Craig Taborn’s third album Junk Magic is important for a few reasons: First, it may be the first album in Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series where a “jazz guy” brings a fully jazz sensibility to the beatbox — nothing filtered through crossover deejays like DJ Spooky or FLAM on this album. The beats are straight out of Taborn’s laptop and mimic jazz percussion faithfully. Second, the album confirms there’s a Taborn/Tim Berne Blue Series sound that’s very different from the Matthew Shipp/William Parker/Guillermo Brown side of the Blue Series coin.
Taborn’s style leans toward the “experimental,” and he’s way flashier a piano player than the percussive Shipp. I’ll admit that it probably took six listens before Junk Magic started to sink in and make any sense at all. This music initially struck me as so unintelligible, yet delivered in such a skillful, showy way, that it just drifted right over my head.
“Junk Magic,” the opener, encourages this feeling. Some gentle instrumental interplay is abruptly wiped out by Taborn’s sludgy laptop jam: a heavy, repetitive clunker that leaves me scratching my head. Okay, so Taborn has worked with Carl Craig, a second-wave Detroit techno stud. If this is a shout-out or a reference, well, it sounds boring, and would have benefited from the subtleties the DJ Spooky/FLAM school has brought to other Blue Series albums.
Then there’s “Mystero,” easily the album’s best song and a Blue Series high point thus far. “Mystero” reaches out into This Heat Deceit territory with its jarring, cut-up laptop beat over Aaron Stewart’s swaying tenor vamps. Taborn’s beat apes “real” jazz percussion, but its crispness reveals it as obviously electronic, and the cuts and pastes are perfectly irregular — expectations are thwarted, then gratified. The most “advanced” (in an electronically-inspired futuristic sense) jazz I’ve heard, concluding imperiously with ominously and crazily crashing cymbals.
“Bodies at Rest and in Motion” is another high point. It begins as mellow lounge jazz (rest), then evolves into a violent Taborn piano spazz on the high notes (motion), punctuated by harsh, high-pitched laptop hits — it’s like the Fourth of July on acid. “Stalagmite” is also great: more Taborn piano that must take inspiration from calculus, combined with a weirdly suitable early-’90s-sounding beat, contradictorily complementary in its cheesiness.
But with the exception of occasionally riveting moments and one great song, Junk Magic is hard to like. Taborn clearly digs an abrasively annoying laptop sound, which I support in theory, but, well, gets a little grating. The conflation of pleasant ambience with hardcore techno with way free jazz with laptop gurgling sounds great as an abstraction, but it doesn’t quite come together. Junk Magic‘s cavalier freeness actually sounds stultifying and, paradoxically, un-spontaneous.