CMA Duos: Okkyung Lee and Craig Taborn
The cellist and keyboardist met up at the 2018 Big Ears Festival to discuss improvisation, collaboration, and the confines of genre.
Keyboardist Craig Taborn and cellist Okkyung Lee are both deeply agile musicians working at the forefront of creative music, restless seekers for whom encountering new artistic frontiers is required nourishment. Taborn grew up in Minneapolis and cut his teeth in Ann Arbor and Detroit, a devoted student of jazz history whose inherent curiosity has kept him from being boxed in by tradition. In addition to leading his own projects, he’s maintained long-term relationships with a diverse array of artists, including Roscoe Mitchell, Evan Parker, Tim Berne, Ikue Mori, and Dave Holland.
Lee was trained in classical music in her native South Korea, but after arriving in the US her attention turned to jazz and improvised music. She’s worked extensively with Parker, Christian Marclay, Vijay Iyer, Chris Corsano, and Lasse Marhaug, among others. This spring, she released Cheol-Kkot-Sae (Steel.Flower.Bird), a pan-stylistic composition incorporating visceral free improvisation and traditional Korean music, and she’s leading a lyric harp quartet with Maeve Gilchrist, pianist Jacob Sacks, and bassist Eivind Opsvik.
Over the last two decades both musicians have freely traversed styles, continually accruing new interests and abilities while constantly foregrounding chance-taking in their practices. They sat down to talk about their careers and their refusal to bracket their creative endeavors in Knoxville, Tennessee, during a pause in the action at the 2018 installment of the Big Ears Festival, where both performed in numerous settings, including together in the US version of Evan Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble.
Okkyung Lee: We met a long time ago, I think right after I moved to New York in 2000, 2001? You were so nice. Seriously—I’m not joking. At [defunct NYC venue] Tonic there was this area, a small lobby where everybody would hang out. We just talked without really knowing so much about each other. But that’s how it was back in the day, you could talk to anybody. You were playing with Joe Maneri a lot. I used to see you at Tonic and you were playing more keyboards back then.
Craig Taborn: There were gigs where I was playing Wurlitzer. Mat Maneri had a thing where he wanted me to play Wurli because he liked that sound.
OL: Yeah, you sounded amazing. I mean a keyboard is a keyboard, but I just didn’t really hear the keys anymore. There was something about your way of playing that was just right.
CT: It was tricky to have such a fixed temperament instrument playing with those guys.
OL: A couple months ago, when you were doing a duo with Cory [Smythe] at National Sawdust, you were playing as a microtonal duo, that kind of reminded me of what I heard with Joe.
CT: Yeah, it’s an equal tempered instrument, but you just kind of work subtractively. You just pick the notes that don’t obscure the other temperament. If you do too many in succession then it’s clear you’re playing something that’s tempered a certain way. But if you don’t, if you approach it note to note and in different registers, and then accentuate different upper partials, there are things you can do with pedaling and stuff. You can get a lot out of a piano to contribute to that environment by what you don’t play, by just picking one note and letting that ring and do what it’s going to do.
OL: The way you and Cory were improvising together… it sounds so cliché, but you guys were really listening to each other. (laughter)
CT: My favorite sentence is, “It sounds like you guys are really listening to each other!” It’s fun doing that with him and we’re sort of still evolving it.
OL: Jacob Sacks is in my new band.
CT: Oh, cool, he’s great.
OL: It’s so funny because I usually don’t play with people I don’t know. But I think you recommended him to me. I had never heard him play.
CT: Oh wow.
OL: I recorded the last gig in January and I didn’t listen to it for a few months. But I just listened to it and there were some things that he was doing that I didn’t hear during the concert. When you’re the leader you’re always thinking about what’s coming next—okay, okay, and then the next thing is coming—so sometimes you’re just not listening to when they’re improvising.
CT: I’ve known him since he was like twelve. He came to one of my first things I ever did in Detroit. I remember him later coming up to the jam session in Ann Arbor at the Bird of Paradise and I got to know him then. I was in college and he was in high school. I wouldn’t say I nurtured him, he was just around when I was around. There were a lot of those guys in Detroit just under my age—like Karriem Riggins, JD Allen—who I’ve known since they were like 14, and I was like 18.
OL: It’s crazy. I didn’t grow-up with that kind of set up. I went to classical music school, so there was no relationship with older students or going to recitals. It was all teacher and student.
CT: Around Detroit was there was a lot of mentorship. If you were younger and older musicians saw you had talent they would kind of help you, they’d say come and play here. I remember Kenny Cox, who was a great pianist—he was in the Contemporary Jazz Quartet that was on Blue Note—he gave me one of my first concert gigs. He said, ‘Why don’t you come and play and open for me? You can use my rhythm section.’ Those guys would do stuff like that.
OL: I didn’t have that. There were no signs of community [in Boston], although apparently there was one—but I’ve never felt I was a part of it. I mean I was only in school, but when I started to play out I didn’t feel like they were inviting me. Maybe I was a different person; maybe I didn’t even think about it in those terms. I was just going to play. I wasn’t focused on anything. I went there because I didn’t want to play classical music anymore. I went to Berkeley thinking I knew what jazz was, and it turned out the jazz I knew was smooth jazz. It took me years to admit that I used to listen to smooth jazz.
CT: What did you listen to?
OL: Dave Grusin. You know why?
CT: The film scores!
OL: I got into this film called Tequila Sunrise with Mel Gibson and Michelle Pfeiffer, Kurt Russell… you know what I’m talking about. David Sanborn plays in it. That’s what I knew. I was like, ‘What is this music? It really speaks to me’ [lauging]. So, when I went to Berklee I was like, ‘Ah, who is Miles Davis?’ At first, I really didn’t get it. I thought, ‘Oh, he’s so out of tune.’ Seriously. I went to see Ornette Coleman and, I don’t know, I don’t remember the music, but everyone gave him a standing ovation at the end. And I was like one of two people sitting down, thinking, ‘What’s going on, what does this mean?’ That was me in Boston in 1993.
CT: Well, you were in an institution, too. I was at University of Michigan, but I wasn’t in the music school. I wasn’t a music school guy. I was just doing liberal arts. I was intending to transfer to NEC, actually, when I was a freshman. But then I just didn’t do it because I started playing in Detroit and I was like, well, stuff’s happening here, so I’m not going to leave.
OL: I grew up in schools with classical music—you have to study—so I never had that kind of experience. Sometimes I wish I had studied something other than music because I’ve studied music all my life and I still don’t get it. Lots of times I get labeled as a jazz person, which I don’t understand at all, or a free jazz person, which I don’t understand either. Do you call yourself anything?
CT: Not really.
OL: What do you say to somebody who asks, ‘What do you do?’ You say you just play music?
CT: Basically. I just hem and haw. It depends on if I feel like trying to explain or not. It can still be a slight issue, but it used to be more of one. But if you don’t worry about that, you get enough of a track record of doing different things. In the eighties and the nineties, when the jazz community was the jazz police, they were really trying to identify authenticity versus something else. Not among everybody, but among a certain set. And I was just coming from somewhere else. I put it all together on my own in Minneapolis anyway, so I didn’t really know that there was that thing.
OL: Well, that was probably better. I think sometimes not knowing is the best way.
CT: Yeah. I was just going to do all the things I liked to do. I played a lot of jazz, but that didn’t mean that I was not into these other things.
OL: What year was it you moved to New York?
CT: I didn’t move to New York until 1997. By then I wasn’t trying to gain entry. I was more welcome because people thought, ‘Oh, you sound different.’ They wanted you to have certain [facilities], like how to negotiate chord changes, but they wanted you to do it in an interesting way. I started playing with people like Chris Potter and I was really surprised at first because I was like, ‘You know, I’m not like that thing.” But I was older and I had gigs, so I wasn’t desperate. I wasn’t worried about trying to appease anybody to get a gig. I was already solvent.
OL: I got to New York in 2000. I had no gigs lined up. I just spent the first year with wide open eyes and ears. I was just in awe of everything. I’m sure it’s just my personality, but pretty quickly I kind of grew out of certain things. I developed a certain way of listening. I played with a lot of different people, and I’m sure I was learning or something, but I can’t say I was enjoying it all of the time. It was not always fun. To be honest, I don’t even know why people asked me to play. Most of the time it was free jazz, and I would think, what do I know about free jazz? I still don’t know about free jazz. Coltrane, OK, I get it. Ornette, OK, I get it. People confuse free jazz and improv. I didn’t know what I was doing or what it was called. I just knew what I liked, and to me, even more important is the person. Somehow this person has a very unique voice and it doesn’t matter what instrument that person is playing or where they’re from. If I find something that’s fascinating, I’ll go for it.
CT: But the thing with free jazz—I mean, that’s a very generic term.
OL: My question is, is it even necessary to label these things?
CT: People like taxonomies because the fan culture of this music is a collector culture. You want to organize your thing; you can do it by color, you do it alphabetically, and then after that, it’s no fun, you gotta do it some other way.
OL: I’m not saying I don’t do it, but sometimes I’ll meet musicians and they’re saying, ‘Oh this is my free jazz group.’
CT: If you have a lot of ways in which you do your music or express yourself and it results in different sound worlds or whatever, there’s not much you can do about that. Project names or project ideas define a process that results in a sound, maybe. This group has, generally, this kind of sound, because it might be more through-composed versus a more improvised thing, or it might be something where there’s more electronics or solo piano. Some people get disappointed. You sort of deal with it. You think, should I warn them? About what? Am I undervaluing? ‘There’s a chance you might not dig this, but it’s great you’re here.’ A lot of people come to the Stone because they saw you at such-and-such jazz festival and I’m like, ‘Oh, this will be interesting for you.’
OL: But the good thing about that kind of exposure is they might find something interesting.
CT: Or they might say, ‘Wow, that was really different…’ But there’s another level. Sometimes it’s just important for people to see that and then see you doing something totally different. It might be a world that they’ve never seen, but even if they have, they would think that it’s separate, and then they might realize, ‘Wow, there’s a connection here somehow.’ Even if it’s a dissonant connection for them, it’s there.
OL: I just played CTM [Festival in Berlin] and I played solo, which is the simplest thing to do. I wouldn’t have thought about saying, ‘Hey, I have a harp quartet,’ because somehow I kind of know the festival and I feel like maybe this project might fit better than that one.
CT: I just think it’s important for people to do whatever they want to do. Sometimes I’ll tell students that what you start doing is going to be what you end up doing a lot of the time, so you better start doing what you want to do. If you never do it, it’s not really going to happen. It sounds really obvious when I say it this way, but it’s a career path thing. You’ve got to keep putting out the things you want and not get too stuck in somebody else’s framing you a certain way.
OL: I’ve had more interaction with younger people who are like half my age at this point, and they’re mostly jazz students. I have to say, I was expecting—I mean I’m always expecting something that’s left of mainstream—but I found lots of good players, but they like to play it safe. I was kind of surprised. They’re armed with marketing ideas and strategies, but in terms of music, it’s very safe. When I moved to New York, what drew me in—I’m not talking about jazz, but music in general—the music scene sounded fresh. There was something exciting, people were trying to come up with something different.
CY: The music is constantly modulated against this eternal focus group. They’re modulating against their peers’ reactions. When I was in college I would go buy music every week and I would always get some things I knew I wanted to get and then I always made sure I bought one thing that I’d never heard of. And I did that every week for years. It turned me onto things and it turned me off to things. It was good to do–kept the world growing.
OL: I used to listen to records a lot–since I moved to New York, not so much. I like going to live gigs. The funny thing is, when I get inspired, it’s never from a concert. It’s mostly from film or visual art. I’m still curious, but I also know that I never listened to everything. If I like something I’ll just listen to the same thing over and over. A lot of my friends, they’ll say something’s not great, but there’s something interesting about it and they can take something from it. I was never that kind of person. Either I love it or I just don’t bother. I get triggered more by visual art than listening to music. Sometimes I feel like concerts are way too long. Just say what you need to say and be done with it. That’s why I play so short.
CT: I like the idea of really going deep and developing stuff. Think about the Art Ensemble of Chicago back in the day, when they got a house in Ann Arbor and stayed there for a summer and just workshopped all day. James Carter’s group used to tour with the Art Ensemble sometimes, so I got to see them night after night doing their thing and their process before going on stage, where Roscoe [Mitchell] and Lester [Bowie] just started playing an hour or two before the concert. They’re both sort of warming up, running scales, but they’re playing together, doing their own thing, and you can just hear how much they’re just working together. When they go out on stage it’s just an extension of that. And I could hear that they’d been doing that for years. It was really a unit. That’s something that I sometimes miss in New York because everybody plays with everybody. That’s also cool in its own way, but there’s less hard identities because people come up with these solutions that everybody uses interchangeably. It worked with him, so it’ll work with this person.
OL: I think that’s why I decided to do solo stuff. I can just go deeper and beat myself to death while doing it. Sometimes I play in situations where I’m not so sure what is happening. I don’t even know if it’s good or bad.
CT: I’m sure if you did some sort of brain scan at that time, that’s when you’re really attentive—in those moments.
OL: That’s what I like.
CT: That’s real improvising, because then you don’t have any anything to rest on. You’re forced to really attend to the environment.
OL: It’s not like it sounds so good, it’s more like, what is going on?
CT: I don’t trust it when I think it sounds good.
OL: Now I feel a little better about my gig last night.
CT: It activates your brain and activates your creativity. You creatively respond to unusual situations, so that has the best potential to yield something that’s probably going to be cool. Even with the solo thing, I’m reliant on things to keep myself out of habit because it’s easy to fall into your old tricks, and that’s just terrible.
OL: I was on a solo tour and I was talking with someone and I said that I felt like I was repeating myself yesterday, and this guy says, ‘Yeah, but this audience wasn’t there.’ That doesn’t matter!
CT: There’s that line towards absolute composition, which I’m totally into too, but if I’m going to start refining and organizing and reflecting on the work to keep refining, then now I’m going into composition, which is a different process. And I’ll do that, but that’s a different process. If you’re going to improvise, then you should go ahead and improvise.