It’s often said that a debut album encapsulates the lifetime of experience leading up to its recording. Given all that Taylor Eigsti has done since the release of his last studio album, the pianist’s ambitious Tree Falls is practically his second debut. Released on May 21, 2021 by GSI in digital form, it marks the triumphant return of an artist who’s been both a global road warrior and a constant—and consistent—composer.
The title of the album, Tree Falls, alludes to that: “There’s been a lot of my own music that I’ve been doing or making over the last decade,” Eigsti says. “But I haven’t released anything of my own for over 11 years. Without letting most people hear what you’re doing, it doesn’t mean as much.” Eigsti certainly had been building up momentum and some impressive achievements with his body of recorded work—two GRAMMY nominations for his major label debut, Lucky to Be Me (Concord Records) back in 2006, plus nominations for albums on which he’s featured in 2013, 2015 and 2016. The most recent of these, the Miles Ahead soundtrack, earned him his first win. He was also seen on a PBS Great Performances broadcast in August 2018 with superstar trumpeter Chris Botti, in whose band he toured from 2013 through mid-2018.
And it hasn’t been a lost decade for Eigsti by any means. In addition to living an impressive—and, to some, exhaustive—touring life in bands led by his peers and friends, he’s also been focused on composing and performing symphonic works as well as solo pieces. So the challenge was how to best reflect the past decade for him musically and personally. “I wanted Tree Falls to be something that represents who I am—a really personal record,” he shares. “This is the music that is closest to my heart and my own life journey, and it took me a long time to break down the barrier and finally allow people in to that experience.”
With a dozen tracks that range from a solo piano performance and a piano-vocal duet with Becca Stevens to ones with full-on orchestral accompaniment, Tree Falls reflects both the intimate and grand musical moments of Eigsti’s previous decade. His eighth album as a leader, it reflects the many bandleading, sideman and compositional adventures that the 36- year old Manhattan resident has had since the release in 2010 of his previous album, Daylight at Midnight, on Concord Jazz.
The 11 original compositions (a 12th, “Porch Break,” is a vinyl-only interlude) reflect his continued compositional pursuits including numerous long-form orchestral commissions in which he was a soloist starting in 2006. The album’s roster of musicians includes newer and longtime friends and collaborators.
Guitarist Charles Altura and electric bassist David “DJ” Ginyard are bandmates in trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s E-Collective, with whom Eigsti has periodically toured since 2015. (He and Altura first played together at Stanford Jazz Workshop when Eigsti was 11.) And Tree Falls drummer Eric Harland, co-owner of the state-of-the-art GSI Studios at which it was recorded, has been both Eigsti’s trusted sideman and later bandleader since 2006.
“About 40% of the album has vocals,” Eigsti points out. It’s a nice representation of his extensive work with vocalists such as Sachal Vasandani, Lisa Fischer, Gretchen Parlato and Stevens—the latter two singing in various bands of his and also contributing to Tree Falls. “There are a lot of albums with maybe one or two tracks where there’s a vocal special guest. And then there’s albums where there’s like 90 percent vocals,” he notes. “So I wanted to try to integrate vocals in a more balanced way throughout so that they could help tell these stories as a true part of the band.
Playing with Gretchen and Becca has been some of the most fun I’ve ever had as a musician, and they created such a creative comfort zone that allowed for a real sense of honesty in the music.” Casey Abrams, the vocalist/bassist who was an American Idol season 10 finalist and is a popular member of Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox, sings on a playful and mischievous version of “Skylark” that hints at its mysterious lyrical origins. Abrams also sings on “Accidentally”, which features some of Eigsti’s own lyrics.
“Casey sings exactly how I would want to sing if I could,” Eigsti explains. “This was my first time recording some of my own lyrics, and it was easy to trust Casey with telling that story. He brought such incredible energy to the session and instantly injected so much emotion and expression into this music.”
The kinetic and brilliantly interweaving opening cut “Sparky” is an homage to Sparky’s Magic Piano, the 47-minute animated tale of a young boy and his self-playing upright piano that got the title character to real life performance venues around the world. “Sparky would go on the road to perform at all of these actual places,” Eigsti recalls. “I first watched and re-watched it on VHS tape when I was six, and it was my first time learning about the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall and all of these famous venues. So any time I play a place that was in Sparky, I freak out a little,” he admits, with a laugh.
The reflective solo piece piano piece “Rainbows” was written in honor of Eigsti’s late sister and only sibling Shannon. Before she passed away when she was 17 and he was three, Shannon had sat in with the Doobie Brothers and inspired Taylor to pursue piano. (A recording of her voice when she was eight can be heard at the beginning of the track.)
The Magic Behind the “GSI Symphony Orchestra”
Ben Wendel, in whose quartet Eigsti frequently plays, layers saxophones and bassoons in addition to straight up playing and soloing on Tree Falls. “Honestly that was one of those processes where I never actually knew what the whole picture was because Taylor built it from the ground up,” Wendel admits. “When I came in, sometimes there were already existing tracks that were half-done. And he said, ‘Okay, play to this. But imagine, eventually, there’s going to be woodwinds and strings.’
“A different time I came in to play bassoon parts, and everything was already more fleshed out,” he continues. “So it was really fun. And it was cool to hear the fully realized thing, which feels really larger than life. It’s very orchestral at times.”
Sam Sadigursky contributed clarinets and flutes. Emilie-Anne Gendron (violin), Nathan Schram (viola) and Hamilton Berry (cello) turned a string trio into three separate string sections. Eigsti employed Schram, who is married to Stevens, to utilize the arranging and strings recording expertise he’s garnered through playing in the GRAMMY-winning Attacca Quartet as well as with Decoda, the Affiliate Ensemble of Carnegie Hall. “After writing the initial arrangements, Nate went in and did string arranging within those arrangements,” he says. “I wanted him to really adapt things in a way that’s coming from a string player doing it, which really brought everything to life.”
“Nate, Emilie and Hamilton particularly brought so much beauty to tunes like ‘Tree Falls’ and ‘Play With Me’ which added such a powerful textural element,” Eigsti adds. “There are orchestral layers on four other tunes, and a few of them get up into the hundreds of layered parts together. We did a lot of layering and basically created the ‘GSI Symphony Orchestra.'”
“It sounds fabulous,” Wendel says of Tree Falls. “It’s been too long since
Taylor made an album, and I think it’s a great, great statement.”
“GSI is special. I love the studio and everyone involved with it,” Eigsti proclaims. “They wanted to facilitate me making the album I always wanted to make, on my own terms. I feel grateful that they were able to give me this opportunity and artistic freedom, which can be a rare situation.” Another first for Eigsti was having total creative autonomy—no input from label executives or marketing departments. Josh Giunta, drummer/co- producer/GSI head engineer, provided invaluable input and support on the project. “If I was the head coach, Josh was the GM,” says Eigsti, an avid sports fan and 49ers Faithful. “It was a true partnership. Josh’s patience, attention to detail, and incredible engineering ability allowed the project to turn into something greater than I had imagined.”
GSI’s Manhattan recording studio became somewhat of a second home for Eigsti, who spent a total of nearly four weeks in the studio working with Giunta to carefully edit, layer, and mix everything. Whereas he had previously only had two or three days in the studio to capture an album, this approach gave him a timeframe to record and mix more in line with a pop or soundtrack album. “It’s still a brand new studio and a brand new label, but I’d say it’s the most complete project from beginning to end that we’ve done at GSI,” co-owner Harland states.
“I wanted my friends, especially someone like Taylor, to be able to use the facility to the max. I always felt that jazz artists, we didn’t have the privilege to be able to spend a month in the studio,” he opines. “Every day you don’t feel it, so you want to take your time and build, throw out and redo.” Wendel described his friend Eigsti as being “hyper, hyper-organized” and having “a very clear vision of what he wants.” “You can hear his vision from beginning to end,” Harland observes. “Taylor has a brilliant mind, a very genius-oriented type of mind. He’s always been that way, and I’ve always thought, ‘Man, if I can ever give him the space for all that to come out, I will.’ And now people are going to hear the product of that and be reminded how amazing he truly is.”
About the Artist
Born on September 24, 1984 and raised in Menlo Park, CA on the San Francisco Bay Area Peninsula and in the shadows on the Stanford University campus (and the future first home of Facebook), Eigsti first started playing piano when he was four. A child prodigy, he had his first paying gig at age eight, opening for fellow pianist/composer and future mentor David Benoit. That influence can be heard on Tree Fall’s appropriately soaring-sounding “Plane Over Kansas”.
After studying at University of Southern California for a year and half, Eigsti lived and worked in the Los Angeles area from 2004 through 2007 before moving to Oakland for a year and a half. He’s lived in New York City since 2008.