Thursday, August 18, 2011

Cecil Taylor


Reading Bob Dylan's autobiography last weekend in Houston, I was amused to read Bob's comment on jamming with Cecil Taylor in Greenwich Village ca. 1960. He wrote something like, "Cecil can play regular piano when he wants to."

My friend Phil Overeem got me thinking about Cecil again by sending me his extra copy of Dark To Themselves, an album I hadn't heard since 1989, when movers broke my turntable and my future ex-wife subsequently donated all of my records to Goodwill. It's a document of a 1978 live performance by a little-heard Unit that included David S. Ware on tenor sax -- who'd soon depart, taking drummer Marc Edwards with him, to form what just might be the last great free jazz ensemble -- in the front line alongside trumpeter Raphe Malik and Cecil's longtime alter ego, altoist Jimmy Lyons.

The 1992 Enja CD reish that Phil generously sent restores material that was originally cut to make the performance fit on two LP sides, and while it's not as colossal as Hat Hut's One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye (another marathon concert restored to full length for CD release, with violinist Ramsey Ameen in place of Ware and Ronald Shannon Jackson flattening mountains and redirecting rivers in place of Edwards), it's still a titanic listen.

Now 83, Taylor continues to perform (although he's recently canceled a couple of dates). Greatest muso of his generation? Greatest living American muso? Well, there's still Ornette, but that's the field. I saw him once, in a suboptimal context: "embraced" (more like "horns locked") with Mary Lou Williams and her tradition-bound trio at Avery Fisher Hall in 1977. People were standing up screaming in the balconies, but the two pianists' distinctly different thangs never cohered; they played _at_, rather than _with_ each other.

To hear Cecil live is to be confronted by a force of nature. Any doubts you might have about the intentionality of his pianistics will be dispelled by seeing him alternately caress and attack the keys, moving with the physicality and elegance of a dancer. Make no mistake, he's a master of his instrument; just one that applies himself to unbridled expression rather than empty displays of virtuosity.

As great as his solo recitals are (my fave: 1974's Silent Tongues), it's his Units that really float my boat. He teaches his men the scores using non-literary means, by singing them phrases and having them copy them, which gives his ensembles a more organic feel than crisply swinging sight-readers would have rendered. He refuses to comp behind soloists, pushing them forward with the challenge of his torrential idea-stream.

His earliest sides, where he still dallied with Tin Pan Alley song forms, and even the groundbreaking 1962 Cafe Montmartre sessions, with Sunny Murray breaking free from the constraints of metric time and Lyons mixing it up with Taylor like no one else could, all sound like rehearsals for his later work. His apotheosis came in 1966 with Unit Structures and Conquistador!, large ensemble dates he waxed for Blue Note that have the heft and gravitas of symphonies.

The two albums for New World with Shannon Jackson (who only took the gig because Ornette's Prime Time wasn't gigging enough; fathom _that_!) are epochal, but the Brit Tony Oxley -- a preternaturally alert and responsive percussionist -- proved to be a better accompanist for CT. (I've only experienced their interplay on the Burning Poles VHS tape; if I ever hit the lottery, I'm springing for the 11-disc In Berlin box on FMP.) Also worthwhile: Momentum Space, the 1998 meeting of Cecil, Coltrane's drummer Elvin Jones, and Ornette's foil Dewey Redman, a summit meeting, if you will, of the three founding streams of free jazz.

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