seconds or so.
The only thing predictable about Taylor Eigsti’s playing is his basic approach. At his performance at The Jazzschool on Saturday night, he started every tune in an abstract way, using the building blocks of the composition in isolation. Most of the time, this would involve a rhythmic staccato on one note, which he would either alternate with a plethora of methods: carefully placed right hand chords, strumming inside the piano, hand drumming inside the piano echoed with the aid of electronics, single note lines that grew out of the staccato, either reaching into the upper ranges of the keyboard or the lower ranges, or both, and so on. Eventually, most of the time, Eigsti would get around to the actual tune, but never in it’s most familiar form.
For example, on Love For Sale, Eigsti took the tune at a medium barrelhouse tempo, with a nice bluesy edge. His phrasing throughout was adroit and original, but easy to follow.
Similarly, on Caravan, instead of the usual loping pace, Eigsti frantically subdivided the rhythms, giving that old warhorse a shot of energy. It reminded me of Richie Beirach’s comping on the Dave Liebman Quintet’s Pendulum date, recorded live at the Village Vanguard in NYC. There’s a good reason for the similarity. Like Beirach, Eigsti was trained as a classical pianist, so he’s familiar with the 20th Century piano literature and it’s harmonic implications. In both pianists, you see references to Debussy and Ravel cropping up.
The difference is that, with Beirach, he’ll take his time to exhaustively develop an idea. With Eigsti, pretty much every tune is a mishmash of a wide range of classical piano technique, from Chopin to Ravel, and jazz piano technique from Oscar Petersen to Cecil Taylor.
The audience at the Jazzschool had no trouble with Eigsti’s eclecticism. They were on tenterhooks with every new idea, applauding technically difficult passages or a run of astute phrasing. It didn’t bother them at all that avant guarde techniques like playing inside the piano and staccato rhythmic phrases on a single note stood cheek by jowl with chordal structures borrowed from French impressionism, played with the sustained pedal, or fierce swing passages, or arcane time signatures like 15/16, which Eigsti briefly employed on Caravan. (Editor’s note: apparently, Kydonieus was wrong about the time signature. To read Taylor Eigsti’s scathing comments on this review and a review of Charles Mingus’ Changes One, click here.) They were apparently thrilled when Eigsti would interrupt fervent swing for a rubato passage and go back to swing again a minute later. It didn’t bother them at all that Eigsti would use dissonance of a sort associated with classical French impressionism, then blues harmony, then altered harmony and back again, endlessly. To me, it smacked of stylistic incoherence.
Don’t get me wrong. It was great to see an audience of 30-plus folks plus a smattering of young people, many of whom were musicians, judging from the conversations between the first and second sets, enjoying ambitious, creative and highly demanding jazz. I’m glad that there is an audience for this kind of music.
I also think that it’s wonderful that a place like the Jazzschool exists, which is devoted to presenting a large variety of jazz, including up and coming young artists, and highly sophisticated post bop players like trombonist Ed Neumeister, who played the previous night. I cannot emphasize enough that the Bay Area is lucky to have such a resource, and it should be supported. Due to the relatively casual nature of the venue (I’ll be writing more extensively about the Jazzschool itself in another post), the prices for these shows are very affordable, in the $10-$20 range, so there’s no excuse not to check it out.
But, getting back to the concert at hand, I was a little depressed by Taylor Eigsti’s habit of flitting from idea to idea, without developing almost any. In my opinion, if every tune you play encompasses the entire history classical and jazz piano, in the end, it isn’t about anything at all.
Why does Eigsti do this? I don’t think he’s showing off. He impressed me as a humble enough sort. What I suspect is that Eigsti would be bored by settling on any one concept and developing it all the way through.
For example, I would have been glad to listen to an entire performance of Caravan based on the approach of playing it in a hard driving and somehow swinging 15/16, with chopped up rhythms hyping the energy. Or Caravan would have been just as compelling as an avant guarde piece, taking fragments of the tune and deconstructing it. Or Eigsti could have done an impressionistic interpretation — that might have been fascinating. Instead, he does all three and ends up diminishing the impact of his performance.
Let me be clear about this. I acknowledge that Taylor Eigsti has an excellent grasp of both the classical and jazz literature. He’s also obviously a gifted pianist with a dynamic rhythmic sense and a superb sense of touch. That there is no shortage of musicians who want to work with Eigsti tells the tale better than I could. I’m not questioning his talent at all. I’m more questioning the taste of Eigsti’s arrangements.
Of course, I was a minority of one in the audience. No one, and I mean no one, felt the way I did. Hence my depression and loneliness.
Who knows, maybe I’m just getting old and feeble-minded.