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Junk Magic: Compass Confusion (Pyroclastic)

Review of the electronically enhanced sequel to keyboardist/composer Craig Taborn's Junk Magic—this time featuring a full quintet

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Cover of Junk Magic album Compass Confusion
Cover of Junk Magic album Compass Confusion

Making electronic music is very different from live improvisation—so much so that few musicians have even tried to bring the two together. On one side, Kurt Rosenwinkel’s side project Bandit 65 makes brilliant electronic free improv, mostly using guitar-based technology; on the other, Mark Giuliana’s Beat Music builds arresting collages out of loops, samples, and electronic percussion, but at the cost of improvisational space.

Junk Magic, keyboardist Craig Taborn’s plugged-in side project, comes down the middle. Whereas Taborn presented the first Junk Magic album in 2004 as a solo project, it’s now an actual band, and the five of them play that way. But Taborn also uses effects and post-production to alter the sound of that band, making the music bigger, richer, and more otherworldly.

Compass Confusion is deeply invested in texture and timbre. There may be individual lines within each piece, but they’re like threads in a fabric; what we notice most is the whole. Mat Maneri’s mournful viola lines on “Dream and Guess” are never entirely foregrounded, either on their own or in counterpoint with Chris Speed’s tenor; they remain just another part of the dark, reverberant soundscape alongside Taborn’s misty synths and David King’s echoing drums. The music is often dark—“The Science of Why Devils Smell Like Sulfur” isn’t just a song title—but there’s joy too, whether in the jittery, slightly off-balance pulse that emerges from the electronic flotsam of “Sargasso” or the determinedly funky groove that eventually takes over “Laser Beaming Hearts.” Junk Magic may not be the ultimate solution to jazz’s difficulties with electronica, but it’s definitely one of the best answers so far.

J.D. Considine

J.D. Considine has been writing about jazz and other forms of music since 1977. His work has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Musician, Spin, Vibe, Blender, Revolver, and Guitar World. He was music critic at the Baltimore Sun for 13 years, and jazz critic at the Globe and Mail for nine. He has lived in Toronto since 2001.