"Given Taylor’s holy role as the eternal outer curve of the avant-garde, it isn’t his function to make things easy. When we can listen to him with half an ear, he’s lost."
Sunday 8th July, 2007. On a day that Roger Federer was taken to five sets by Rafael Nadal in the final of the Wimbledon tennis championship, eventually winning through to equal Bjorn Borg’s record of five successive Wimbledon titles, musical history was also being made. For the first time ever, two giants of improvised music, pianist Cecil Taylor and saxophonist Anthony Braxton, were playing together for the first time, in a quartet with bassist William Parker and percussionist Tony Oxley, at the newly refurbished Royal Festival Hall. Like Al Pacino and Robert de Niro, two doyens of the crime film genre who appeared in similar films and appealed to a similar audience, their meeting, when it came, took on the air of a momentous occasion even before it happened. And, like Pacino and De Niro’s shared screen time in Michael Mann’s epic drama ‘Heat’, it turned out to be well worth the wait.
The Royal Festival Hall might seem like an odd location, and, indeed, I’ve read comments along the lines that it would have been better to give the group a week-long residency in a small club, rather than a one-off gig in a prestigious concert hall. Yet Taylor’s leading collaborator Jimmy Lyons commented thirty years ago, “I think the music is to a point now where the nightclub can’t handle it…It has to be pushed culturally as it is an advanced music; I don’t think it can be appreciated right in” (quoted in Valerie Wilmer’s ‘As Serious As Your Life’). Perhaps the concert hall is actually Taylor’s natural home, a sign that he has gained the prestige his music deserves – certainly, just as with Ornette Coleman, who performed at the RFH the next evening, it was a long way from his beginnings, where his music was constantly misunderstood, where other musicians would refuse to play with him, and where critical reaction was frequently hostile in the extreme. After all, wherever Taylor plays, he remains resolutely himself, making no concessions to popular taste or critical demand: he plays what he feels, and now he has the status to offer him some security, he has even more freedom to pursue his own unique path.
Aside from the choice of venue, questions remained about the music itself. How would Taylor’s extrovert, flamboyant, no-holds-barred virtuosity sit with Braxton’s more acerbic voicings? Would they attempt to find some sort of meeting ground, or would each man go his own way, leaving an unresolved tension that, while superficially exciting, would also be extremely frustrating for both musicians and audience?
As it happened, these questions would not be answered until the second set. I sat down in my £35 seat (the combination of high tickets prices and travel costs meant that this was an expensive evening), and I have to admit that my heart sank when Polar Bear were announced as the opening act - I was expecting a marathon Cecil session! A quintet led by big-haired drummer Seb Rochford, with bassist Tom Herbert, tenor saxophonists Pete Wareham and Mark Lockheart, and electronics man Leafcutter John, their CD ('Held on the tips of fingers') is tolerable, but a bit too smart and vacuous for its own good. I did enjoy some of the stuff they were doing (Leafcutter John's 'solo' with squeaky balloons and some of the double-sax soloing 'freakouts'), but there are 2 fundamental problems with their music: (1) too often it veers towards empty, slick, groove-based material (tight, arranged, soulless) - though admittedly there is a strain of melancholy introspection which is quite attractive, if left somewhat underdeveloped (it was most present in the first two pieces they played). The line-up is interesting (two saxes, bass, drums, electronics - no chordal instrument), and the use of electronics could have made a difference, but in the end not that much was done with them, as regards texture - they tended to be used as either 'weird' noises or for repeating loops/grooves as the background to some of the more 'far out' stuff. Which leads me to point (2) - though I found myself caught up in some of the 'skronk' solos by Pete Wareham in particular (echoes, however brief, of techniques used by Evan Parker and John Butcher, flitted through his playing), in the end (this was something brought into sharper focus by seeing Cecil afterwards), these avant-garde elements were being used in a fairly empty way - not as a logical, coherent, complete means of expression, a vocabulary with validity in its own right as emotionally fulfilling music, but as a device to seem 'far out' and a bit edgy. As if worrying that an audience might not approve of 'random loud noises' – that they might leave the building or something – there was always some sort of steady, repetitious pulse behind the 'out' sections (either bass, drums, or electronics). Strange considering that most of the audience had come to see two of the most challenging avant-garde musicians of the past fifty years...
And so on to Cecil...I'd been scribbling down notes (impressions, criticisms, etc) in the first half, and continued to in the second, albeit more haphazardly and frenziedly, as Cecil's music is so flexible, metamorphoses from one thing to another with such quicksilver speed, that you have to work fast to capture something you particularly liked! From those, and from what I remember, as well as some views from hindsight, here is what you might call a 'review'...
The performance can be divided into three main sections. Firstly, a duet between Tony Oxley and Taylor, consisting of two pieces (possibly with a composed piano part and improvised accompaniment on drums). Secondly, a bass solo from William Parker. Thirdly, the entire group took the stage. This dividing up of resources ensures both a variety of texture and a chance for all the musicians to showcase their abilities (if being a trifle pernickety I could say that Parker needed his solo feature, as you could barely hear him in the quartet music!).
There was an element of ritual from the start (though it wasn't that apparent late on): a poem reading by Taylor over loudspeakers (whether spoken offstage or pre-recorded was unclear) accompanied Tony Oxley as he wandered over to the drum set, his white hair glowing in the dim lighting, and sat down. It was like some sort of avant-garde play - this performative aspect is very important in a lot of the free music of the 60s and 70s (think Archie Shepp with his late 60s ‘marching band’ phase and pieces like 'Mama Rose', or Coltrane's callisthenics, or the Art Ensemble of Chicago, most notably), and also in Taylor's music. This connects to the African roots he emphasised, as well as to an almost surreal imagination, even mischievousness. Though humour is not the first thing people tend to mention when he plays, I think there is a kind of child-like joy in the sheer uninhibited nature of his work at times - particularly the record he did with the Italian Instabile Orchestra ('The Owner of the Riverbank'), of which there is a wonderful video clip on youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r21206DbBaE)). Anyway, Taylor duly capered onstage, shaking some handbells, like a shaman, or an elf...and sat down at the piano, and began to play.
The Taylor and Oxley duo left me somewhat unsatisfied. Taylor appeared to be playing composed music (he had a number of sheets of paper on the piano, presumably a score, and, when the first piece finished, he shuffled them around and pulled out another piece) - even if he wasn't, even if it was improvised, it lacked the fire and invention of his best work. It had the mournfulness that permeates all his music at certain points, but also a Debussy-ian sound to it, even traces of Romanticism. A certain phrase he played seemed directly reminiscent of 'L'Isle Joyeuse.' There was perhaps too much concentration on the middle register of the piano, and on repeated phrases (in a way that approached banality). The thought flashed through my mind that maybe it was the music of an old man, operating at a more subdued ('mellower'?) level than his previous work, which didn't bode well for the rest of the concert (happily, I was to be proved wrong). Even the fleet-fingered right-hand runs up the piano seemed more like Impressionistic excursions than white-hot flourishes.
Taylor and Oxley played two pieces, lasting in total about half an hour or 40 minutes (I forget exactly). They left the stage, and on came William Parker, a large, hulking figure (from a distance, a bit reminiscent of Mingus in build) dressed in a baseball cap and flamboyant multicoloured shirt. Hunching over his instrument, he gave a virtouso showcase of technical dexterity with a real sense of ebb and flow, of structure and emotional logic, even though this was total improvisation (albeit he probably mulled over his plan of action beforehand). Alternating plucked, forcefully rhythmic bursts with bowed passages exploring high, cello-like sonorities and harmonics, sliding from song-like melody to buzz-saw helicopter imitation to a sad, almost pitiful whine, hinting at a middle-Eastern cadence at one point, turning cavernous, playing with dynamics, fading in and out on an obsessively repeated figure, before ending it all with final plucked notes drifting away like a death knell...
What with the restrained nature of the Taylor/Oxley duo and the inevitable echoes of classical music you seem to get in a bass solo, you could be forgiven for thinking that this was a concert of modern classical music (though of course generic boundaries should not be too much of an issue when assessing Taylor - they are far more likely to end up as a stumbling block than an aid). With the final section, though, jazz elements came far more to the fore, in the main because of Braxton's presence. A shudder of excitement as Braxton finally comes onstage (having briefly appeared earlier to position his five or so saxophones), the eccentric professor with his scraggy necktie. Electronics seem to be used (Oxley?), though these are thankfully kept to a minimum. The atmosphere is hushed, expectant. Cecil creeps, elf-like, to the piano, and, hearing the sinister, primal sound of Braxton's contrabass clarinet, elects to pluck the piano strings rather than striking the keys. A cautious start - the musicians feeling their way, the music emerging gradually, the tension building as Braxton punctuates his subterranean rumblings with high pitched squeals, a chiaroscuro technique of extreme contrasts, while Parker bows away and Oxley flitters round the drum set. The contrabass clarinet is, one senses, somewhat unwieldy as a solo voice, yet for sound colour, for texture, it serves a valuable function.
As they feel their way, it strikes me what a disparate bunch of people these are, yet how they manage to interact so naturally, to create a unified sound pattern - Taylor, small, nimble, twitching, forever active, inquisitive; Parker hulking over the bass, his face obscured by his baseball cap, tearing up and down the bass with his fingers or gently gliding his bow over the strings; Oxley white-haired, inscrutable, barely moving, apart from his hands, which are engaged in a kind of circular dance round his drum kit; Braxton, only half his face visible behind the enormous instrument he's playing, eyes closed in an agony of concentration. That's the real glory of free improvisation, I suppose - the fact that individuals can create something that's both convincing as a whole, as a unit (hence the name Taylor used for his bands, the 'Cecil Taylor Unit'), and as a statement of their individual personalities and styles. A truly democratic music that doesn't sacrifice emotional content for such ideals, but puts them into practice with often extraordinary results.
The opening section of rumblings, enquiries, hesitancies, evolves into something more energised - Braxton switches to sopranino sax, inclining his head over to one side as Taylor moves from inside the piano to begin striking the keys, clearly inspired by the pianist's inventions as his runs begin to mimic Taylor's unstoppable note-flows. His playing becomes panic-stricken - a deranged, dying bird's screams as it flutters to death...or something more capricious than that, something even joyfully anarchic, impossible to pigeonhole - Oxley grins, his face finally betraying expression; Taylor looks over at him - a shared moment that betrays the high level of interaction these two have (which was somehow near-absent in their opening duo).
Braxton's moved on to alto - he never spends that long with one instrument, realising the nature of this music, which is of constant change, the possibility to go in any direction (or several at once...) without sacrificing flow or structure. It also shows how aware he is of texture, of the sound canvas the group is producing, and of how he can vary and alter this. He waits there, holding the instrument, eyes closed, nodding and shaking his head from side to side, immersed in what Taylor and the others are creating, waiting for the right moment to enter the fray. When he does, he produces a throaty, hard, almost baritone-like tone. A high-pitched whistling sound from an unknown source - electronics manipulated by Oxley, perhaps (these are often a feature of his solo performances). Braxton is now on soprano and the mood changes to one of introspection, Parker bowing instead of plucking his bass, Braxton's keening, melodic playing bringing out Taylor's innate melancholy lyricism.
He moves back to alto and the interaction between him and Taylor becomes clear, as he picks up on a melodic fragment tossed into the melting pot by the pianist one of his busy runs, expands on it and transforms it into something lyrical. Cecil insists on dialoguing with him, or beneath him - yet, as always, it's as much a dialogue with himself as with the other man, right and left hand existing as independent units, the left hand liberated from the supporting, chordal role it traditionally played in jazz, all part of Cecil's new conception of the soloist. Joe Zawinul's comment about Weather Report - "we always solo and we never solo" - could apply here, albeit in a slightly different way: in a sense, everyone is soloing at once, yet they are connecting to produce a convincing whole, and there is never a feel of egotism or showing-off flashy virtuosity. Taylor and Braxton are trilling; Braxton seems on the verge of playing a line from one of the standards he interprets in solo recitals - say, 'Round Midnight'. How this could be considered 'intellectual', 'forbidding' playing should be a mystery to anyone hearing this man play.
Slight reservations remain in my mind, impressive though this is – a feeling that Taylor and Braxton are interacting on an almost superficial level, focussing on call and response and exchanging motifs, rather than the more organic interaction of Taylor and Jimmy Lyons. It's hard to tell, and it's essentially subjective anyway - what's for sure is that even an inferior Taylor performance (by his standards), one that lacks that certain something his greatest work has, blows Polar Bear's first half set out of the water. This is truly on the edge - unpredictable, full of possibilities, of which only a few can be realised in one evening. A comment Elvin Jones once made about John Coltrane is relevant to this gig - it's like these men are sitting on a mountain of ideas and several flake off every few seconds.
After a more boisterous passage, the music quietens again - preparation, as it turns out, for the final assault. Oxley taps his drum, diminuendo...shhh, shhh, shhh...Patterns have started to emerge, fitting into the ritualistic element introduced by Taylor's and Oxley's initial entrances on stage: Braxton and Taylor throw lines and melodies at each other, the rhythm section going full pelt, before subsiding into calmer lyricism, Oxley dropping out, then surging up again as Braxton pauses, wipes his face with a large blue handkerchief, picks up a different instrument, stands there listening, then re-enters, his choice of notes both being shaped by and shaping the flow of the music...Maybe this is a system they worked out beforehand, backstage, in discussion, maybe it's more intuitive than that - whatever the case, it's utterly convincing, the music progressing like the rising and falling of the ocean tide.
Taylor suddenly solo - yes, yes, yes, he's found something - Braxton's nodding, bobbing, he knows it too - Parker plucks for his life. Oxley knows it - he's grinning, his hands moving more than ever, as if they have a life of their own. Taylor's runs won't stop, Braxton jumps into the stream of inspiration, his fingers fast, fierce, flinging off notes and sounds and colours...Whatever my reservations about what's come before, now I know, and they know that they've finally hit something, a sustained period of brilliance rather than the mere flashes seen previously - Braxton's circular breathing assault, the rhythm section boiling into a frenzy, Taylor inspired, his hands flying up and down the piano at near-superhuman speed....
Taylor ends it all with a short, sharp, dissonant chord. Inside me, a feeling both of elation at having witnessed such great music-making, and of regret at the fact that it was over. On the evidence of these last few minutes, if not the performance as a whole, the standing ovation the group received was well deserved - and where else in the world today could you find such music of such unadulterated sublimity, apart from under the fingers of Mr Cecil Taylor and Mr Anthony Braxton?