Sunday, March 17, 2019

Cecil Taylor's "Silent Tongues"

I only saw the avant-garde piano force of nature Cecil Taylor once in life. It was hardly an optimal occasion: the April 1977 Carnegie Hall encounter with fellow pianist Mary Lou Williams, which he originally titled "Embraced," could have been more aptly dubbed "Opposed," or "Alienated." Williams, who promoted the concert herself, attempted to conduct a jazz history lesson, accompanied by her rhythm section, with written parts for Taylor. Taylor was having none of it. Instead, he responded with his usual shifting tectonic plates of sound, replete with thunderous left-hand rumbling, cascading torrents of notes, and explosions of atonality. The house was half-empty, but people in the balconies, transported by the potent visceral power of Taylor's art, were standing up and screaming. It wasn't a sublime musical event, but it was memorable.

To see Taylor live was to grasp the kinetic energy of his performance, and apprehend the tonal and rhythmic contours of his forms (influenced by 20th century European composers as well as jazz forebears). He played piano with the physicality of a dancer hurtling through space, and the percussive strength of his keyboard attack was matched only by his precise control, allowing him to execute with accuracy, even while stirring up welters of roiling turbulence. (Those who are still VHS-capable are encouraged to seek out Burning Poles, the document of a 1991 live-in-studio performance in which Taylor is accompanied by the highly simpatico Tony Oxley and William Parker, as well as a superfluous percussionist. By that time, Taylor had incorporated dance and vocalization -- declaiming his own idiosyncratic poetry -- into his onstage ritual. Last time I checked, the film was also available on Youtube.)

Originally released in 1975 on Arista Freedom and recently reissued by ORG Music, Silent Tongues is Taylor's first great solo recital, and an absolutely essential spin for anyone interested in creative music. At the time it was recorded, at the 1974 Montreux Jazz Festival, Taylor had just returned to performing after a spell in academia. The previous year, he had privately released a couple of solo recordings -- Indent (reissued by Arista Freedom in 1977) and the beautiful first side of Spring of Two Blue-J's (good luck finding that one today) -- from 1973 concerts at Antioch College (where he'd been teaching since the late '60s) and NYC's Town Hall, respectively. He'd go on to release many more solo dates -- 1978's Air Above Mountains <Buildings Within>, 1982's Garden, and 2002's The Willisau Concert among the best of them -- but Silent Tongues ranks among Taylor's very finest albums, and to these feedback-scorched ears, is the best point of entry for listeners new to his work (along with 1966's Blue Note ensemble session Unit Structures).

Silent Tongues, a work in five movements, commences with a slow and pensive exposition ("Abyss") of themes that will be expounded on later. On "Petals and Filaments," the trickle of ideas becomes a fast-flowing stream, animated by a jumpy nervous energy, as Taylor thoroughly investigates each tangent with virtuosic abandon, building to an intensity on "Jitney." The music's density and velocity ebb and flow through "Crossing" (which is split between LP sides, each of which totals over 25 minutes), until he concludes with a somber descending sequence that he calls "After All," then encores with recapitulations of themes from two of the movements. It's a demanding listen, but one that richly rewards repeated plays. Taylor's creation contains universes. Not for all, but everything to some.


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