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Take Five: Special Piano Edition, with Craig Taborn, Kevin Hays, Aruán Ortiz and More

Craig Taborn Quartet
Bart Babinski
for ECM Records

Sometimes a theme emerges by chance, revealing itself in the moment. That’s true of this week’s installment of Take Five, featuring new music by a range of smart and searching pianists. A couple of these tracks are from brand-new albums, and a couple are from albums due later in the year. Each is an illustration of deep focus and alert chemistry, along with first-rate pianism.

Craig Taborn, “New Glory”


Craig Taborn has earned his reputation for dynamic introspection at the piano, along with an exceptionally fluent technique — meaning not only the mechanics of the keyboard but also the more furtive language of frequency, overtone and decay. His riveting new album, Daylight Ghosts, is the latest in a recent run of can’t-miss Taborn releases on ECM, and will probably be among the year’s best. It’s very much a band record, featuring several longtime associates: Chris Speed on tenor saxophone and clarinet, Chris Lightcap on bass, David King on drums. (They all appear this Tuesday through Sunday at the Village Vanguard.) To a man, these are musicians on board with Taborn’s revelatory yet unhurried agenda, which plays out at times with all the subtlety of a creeping shadow. But they also share a knack for making intricate maneuvers feel unlabored, as this deftly contrapuntal track, “New Glory,” so handily illustrates.

Glenn Zaleski, “Table Talk”




Glenn Zaleski is a young pianist of taste, restraint and expressive daring, vetted by astute bandleaders like Ravi Coltrane. And on Fellowship, his smart new album, Zaleski makes his most fully realized statement as a composer. The album opens with “Table Talk,” a postbop peekaboo feint of the sort that inevitably calls Herbie Hancock to mind. But Zaleski’s path through the tune isn’t beholden to that point of reference— and as you’ll see in this live clip from Smalls, his interplay with bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Craig Weinrib has its own metabolic character. The next time you hear someone complaining about the absence of swing on millennial bandstands, go ahead and call up this tune as a counterargument.

Kevin Hays and Lionel Loueke, “Twins”




Kevin Hays, the pianist, and Lionel Loueke, the guitarist, hail from different coordinates but meet on terra firma: they’re both playful, intuitive improvisers with a healthy commitment to melody. Hope is their forthcoming duo album, available in April as part of the new batch of subscription vinyl-only releases on Newvelle Records. This in-the-studio footage finds them recording a Loueke composition called “Twins,” which has the drift and lilt of a welcome spring breeze. Loueke’s vocals and fingerpicked acoustic guitar are unmistakable, and Hays delivers both an understated accompaniment and a tart, agile solo. This is a partnership with obvious potential, and another reason to give Newvelle’s slate of new releases — by bassists Rufus Reid, John Patitucci and Chris Tordini, among others — a closer look.


Carmen Staaf, “Day Dream”


Carmen Staaf, "Day Dream"

The buoyant intricacies in Carmen Staaf’s arrangement of “Day Dream,” by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, feel like a reflection of their arranger. There’s certainly a personal touch in the way that Staaf, who recently served a stint in the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance Ensemble, brightens and syncopates the song. It begins with a tendril of piano and vocals — Nicole Zuraitis is the singer — before drums and bass kick in. There are some clever modifications of the form, in both rhythmic and harmonic terms, and Staaf’s assertive solo, which begins after the two-minute mark, has a bluesy undertone. What follows is a Dave Ballou statement on flugelhorn, before Zuraitis brings the arrangement home. “Day Dream” is the title track of Staaf’s standards album, due later this year; in the meantime, she’ll be at the Cornelia Street Café on Tuesday, leading a trio with Jorge Roeder on bass and Colin Stranahan on drums.

Aruán Ortiz, Marika Hughes, Darius Jones, "Untitled"




The Cuban pianist Aruán Ortiz has more than a passing interest in the avant-garde: consult his excellent recent album, Hidden Voices, which brings elastic energies to the acoustic trio format. For a deeper dive into abstraction, set aside some time for this video footage, from a performance at the Clemente Soto Valez Cultural Center early this year. Ortiz is improvising with alto saxophonist Darius Jones and cellist Marika Hughes, in a mode that shifts unpredictably from the elegiac to the ecstatic and back. He’s playing an upright piano, but he extracts a broad range of sound from the instrument, often in deep sonic dialog with his partners. Don’t miss the minute-long piano solo that takes hold at 16:00, or the way that Ortiz breaks what feels like a valedictory silence, about a half-hour in. There are passages of eerie calm and searching consensus in this 40-minute set, which was presented by Arts For Art under the banner “Justice is Compassion / Not a Police State.” If that declaration throws this music in a provocative light, that’s the desired effect, and probably essential: it seems doubtful that these musicians would have reached this outcome without the urgency they feel so compelled to express.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.