THE MUSIC OF CECIL TAYLOR - part 2

-- Damon Short, Summer 1993

CONCLUSION: 1980-1993

 

In February 1980, The Unit recorded live during a week's engagement at New York's Fat Tuesday's; a 71-minute set was released (It Is In the Brewing Luminous, Hat Hut 2R16, I believe now on CD). Jimmy Lyons, Ramsey Ameen, Alan Silva, and the percussion duo of Jerome Cooper and Sunny Murray (Murray recording again with Taylor after nearly 20 years!). The pairing of these particular drummers (Cooper also is heard on balofon [African xylophone]) is quite successful - usually one concentrates on the cymbals, the other on the snare and toms. There is little 'formal' composed material here, but some fine group constructions and outstanding solos...

  Later that year Taylor produced his only (?) studio solo recording to date: Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! (MPS Pausa 7108). On the whole more 'balladic' throughout then many of his solo outings; on this and for that matter many of his solo performances, Taylor is quite fond of a particular two-chord 'romantic' minor progression, building variations on it and continually returning to it; superficially one could say he's 'playing the same thing', but he's always finding different facets of this 'cell' to explore; the beauty of his sound, the intensity of his attack and the overall sweep of his artistic vision always keep things fascinating; it's like viewing a painting from dozens, or hundreds, of different angles...

 

However, an even greater triumph in Cecil's solo discography is: Garden (Hat Art 1993/94, 2 lps, 2 CD) - recorded live in Switzerland, November 1981. Beautifully recorded, seven separate pieces ranging from 2 to 27 minutes. A wider scope of emotion and ideas than the previous release. Also in 1981, The Eighth (hat Art 2036). The history of this release is curious. First issued as Calling it the 8th, an edited set, it was later released in its entirety. Lyons again is transcendent, and this Quartet is rounded out by bassist William Parker and drummer Rashid Bakr. Bakr's textures are comparatively lighter than previous Taylor drummers; this set also marks the beginning of Parker's collaboration with Taylor which continues to the present. There's a recording from 1983, Live in Willisau (Nica), about which I have no information.

  Segments II: Orchestra of Two Continents (1984, Soul Note CD 1089) Since most of Taylor's performances and recordings have taken place in Europe, it was inevitable that he would finally incorporate European improvisors into his music (this would come to full fruition in 1988...) This is a ten-piece ensemble, adding the talents of trumpeters Enrico Rava and Tomasz Stanko, the Danish saxophonist John Tchicai (a strong voice active in the US since the 60s) and multi-instrumentalist Gunter Hampel to the American contingent of Lyons, Parker, Bakr and bassoonist Karen Borca. Four compositions with typically evocative titles (say, could you guys play "Womb Waters Scent of the Burning Armadillo Shell" for us?!), including an extended vocalizing passage by the ensemble. By this time Taylor was regularly incorporating dance and vocal elements into his presentations. Actually, vocal, i.e. wordless passages can be heard as far back as the late 60s (the "Great Concert") - Cecil's 'singing' can be termed an 'acquired taste', a taste that admittedly few of even his most rabid supporters have acquired. However, this along with the dance have become an integral part of the overall 'ritual' of Taylor's work.

 

One Night with Blue Note, Vol. 2 (BT 85114): The resurrection of the Blue Note label in 1985 was celebrated with a landmark concert featuring many of the artists who appeared on the label in the 50s and 60s. (This concert, and the reissue of many of Blue Note's classic recordings, is an ironic commentary on the relative dearth of creative work they've recorded in their new series...but I digress...). Five (or only three?) single releases were also packaged as a boxed set; this volume features a great quintet with McCoy Tyner, Jackie McLean, Woody Shaw, Cecil McBee and Jack DeJohnette, a trio with Benny Wallace, McBee and Jack, and a 12-minute solo outing by our hero ("Pontos Cantados"). For those who would prefer to sample Cecil in a "smaller dose", this is well worth seeking out (for the other artists as well, of course).
 
For Olim (Soul Note 1150) Recorded in 1986 during Germany's "Free Music Workshop". "Dedicated to the living spirit of Jimmy Lyons" - A month earlier, Lyons (a heavy chain smoker) had succumbed to lung cancer in his early 50s. Relatively short excursions, the 18-minute title track and a series of 2 to 7-minute flights. Lyons was a near-indispensible part of Taylor's ensemble music for well over 20 years; it would seem an impossible task to replace him, and in fact there have been few editions of the Unit since that even include a wind player. (I understand that the July '93 S. Fran. engagement does include Charles Gayle though.) In 1987 a pair of live concerts were captured for Leo Records.I have only the edited single-CD Live in Bologna (Leo CDLR100; the other concert was from Vienna) - with William Parker, drummer Thurman Barker, violinist Leroy Jenkins and Carlos Ward on alto. While Jenkins and Ward are excellent players in their own right, it might be debated whether they're quite attuned to Cecil's music. This set actually has little composed material; it's pretty much a 70-minute 'free improv'. (The unedited version may differ.) Another Leo release from that year which I don't have is Tzotzil Mummers Tzotzil (Leo LR 162).
 
Chinampas (Leo LR 153, 1987): Here's the Cecil Taylor album WITH NO PIANO ANYWHERE!? A collection of Taylor's odd but often fascinating poetry, overdubbing himself on bells, tympani and other percussion, and sometimes his own voice. Definitely not for the faint-of-heart, but certainly rewarding if approached on its own terms. Originally released as 'a limited edition of 500 copies', it's since been reissued on CD. Also in 1987, Cecil guested on Marian McPartland's NPR radio series, "Piano Jazz". (A good-quality transcription of this program may still be available from NPR.) A wonderful hour; Marian, charming as always, is a bit bewildered but genuinely enthusiastic about Cecil's work. Interesting conversation, and yes, they DO play a duet! (Cecil declines to play a Cole Porter tune - he stopped doing that in the 50s! - but McPartland alludes to "Get Out of Town" [which Taylor recorded in 1959], and their joint improvisation builds off that.) And now we come to the truly monumental:

 

CECIL TAYLOR IN BERLIN '88 An 11-CD boxed set from Germany's Free Music Productions. Most of the CDs are also available individually, but the box (available originally through Cadence for $200, reportedly much higher in stores and now most likely out-of-print) also includes an extensive discography of ALL of the participants, and a spectacular 186-page 12x12 book including terrific photos, extensive essays on Taylor's work, transcriptions and analyses of the music. Recorded in Berlin, July 1988, during a MONTH-LONG festival of improvised music dedicated to Taylor, featuring a long list of Europe's most prominent 'free' improvisors, including Han Bennink, Tony Oxley, Paul Lovens, Evan Parker, Gunter Hampel, Derek Bailey, etc. etc. Five of the CDs are duets with different drummers - the aforementioned Oxley, Lovens and Bennink (FMP CD 6, 3, 5), the East German Gunter Sommer (2) and South African Louis Moholo (4). Also, a duet with guitarist Bailey (16), a trio with Evan Parker (tenor) and cellist Tristan Honsinger (11), a solo concert (18), a 'workshop ensemble' (0) on which Taylor directs but doesn't play, and an exhausting but exhilarating 2-CD performance by the 'European Orchestra' (8/9).

Obviously (and, unfortunately) such a project could only have taken place in Europe. Excepting the large ensembles, all of these performances are 'spontaneous'; indeed, Taylor had never performed with many of the players before the concerts. There are some lulls during the sets, to be sure, but there are highlights on every disc. I'm particularly fond of the Orchestra sets (though you'll wind up a bit limp after 2 hours), the solo concert (as always), and the duets with Lovens, Oxley, and particularly Bailey, who compels Cecil to 'bend his approach' more than the others, who generally find ways to 'fit into' the pianist's direction, or, in the case of the trio, 'ignore' it to a certain extent. Needless to say, a set designed for total converts only, but it's the best $200 I've ever spent! (and financed by a tortuous weekend with a cocktail pianist - boy, if he ever knew what I spent that money on....)

 

In Fluorescence (A&MCD 5286): In 1989, Taylor returned to an American recording studio. (Produced by John Snyder, he of the legendary "Artist House" series; this new series for A&M (hey, thanks, Herb Alpert!?) also featured sets by Don Cherry and Sun Ra...) A trio with William Parker and percussionist Gregg Bendian. Bendian is an American artist (who's also done interesting work on vibes under his own name and with others) who largely derives his approach from the 'Euro-new music' realms and the work of European improvisors such as Lovens and Oxley. This disc consists of 14 relatively short works, including unaccompanied tracks from all three. Again, there's the air of ritual here; many tracks start off with brief recitations from Taylor (the first one is particularly startling, watch your speakers...) before the music begins.

 

Burning Poles (Mystic Fire Video): Well, you won't see this on MTV, or VH-1 or that matter, but it may have appeared on Bravo (another solo concert, from 1984 I believe, has been broadcast on that channel). A 50-minute set filmed in the studio in 1990 or '91, with Tony Oxley, William Parker and percussionist Andre Martinez. Starting with some of Cecil's unique dancing, and leading into, as usual, some wondrous playing. The camera work leaves something to be desired (it would be nice to see some more of Oxley, for instance) but the sound quality is fine, and if you've never seen Cecil in person it's a good example of the unique universe he creates in concert.

 

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CONCLUSION

There have been several other recordings in recent years, mostly on FMP, which I don't have and consequently can't cover here. Perhaps a good way to wrap this up would be to quote from the liner notes to the video:

The love and respect for the creative impulse everywhere is what I'm after. I'm of American, Indian, African and English heritage, and I follow all those paths. I avoid the trap of easy definition. I try to deal with states beyond consciousness, with the element of chance, the element of magic. -- Cecil Taylor

Enjoy!! (-- Damon Short, Chicago, July 10, 1993)

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POSTSCRIPT

Here's a condensed list of indispensible C.T. recordings, in pretty much chronological order; the rather arbitrary "Top 10" records are marked in boldface --

Jazz Advance (1955, Blue Note CD reissue 84462 2): Steve Lacy, Buell Neidlinger, Denis Charles.

Coltrane Time (1958, Blue Note CD reissue 84461): the only recorded encounter with Taylor and Trane, and originally it was Cecil's date. With Kenny Dorham and Louis Hayes. The World of Cecil Taylor (Candid, 1960): with Archie Shepp.

Into the Hot: The Gil Evans Orchestra (1961, Impulse, CD-SMCA-39104): half the tracks here are Taylor's Unit, with Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray; the other half is John Carisi's band.

Unit Structures (Blue Note CD 84237) and Conquistador (BN CDP 7 84260 2) [1966]

Silent Tongues (1974, Freedom CD 41005): Recorded at the 1974 Montreux Jazz Festival. A solo recital and an absolute must-have recording!!

Dark to Themselves (1976, Enja 3005, Inner City 3001): The Unit with Jimmy Lyons (of course).

Anthology of American Music: Cecil Taylor (1978, New World 201): Lyons and Ronald Shannon Jackson. Anthology of American Music: 3 Phasis (1978, New World 303): same session as above.

Max Roach and Cecil Taylor: Historic Concerts (1979, Soul Note 1000-01): A 'cross-generational' collaboration of genius.

Garden (1981,Hat Art 1993/94): Another brilliant solo recital.

Segments II: Orchestra of Two Continents (1985, Soul Note 1089)

For Olim (1986, Soul Note 1150) Another brilliant solo recital!!

Chinampas (1987, Leo LR 153): No piano, esoteric poetry and percussion.

In Fluorescence (1989, A&M CD 5286): Trio with William Parker and Gregg Bendian.

Burning Poles (Mystic Fire Video). Filmed in the studio; with Tony Oxley.

Cecil also is heard on single tracks from the following:

Tony Williams: The Joy of Flying (1979, Columbia JC 35704)

One Night with Blue Note, Vol. 2 (1985, BT 85114)

Also, the genius of JIMMY LYONS should be checked out on the following:

Other Afternoons (1969, BYG, reissued on Affinity) with Andrew Cyrille, Alan Silva and Lester Bowie;

Wee Sneezawee (late 70s,Black Saint);

Something in Return (1981, Black Saint 120125-2): in duet with Cyrille.

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