CD: Turbulent Grace
Artist: Justin Taber

I remember when I lived in Denver many years ago, the license plates bore a slogan that said “Colorful Colorado” referring not only to the beauty of the state but the fact that the word “color” is inherent in the name “Colorado.” Interestingly, pianist Justin Taber lives near Boulder, Colorado and the word “color” takes on a special meaning for him. To call Justin’s music “colorful” is more than just a figure of speech. Color is actually an element in his compositional style. Justin has a rare condition called “synesthesia” in which one sense (for example, hearing) is simultaneously perceived as if by one or more additional senses such as sight – a sound may evoke sensations of color. Scientific research estimates that about 1 in 2000 people have this condition and that the most common form of synesthesia, is colored hearing: sounds, music or voices seen as colors. Most “synesthetes” report that they see such sounds internally, in “the mind’s eye.” Many people with synesthesia use their experiences to aid in their creative process, and many non-synesthetes have attempted to create works of art that may capture what it is like to experience synesthesia.


Justin, who was born in Hawaii, began playing piano at the age of 6. Guided by his synesthesia, he began composing by “creating waves of overlapping color.” He describes it in this way: “For as long as I can remember I associate individual notes on the piano with different colors.  I’m not sure why each note is a particular color, but the association has never changed and it’s part of the mental scaffolding for composing and recalling the music.”


His debut CD release, Turbulent Grace, captures over ten years of piano composition and a style that has evolved with time. There is a beautiful story he shares about this, and the title of the recording, that creates a wonderful context for a discussion of the music contained within. The album is named for a song that Justin wrote for a girl he met coming off the plane for his freshman year at the University of Washington.  Not only did her unique essence inspire him to write music, it inspired a completely new style that changed him and his music forever.  Despite being apart for nearly a decade, he continued to compose on the piano thinking of her and what could have been. They eventually married and Justin chose to record the music that had accumulated in his mind to create something lasting. The album opens with youthful exuberance, quickly deepening into sweet yearning overlapping with complex undercurrents.


With 19 tracks on the CD that total an hour and ten minutes, Justin offers a generous sampler of his musical talents as a solo pianist. While I personally don’t hear music in colors, visual images often come to mind while listening. On the first track, “See It In Your Eyes,” rolling arpeggios conjured a picture of “amber waves of grain” rippling in the wind on a sunny day and a feeling of optimism in the air. The second track, “Going New Places,” is an up-tempo piece that is punctuated by an occasional touch of dissonance, and prepares the listener to expect the unexpected. I must admit that I was curious as to what the music on the title track would sound like with a name like “Turbulent Grace.” I think that the name does capture the vibe of this composition quite well with its powerful and dramatic currents that resolve into a more ethereal space in the last movement. A sense of poignancy pervades the track entitled, “What Could Have Been” which I would imagine harkens back to feeling Justin had for the woman he was separated from and longed for all those years.


Many of Justin’s compositions are complex and quite active, lending themselves more to focused listening rather than as background music, which some solo piano albums are suited for. His left hand often maintains perpetual motion while the right hand explores diverse melodic terrain. Justin’s music is quite expressive and you get the feeling that there is a story and genuine emotion behind each song. A good example of this is on one of the album’s longest tracks entitled “Resilience,” as it moves through various passages and seems to convey a sense of going through life’s ups and downs while maintaining one’s equilibrium. One of the most moving songs for me was “Ani’s Theme” which exuded a tenderness and affection that was quite lovely to behold. This feeling also extended into the next track, “Last Lullaby,” which, as the name would imply, reveals a softer side of Justin’s musical spectrum that I appreciated. The CD draws to a close with “An Unexpected Life,” and seems to reflect back on all that has gone before. And truly, quite a lot has transpired over the 19 tracks. Turbulent Grace is an album of diversity and contrast, of light and shadow, and profound emotional depth. I would love to have the ability to perceive the colors that Justin experiences with his music, but I think that he has come as close as possible in conveying them with sound and feeling.