The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Monday, July 09, 2007
CECIL’S ROADS

Cecil Taylor has always been the musician I have most wanted to be. Not long after I started my after-school piano lessons I heard his playing for the first time, in the context of the 1961 “Gil Evans” album Into The Hot (issued under his name but devoted 50/50 to the works of John Carisi and Cecil; one participant famously stated that the most Gil did in the sessions was go out and get the sandwiches at lunchtime), and immediately I wanted to be like he was, fearlessly inverting every chord progression and harmony I had to that date been taught, even more fearlessly slamming his elbow down hard on the keys whenever the urge took him. Naturally I wanted to play like Cecil instantly and took very strong exception to dreary sessions going over “My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean” for the nth time, but of course, as another of last night’s Royal Festival Hall participants put it, you have to learn the rules thoroughly before you can break them. Otherwise you just end up making unspecified noise, and careful subsequent listening confirmed Cecil to be one of the most specific of all jazz pianists.

He has hardly considered himself a pianist; he has spoken endlessly of “88 tuned drums” and always strives to put the percussive elements of his music in the forefront – he is a keen follower of contemporary dance and also of all black pop from Motown to Kanye, and elements of those necessarily find their way into his work, however abstract it may seem on the surface. If Dave Brubeck was the most instantly accessible of “experimental” jazz pianists, and Bill Evans slightly more abstruse, then Cecil Taylor has achieved the rare double of exacting total, undiverted attention from the listener but also appealing to the listener on an elemental, dervish level. From the first bar of the first track of his first album – Jazz Advance, recorded in September 1955 – it is clear that he is going somewhere else; it’s a reading of Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” and from the first chord onwards Cecil manages the unimaginable feat of subverting Monk’s subversion, chordal, tonic and rhythmic. The listener is guided by the already expert soprano playing of the young Steve Lacy – a man who really did make Monk’s music a lifetime’s study – and the ska-anticipating rimshots of Jamaican-American drummer Dennis Charles.

In the subsequent half century Cecil has steadily advanced his jazz; after Into The Hot, his core trio of Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray carefully moulded his template down to its intense core of rhythm first, melody second, interaction the premium. The innate harmonics of his piano perhaps made him more accessible to the free jazz neophyte than the pianoless statements of Coleman or Ayler (and the track on the Ayler box set which sees him sitting in with the trio for a TV broadcast - ! – demonstrates that the great Cleveland tenorman wasn’t quite on Taylor’s wavelength; not just yet, anyway, but then, in tandem with Sunny Murray, he found his own solutions) but he continued to boil his music down to the essentials, just as his band expanded (seven musicians on 1966’s Unit Structures) or contracted (the Lyons/Sam Rivers/Andrew Cyrille quartet of 1969’s Nuits De La Fondation Maeght triple set) as the music demanded.

There has remained an innate formality to Taylor’s music through the years which, though partly classical-based, has yet been open enough to attract the widest possible range of curious improvisers, from Ronald Shannon Jackson to Derek Bailey, from Leroy Jenkins to Tony Williams. In contrast, Anthony Braxton’s music has concentrated on what one might call the formalisation of anti-form. One of the most high-profile graduates of Chicago’s AACM, from 1967 onwards Braxton has developed, with equal steadiness, his own forms of group interaction, combining composition and spontaneity as tightly and indivisibly as imaginable; he famously gives his compositions diagrammatic titles, consisting of illustrations and non-random number combinations, all of which represent a specific emotion or combination of emotions which he wishes himself and his musicians to explore. Perhaps most focused in his remarkable series of albums for the Arista label (he was, incredibly, the label’s second signing, after Barry Manilow) in the mid-seventies, he continued to flourish in what is perhaps his greatest group, the eighties quartet with Marilyn Crispell, Mark Dresser and Gerry Hemmingway. Since then his compass has grown wider; he has written for larger and larger ensembles (even, in one case, a piece to be played by three orchestras on three different planets) and he has explored what he calls “Ghost Trance Music” (hauntologists take note) in which his own compositions can coexist simultaneously with compositions or motifs generated by the other participating musicians.

But there have been regular accusations of coldness in his work, particularly with relation to his readings of standards, as well as some technical instability (Lee Konitz, one of Braxton’s heroes, has offered some particularly penetrating criticism of this in the past). Yet, given the right conditions, he can emotionally explode; witness his extraordinary 1968 solo double album For Alto, or his Royal duets with Bailey, or the unsurpassed rage of the third track on side one of his 1977 Montreux/Berlin Concerts double, for searing proof.

The two met last night at the Royal Festival Hall for the first time, backed by the other two-thirds of Taylor’s regular Feel Trio – bassist William Parker and Godlike drummer Tony Oxley – and the expectations were intense; could Taylor melt down Braxton’s apparent cold rationalism, or could Braxton draw Taylor closer into his own tri-axial universe? The question really was a no-brainer; as listeners to the second half of Michael Mantler’s 1968 JCOA Communications double will attest – a project expressly designed to pitch improviser against orchestra – Mantler has no choice but to drag his music into Taylor’s relentlessly rhythmic world, and ultimately can only stand back and marvel at the pianist’s endless invention and boundless barrier-busting (I additionally note that both have in their time recorded duet albums with Max Roach, and that in both cases the percussion blend brought out the best and most concentrated playing from either participant).

Taylor began, as he usually does, with a deceptively plaintive ripple of near-aharmonic labyrinths, accompanied solely by Oxley, ticking away patiently at the back. Braxton entered eventually and tentatively. But gradually the enormity of the accumulated intensity overwhelmed, and the cruciality of Parker’s presence heavily underlined – where Oxley tended to lock in directly with Taylor’s rhythmic puzzles, Parker’s titanic bass pulled all the differing strains together. Braxton had no choice but to heat up, but he kept his countenance; as Jimmy Lyons intuitively understood, the secret for the Taylor saxophonist is to define a clear melodic line above the tumult but still sound indivisible from the rhythm and drive of the compositions. Compositions there were, or at least lines, but all welded into an eventually unstoppable avalanche over the next ninety minutes or so; the music was an earthquake of punk joy and yet so absolutely and bloody miraculously ordered – Taylor’s world-ending runs always precise in their definition and destination (no matter how frantic, the purpose and drive were always easily palpable), Oxley maybe the best drummer he has ever had, and “drummer” is such an inadequate term to describe the combination of plywood on metal, of found and round sounds, of endlessly divisible bar lines, of floating as easily and rapidly as any horn player – the world which he more or less invented, Parker solid, prowling and skyscraping, Braxton playing definitively out of himself, still proclaiming the “eve of the fall of Western values” which he promised in his notes to 1967’s Three Compositions Of New Jazz. Eventually the logical end was reached, the four men – aged, I should remind you, 78, 69, 62 and 55, in descending order – reaching a mutual and very glad-looking nod, the world once again altered; music-creating on such a high level that it humbled me, as a spectator – and rather than showoffs demonstrating how big their chops are, but contributing nothing in the way of meaningful musical discourse while doing so, the Cecil Taylor Quartet revealed, once again, the natural ways in which four people can combine and reinvent music with every stroke, blow and breath. I still consider it the paradigm for the ideal society.


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