Taylor Eigsti’s Puzzle Mastery

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“Variety is essential,” says Taylor Eigsti. “It both creates new landscapes and puts you in closer touch with the present moment.”

(Photo: Eli von Stubendorff)

It’s early March in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a local, classically trained instrumentalist is astonished as she learns about Taylor Eigsti’s many musical associations while hanging around after the pianist/composer’s Regattabar bandleading debut.

Yes, it’s not uncommon for a working jazz musician to maintain gigs concurrently among several collaborators — with trumpeter Terence Blanchard, vocalist Lisa Fischer and tenor saxophonist/multi-reedist Ben Wendel in Eigsti’s case. But the 39-year-old has garnered a reputation among his peers for nourishing those relationships.

It’s at the heart of his latest album, Plot Armor, which was released in March by GroundUp Music. And by pure chance, it was also reflected in the pair of album release dates that the Bay Area native booked at the Regattabar and also the prior night at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village.

Aside from keyboardist Maya Kronfeld, he fielded two entirely different bands that played in distinctly different settings. The patrons were mostly standing, with many active musicians in attendance in New York while a decidedly older crowd were seated in Massachusetts. Eigsti, the 2022 Contemporary Instrumental Album Grammy winner for his Tree Falls, managed to feature half of Plot Armor’s 20 musicians between the two gigs, plus Nasseem Alatrash (cellist for the Turtle Island String Quartet), tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III (Eigsti’s former bandmate in Eric Harland’s Voyager group) and drummer Mark Whitfield Jr.

“It was a real puzzle putting it all together,” Eigsti reflects, by phone from his home base in North Carolina. “I tend to love that type of challenge. But it involves a lot of poster board and graphs to figure out who’s soloing where.”

Following the release of his sixth studio album, 2010’s Daylight At Midnight (Concord Jazz), Eigsti spent nearly five years touring with trumpeter Chris Botti’s large ensembles as well as playing in bands led by the likes of vocalist Gretchen Parlato and drummer Kendrick Scott. After a more than decade-long break, he then released his two most recent albums in the span of three years.

Both Plot Armor and Tree Falls feature Eigsti’s original compositions save one standard on the former (“Skylark”) and two on the latter (“Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered” and, as a bonus track, “Nancy With The Laughing Face”).

“You can still hear progress when he plays, and that’s very rare for somebody who already started at such a high level,” remarks bassist Harish Raghavan, who’s known and performed with Eigsti since their Southern California days at USC and plays on five Plot Armor tracks. “And he’s just as natural a composer as he is a pianist. He can write a memorable tune on the spot if you asked him.”

“Let You Bee” opens with guitarist Charles Alutra’s amber tone and sleek lines before the session leader’s dramatic chords and a layered string trio’s playing further animate the titular insect. “Fire Within” is an emotive trio piece with Fischer and guitarist Julian Lage, a fellow former child prodigy who grew up and performed with Eigsti in California. It features lyrics that were compiled from lines written in his late mother Nancy’s journals and is her first officially published work.

“Look Around You,” with vocals by Becca Stevens, is taken from Eigsti’s 2022 Hewlett Foundation 50 Arts commission in which he took music, photography, text and video submissions from 100 local students in Silicon Valley and composed a multimedia suite. The five-year project was performed with a 12-piece band that included Fischer, Wendel and flutist Rebecca Kleinmann.

Long-form pieces often come later in a jazz artist’s career. Eigsti wrote and performed his first, a trio-plus-orchestra symphony with Raghavan and drummer Aaron McLendon, in his mid-twenties. “I started getting these opportunities with Peninsula Symphony. And Mitchell Klein (the symphony’s long-time music director and conductor) would ask me if I wanted to play Rhapsody In Blue or whatever. And I’d say, ‘Yes, but I’d like to premiere two of my pieces while we’re at it.’”

He later collaborated with another local orchestra, the innovative Oakland Symphony (under the direction of the late Michael Morgan), as well as the Bear Valley Music Festival Orchestra in Northern California. Through his new works, he was able to bring friends such as Lage, Stevens, Parlato, Harland and tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens to the concert hall and onto the stage with him and has compiled four hours of original symphonic compositions. “It makes the experience more memorable,” he says, of sharing the soloist role with friends. “And all of them add something unique to each situation, musically.

“My journey with any of that really started by going to shows when I was a kid like when David Benoit would play with the San Francisco Symphony,” he recalls. “That concept of combining classical instruments with things that are more jazz got instilled in me early on.”

A full orchestral album may be in Eigsti’s future. In the meantime, he’s gotten a lush sound on his past two albums by having the string section replay parts from different areas of the studio. The multiple recordings are then mixed together for a fuller sound. And with Blanchard’s E-Collective band frequently partnering with the Turtle Island String Quartet, he’s regularly playing with string excellence on the road. “To be able to improvise with them on the highest level, it’s wild. I feel very lucky to have that unique opportunity,” he says.

While Eigsti’s gigs and own recording sessions and concerts have involved scores of collaborators, some of his most recent live performances have been in intimate duo settings. In addition to Fischer, he’s also performed with Kleinmann, jazz-schooled singer-songwriter Erin Bode and vibraphonist/multi-instrumentalist Christian Tamburr. “In a duo context, my number-one goal becomes how to make the other musician sound as good as possible,” he reflects.

Mentally surveying this plethora of performing and recording opportunities, Eigsti cherishes the many different settings he’s enjoyed as both a leader and a sideman. “Variety is essential,” he concludes. “It both creates new landscapes and puts you in closer touch with the present moment.” DB



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