I got sort of lucky stumbling upon the music of Taylor Haskins early on in my transition from listening primarily to the Jazz of the prior century to obsessing over the Jazz of Today.
A New Hampshire native and currently a resident of upstate New York, Haskins cut his teeth for twenty years on the NYC scene, recording music as session leader and also as a member of ensembles led by Guillermo Klein, Jamie Baum, Dave Holland, Alan Ferber, and Joel Harrison. These ensembles, much like Haskins’ own music, vary greatly in terms of articulation, and how much one informed the other is too complex an equation to dissect and analyze, but it does speak to the openness with which Haskins views music and his willingness to gravitate to diffuse sounds. When asked about this, Haskins explained, “I have no real overriding strategy other than deep self-examination and reflection,” adding, “As a composer, I find myself working like a painter or sculptor, and more often than not, the process itself is what reveals the music to me.”
Process. Like many listeners, I have a process, too. My methods for discovering new jazz are more regimented now. I have assignments. I have my own site. I need to be efficient. But I do fondly recall the days and nights I would simply wander the halls of the internet, following a path from one musician to the next, one album to the next, and just seeing what popped up… what new album or musician I’d discover that day. It was a time like this that I came upon Haskins’ 2002 release…
Taylor Haskins – Wake Up Call
Your album personnel: Taylor Haskins (trumpet), Andrew Rathbun (saxophones), Regina Bellantese (violin), Ben Monder (guitar), Guillermo Klein (piano), Ben Street (bass), Jeff Hirshfield (drums), Yusuke Yamamoto (percussion), and Aubrey Smith (vocals).
Wake Up Call hits that same territory where Ben Allison situates himself… the axis where post-bop meets indie-pop, and clearly defined, outstanding melodies are augmented with harmonic development and a rhythmic approach that reveals all the complexities and advanced possibilities of that simple, pretty melody.
For instance, the jangling of Ben Monder’s guitar meshing with the sonorous calls of Haskins’ trumpet is has an abounding personality on its own, but when the rest of the ensemble stands up with a soft, but rousing chorus, the melody just blossoms with bright and proud colors. And “Dream With You” digs into a nifty groove, adding vocals and effects to produce something just as home on the dance floor as a recliner & headphones. “Nomads” keeps the melody short and simple, then goes about revealing its deeper facets with Klein’s piano serving as the launching pad for Haskins and Bellantese to trace intertwining flight patterns on trumpet and violin. And then there’s the offbeat character of “Please Be Quiet, Please,” which starts out with a quirky lyricism that is slowly eclipsed, revealing a quality hinting at a grand majesty.
I’m not comfortable saying it was a precursor to other seminal indie-rock jazz fusion recordings like Todd Sickafoose’s Tiny Resistors or the interesting things that Reed Wallsmith’s Blue Cranes are coming up with, but this wouldn’t be the first instance where Haskins was on the cusp of a cutting edge years before it began to dull from use and time.
As often happens when I discover a new album from a new (to me) musician that floats my boat, I immediately set out to find another recording by that artist. That’s when I tracked down his 2006 release…
Taylor Haskins – Metaview
An album with a definite mainstream sound, yet in a way that’s forward thinking to what might be the next evolution of the mainstream… an electro-acoustic environment in which grooves for the masses cohabit peacefully with post-bop heat for the jazz-at-heart, and accompanied by a series of well-crafted melodies that thrive in any medium.
Reflecting Haskins’ sound on this recording are the grooves of “Biorhythm” with its murky keyboard harmonics and “Patience” with the electro-groove and bounce, which the melody rides like rapids down a steady stream. And then there’s “Trance Dance” with its torrential rhythm and solos wild and free, and “Interbeing,” which welcomes all these qualities under the same roof, whereas “Zuma” has them standing side by side.
At the time, Metaview didn’t look like that many other albums standing nearby in the crowd of modern jazz recordings. That’s not so much the case anymore. The last few years have seen more musicians embracing a modern electro-soul and groove, and while each musician takes this general sound to where their specific voice compels them to go, for the most part, it’s music that incites motion. That changes with the next Haskins recording I scooped up.
It wasn’t too much longer after, sometime in 2010, that Haskins released a new album, which to my mind, situates itself as the masterpiece of his creative development (thus far)…
Taylor Haskins – American Dream
Taylor Haskins knows how to make an opening statement. The forlorn cries of title-track “American Dream” introduce the album, holding the promise of songs about hope and heartbreak, and the drama inherent in both. Hitting a sound that borders the Jazz Americana lands traversed by Bill Frisell, Haskins brings a dark tone to the jazz-folk sound, a heavy atmosphere that promises a smoldering intensity, and no certainty to predict how everything will shake out.
“Theme From Dead Man” colors the Neil Young tune with bold statements full of bravado that tails off, enticingly, into moments of reverie. “Mustangs” has a punchy attitude fully epitomized by Monder’s guitar, full of fight. “Drifters” shows the quartet is still all kinds of pent-up energy, and “Black Boxes” is no less, though where on the former, Haskins’ trumpet tears into a solo while Monder balances the heat with wavering guitar notes, on the latter of the two songs, it’s Monder back in the role of making the temperature go up up up.
The second half of the album delivers on the promise of heartbreak to eclipse the hope of the album’s first half, displaying more of a pensive tone throughout. “No Regrets” possesses a melancholy tone that doesn’t let up. The sadness of “Pyramids” is like reaching out to a beam of moonlight and realizing it provides no warmth. “Idlewild” chirps up with bits of bright melody, but its muted calls are more contemplative in nature, accentuated by the low murmur of Street’s bass solo. The album ends with a rendition of Tom Waits’ “Johnsburg, Illinois,” a selection that perfectly frames the American Dream emphasis on the bittersweet.
It’s a stunning album, all kinds of evocative, but with a reserve that just emanates strength from within… a crosshatch of moodiness and menace.
And it was nothing like his next recording, released just a year later in 2011…
Taylor Haskins – Recombination
Your album personnel: Taylor Haskins (trumpet, melodica, synths, computer), Ben Monder (guitar), Henry Hey (piano, synths), Todd Sickafoose (bass), Nate Smith (drums), and guest: Samuel Torres (percussion).
Considering my familiarity with Haskins’ music up to this point and his tendency for his sound to evolve from project to project, looking back on it, I’m not sure why I expected his 2011 release Recombination to run along similar lines as American Dream. Because it didn’t, and even today, years later, as I continue picking up the pieces of my shattered expectations, I find my opinion of Recombination in a perpetual state of flux, my perspective changing along with the passing of time.
In some ways, it combines the prevalent elements of Metaview and Wake Up Call, though presented with a much more rounded out, evolved sound. The opening track “Morning Chorale” is all lovely harmonic fuzz, whereas “Here is the Big Sky” crashes into the room with a rock ‘n roll appetite, which then shifts into the electro-groove of “Clouds Form Below Us.” Haskins digs even deeper on “Upward Mobility,” electric dance music that is confident enough to let melodic lines stray from the thick R&B groove, allowing both elements to thrive. “Lurking Shadows,” with its spacey vibe, continues to develop the music of motion, working a groove that behaves as a loping cadence, making it no less provocative in eliciting motion from the listener, while still differentiating it from previous tracks. Grooves are great, but when they get homogenized… not so much. The work of Sickafoose, Hey, and Smith offer up all kinds of variation in rhythm.
The second half of the album switches tone. This begins with “Passing Through,” a song with an atmospheric drift, hanging just above a murmuring bass line and soft drum chatter, and continues on “Riverstone,” with Torres’ percussion adding some nice texture to the rhythm section. The sense of the first half of the album behaving as rising sun and the latter half as setting sun is cemented in place with “Forgotten Memory of Something True,” as the charming electro-folk sound of Haskins’ melodica swims in the same water as bright keyboard notes.
I find myself enjoying Recombination the more that time separates me from what American Dream was and how that informed my desire to want more of that on the next Haskins recording. It’s one of the more rewarding experiences in music listening… to be able to measure the change in connectivity in the same flow of time as one lives their own life. It’s the kind of thing that weds music to specific moments in our timeline.
And regarding expectations and the development and change of Haskins’ sound over the course of his recording career, he states, “I’m trying to stay on a linear trajectory and follow the advice Ornette [Coleman] gave me when I met him many years ago: ‘Don’t look back,'” adding “I never know what’s next. My work is a reflection of who I am at a given moment in time.”
This is who Taylor Haskins is now, his 2014 release…
Taylor Haskins – Fuzzy Logic
Your album personnel: Taylor Haskins (trumpet, Native American drone flute, melodica), Ben Monder (guitar), Kermit Driscoll (bass), Jeff Hirshfield (drums), Joyce Hammann (violin), Lois Martin (viola), and Jody Redhage (cello).
There’s no sense talking about Fuzzy Logic, the new Taylor Haskins recording, without first bringing up the string trio. Of the many sounds that represent the progression of Haskins’ evolving voice over the years, this is the first that incorporated strings. It creates a context in which the entire album can be described.
Fuzzy Logic has an appealing monochromatic quality. The degree of change from one album track to the next is measured by its subtleties and nuance, and the shifting tides of light and shadows. Each of Taylor Haskins’ recordings have an individual personality, distinct from one another, and each of those personalities possess certain quirks and traits that run counter to their generalized representations. Fuzzy Logic is Haskins’ most consistent, rounded-out piece of work to date… a steadied perspective that blurs the lines between songs and gives an impression of one long, sustained expression. It makes the album sound vast and unending, and though its patient development never threatens to leave the listener breathless, that doesn’t imply that there aren’t moments when the music threatens to steal that breath away.
Some of this effect is due to the ubiquitous presence of the string trio, but equally causative are the familiar names to Haskins recordings that return to the fold for Fuzzy Logic. Ben Monder’s chameleon guitar continues to express its mutability between moments of melodic contemplation, fiery expressionism, and digging deep into a thick groove. Jeff Hirshfield is back in the drum seat, having been a part of both Wake Up Call and American Dream. Kermit Driscoll is a new name to Haskins recordings, but the veteran bassist has been an essential collaborator to other artists, most relevantly as a member of Bill Frisell’s outfit, helping to develop the Jazz Americana sound reminiscent of Haskins’ American Dream. And then, of course, the string trio of Jody Redhage, Joyce Ammann, and Lois Martin.
In that way author Michael Chabon is a master of the novel’s opening paragraphs, Taylor Haskins crafts some majestic opening statements to albums. The melancholy opening of “Somewhere I’ve Never Traveled” is a ray of sunlight cutting through a bank of dark clouds, the Native American drone flute a haunting subtext to an otherwise optimistic melody.
And the tone shifts on “Four Moons,” on which Driscoll’s pulsing bassline instills a sense of urgency upon the tune… an effect that pulls both strings and Haskins’ trumpet into its orbit. The darker tones shift to lighter hues on title-track “Fuzzy Logic,” anchored by Monder’s guitar gently lofting notes upward, floating away and buffeted by Hirshfield’s insistent drum work. The string trio sharpens the tone on “Comfortable Disease,” banking striking harmonies off Haskins’ angular melody, an effect that swings to the opposite end of the spectrum with the shapely melody of the ensemble’s rendition of Thomas Dolby’s “Airwaves.” Haskins widens the expanse of Dolby’s strong melody, allowing it to gently drift where Dolby chose to make it soar.
Lighter tones are explored for the album’s home stretch. The ballad of “Perspective” moves with the ephemeral grace of a plume of smoke, with the harmony of trumpet and strings providing its tiny warmth and soft glow. And “Too Far” opens with lilting statements by strings and trumpet, slowly rolling out the melody in an orderly fashion then immediately setting about to rearrange it. “Conviction” toys with tempo a bit, both melody and rhythm misguiding expectations of where the next shoe will drop, juxtaposing a slow melody against a fast-thinking rhythm.
The lighter tones and hues continue with “I Believe In You,” a brief tune, an idea of a song, and so exquisitely formed as to epitomize, perhaps, the beating heart of this recording. There is a hint of perfection in how immaculately this song is crafted, in that way massive trees and dazzling floral displays are dwarfed by the glorious simplicity of the seed from which they are derived.
Haskins ends the album with a rendition of Tom Waits’ “Take It With Me.” The inherent bittersweet sadness of a Tom Waits Mule Variations song fits right in with this album’s dark-clouds-on-a-sunny-day monochromatic expressionism. It’s also a bit of a reprise from previous albums. Haskins closed out American Dream with a rendition of “Johnsburg, Illinois” (from Swordfishtrombones), and as he did on the final song of Recombination, he ends Fuzzy Logic on melodica… a wind instrument that looks a bit like a keyboard and sounds a bit like a harmonica, and which conveys both a sadness and a warmth that are equally charming. These kinds of commonalities are nice subtle tethers between albums of different personalities, illustrating that seeming differences are merely facets of similar expressions.
It’s a sublime conclusion to a lovely album.
Your publishing attributions:
Wake Up Call and Metaview released on Fresh Sound New Talent.
Recombination released on Nineteen-Eight Records.
American Dream and Fuzzy Logic released on Sunnyside Records.
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