As a sideman, Craig Taborn has thrived in polar extremes. He swung hard with sax bruiser James Carter, wandered open space with Roscoe Mitchell and Mat Maneri, and dove into ice-cold ambience with Detroit technocrat Carl Craig. In the employ of saxophonist-composer Tim Berne, the keyboardist has lately been honing a musical syntax equally indebted to Sun Ra, Larry Young and the AACM. Stepping into the spotlight for his second Thirsty Ear album, Taborn subsumes these and many more influences, producing a distinctive and head-turning alloy.
The ensemble on Junk Magic consists of Taborn on keyboards and programming, Mat Maneri on viola, Aaron Stewart on tenor saxophone and David King on drums. Their group vibe gels convincingly, especially during moments like the odd-metered funk number "Prismatica." Of course, it's anyone's guess whether the musicians were performing in the studio at the same time or just cleverly spliced together, as they seem to be on a gradually snowballing title track. Whatever the case, the musicians acquit themselves expertly to the album's various situations. King once again proves himself an exceptional broken-beats blacksmith, most effectively on the aptly titled "Mystero." There are also standout solos by Maneri (a glacial "Shining Through") and Stewart (the aforementioned "Prismatica").
But from start to finish, this is Taborn's show. The keyboardist is an elemental force on Junk Magic-whether he's stabbing at the piano, as in the chaotic denouement of "Bodies at Rest and in Motion," or limning an ominous keyboard drone, as on "The Golden Age." What pushes this album into the zone of innovation is his work as a sequencer and producer, which gives the lie to any accusation that "jazztronica" means jazz musicians superimposing their tunes on synthetic grooves. What Taborn does is infallibly organic, even when he's performing radical reconstructive surgery. There's more magic than junk to this experiment, and one can only hope he'll explore this avenue further.