POP SHINE: Eigsti makes music (here with singer Becca Stevens) that’s as uncompromising as it is accessible.
True, there aren't enough paying gigs for musicians, but the live music is out there — and last Wednesday, I had to scramble to make three promising shows. What's more, all three demonstrated just how far the word "jazz" can stretch: two bands with vocalists — one with a bright folk-pop sheen, the other leaning toward world music — and a good-ol'-fashioned saxophone trio with a taste for Ornette-like spare melody and their own concept of organized freedom.
First up was pianist Taylor Eigsti's quartet at Scullers. Eigsti, 25, is one of the music's stars-in-waiting, and at Scullers he showed why. He has the chops and the imagination to cover a broad range of material — from Ellington and Mussorgsky to Coldplay and Mutemath. As a pianist, he doesn't seem to have a weak finger. Every note rings, no matter how rapid the passage work. It's sometimes said that few jazz pianists have an identifiable tone — the late Hank Jones was one, and McCoy Tyner is another. Jones was velvety, tuneful, informed by his uncanny voice leading; Tyner has a power that's evident at any volume. Eigsti delivers bell-like clarity and definition.
Eigsti's previous album was 2008's Let It Come to You (Concord), and he said his next, Daylight at Midnight, is due September 21. So the Scullers gig offered a sneak preview, with bassist Harish Raghavan, drummer Kendrick Scott, and the singer/songwriter Becca Stevens. It also provided an insight into some of the brainier and more ambitious of the mainstream players under 30 — which include Eigsti, his pal the guitarist Julian Lage, pianist Aaron Parks, and trumpeter Christian Scott. So, yes, bebop and post-Coltrane jazz are here, but jazz harmonies often take off from singer/songwriter folk, and swing rhythms have mostly been supplanted by healthy dollops of rock beats. Eigsti, like Lage, has a taste for classical music, and he indulges jazz's inclinations toward the French "Impressionist" composers. It's ambitious and uncompromising music, and yet completely accessible.
At Scullers, he started with Coldplay's "Daylight," whose vamp gave him an opportunity for one of his favorite devices: the long crescendo. With Scott's math-genius muscle dividing the beat, Raghavan's ornate but tasteful electric bass, and Eigsti's sparkling runs and 16th-note chording, this was a long way from smooth jazz or instrumental pop. His "Promenade" section from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition favored soft, jazzy romanticism over pomp. But again, Eigsti's solo improvisations — cascading right-hand lines broken with punchy riffs while the left hand marched those grand chords — were anything but easy listening.
The selections with Stevens showed the same craftiness — they made jazz and non-jazz numbers all of a piece. A skilled jazz vocalist, Stevens sang her originals as well as some songs she's written with Eigsti, Elliott Smith's "Between the Bars," and the Johnny Burke/Jimmy Van Heusen standard "But Beautiful." Eigsti also played the French Impressionist–inspired solo piano piece "Secreto," by the 20th-century Catalan composer Federico Mompou, and followed it with the most rocking number of the night, Mutemath's "Chaos." This is why he loves Scullers, Eigsti told the crowd: "You can follow Mompou with Mutemath and everyone's down." The encore was the Comden/Green/Bernstein ballad "Lucky To Be Me" (from On the Town, and also the title track of an Eigsti 2006 album) — jazz impressionism meeting the Great American Songbook. Eigsti's music is full of big dramatic moments, and it's crowd-pleasing, but never let it be said that he panders. It's not that he's giving the people what they want — he's just showing that maybe they want more than they thought they did.