Sunday, June 19, 2016
I interviewed the Descendents this past Monday, the entire band at once, for this Rolling Stone feature (which also includes a premiere of their new video). This was a huge honor and an even bigger pleasure.
In this video, the band's drummer, Bill Stevenson, who produced a portion of Propagandhi's incredible 2009 album, Supporting Caste, calls this venerable Canadian punk group the "best band in the world." I basically agree with him. In terms of fully active touring and recording groups playing any kind of rock music and putting out new material with any regularity, my vote would go to Propagandhi as well. But only because the Descendents and their alter-ego band ALL aren't quite what I'd call "fully active" these days.
If you look at the past three-ish decades, though—a.k.a. my lifetime—I don't think any group aside from maybe Rush (with Ween a close third) has made more music that I value as much as the Descendents/ALL discography. In my relatively short feature, I tried to do justice to the way these twin bands unfussily incorporate the entire emotional spectrum in their work. (Something that Ween, of course, also excel at.) As Descendents age, their sad songs are only getting sadder, their silly ones if not more silly (it's hard to beat something like "I Like Food" in that department), at least more profoundly lighthearted. Joking around, in the Descendents' world, is a serious release.
I think the band's new album, Hypercaffium Spazzinate, is great. Same with the companion EP, Spazz Hazard. They may be part-time these days, but Descendents are still on a mission, their quest for all. A "legendary" band that keeps pushing, keeps creating, keeps redefining the aesthetic that earned them that status in the first place. A truly rare scenario, one to be toasted, celebrated, treasured. Long live 'em.
*2011 interviews with Bill Stevenson about Descendents/ALL and jazz, Black Flag, etc.
*My thoughts on the Descendents/ALL doc Filmage.
*DFSBP thoughts on ALL from nearly 10 years ago.
Saturday, June 04, 2016
My allegiance to the ongoing comedy universe of the State rivals the one I feel toward my favorite bands. The '93–'95 run of the group's original eponymous MTV show coincided almost exactly with my high-school years, which meant I fell right into the target demographic. I loved the show, and some of the classic sketches — "Taco Man," "Porcupine Racetrack," "The Bearded Men of Space Station 11," plus anything with Barry and Levon (the "$240 worth of pudding" guys), Doug ("I'm outta heeeere") or Louie ("I wanna dip my balls in it") — have stuck with me as much as anything from SNL, which I also watched religiously during the Mike Myers / Phil Hartman glory years.
The later spin-off output by various State members has made even more of an impression. Wet Hot American Summer is easily an all-time top 10 movie for me (the Netflix reboot did not disappoint), I worship all the Stella material, and I could watch David Wain's other directorial output (Wanderlust, the mindblowingly great They Came Together, the Wainy Days web series) pretty much on an infinite loop. It's some kind of primal wavelength thing: This comedy just speaks to me.
So when I heard about The Union of the State, a new oral history of the group and its various offshoot projects, spanning from the surprisingly high-stakes late-'80s NYU sketch-comedy scene that spawned the State up through to more or less the present-day, I ordered it pretty much immediately. The book is a whopping 600 pages, and I expected it to be a fun text to dip into — maybe check out a chapter at a time in-between other reads. But I knew within a few pages that I'd be reading it cover-to-cover. Simply put, this book is profound. All the facts and anecdotes are here — the stories behind all your favorite sketches; the behind-the-scenes account of the filming of Wet Hot, which is a must for any fan of the movie — but more importantly there's a larger, more universal narrative at work here: the story of what it means to live a creative life, of what happens — good, bad, ugly and just plain insane — when your passion becomes your profession. It's to the credit of the author, Corey Stulce, who, almost miraculously, self-published this remarkable book, that these larger themes don't feel at all forced. As with any great oral history, the narrative seems to sort of shape itself, but as I know firsthand (from putting together the far less extensive oral history I assembled for the beautiful Aqualamb-designed book that accompanies the craw box set), this is not the case. An oral history is a textbook illustration of the adage that "art is the concealment of art." You interview, yes, and then you transcribe. But then the real work begins, work that, if you're doing it right, leaves no trace in the final product.
I almost wish this book had existed when I was heading off to college. There is just so much useful knowledge here about the idea that if you want it to be, the thing you love to do the most can, in fact, become your career, if you work at it. Most of us experience college as a sort of dress rehearsal for life, the play-acting before the real meat of the action begins. What that often means in practice is that you follow your heart for four years — playing in bands, acting in plays, pledging allegiance to one campus cause/club/group/discipline or another — and then you sort of say goodbye to all that and go out into the world and get a "real job," i.e., one that has very little to do with what actually excites, motivates and inspires you.
We find that, almost to a person, the future members of the State were determined to buck this trend. From the time they split off from existing campus sketch group the Sterile Yak and formed the New Group, which would become the State, they were basically operating as professionals. At one point during college, Michael Showalter transferred to Brown and got involved with the improv-comedy group there. "I was amazed at how little rehearsal we did," he recalls. "I was blown away by how not seriously they took it, because with the New Group, it was life and death, and I wanted it that way." Ken Marino echoes the sentiment (emphasis mine): "We probably rehearsed more than we needed to. ... We just wanted it to be right. We wanted to get the music of the comedy right."
The narrative arc from there is part living-the-dream success story and part watching-that-dream-distort cautionary tale. David Wain found an in at MTV, and after an apprenticeship period on another program, the group, all 11 members, landed their a show on the network. They had more or less full creative control; they had their own office/playroom overlooking Times Square ("We pushed all the desks to the wall, and we taped off a four square, and we wound up playing naked four square from time to time," says Marino); they were shooting on a soundstage with a real crew. Kevin Allison (a.k.a. "the Red Head Gay")"is in some ways the book's underdog protagonist. He was a key member of the group but always felt excluded from the State's "power center" — which at different times included Robert Ben Garant, Thomas Lennon, Michael Ian Black, Wain and Marino — and like Joe Lo Truglio, after the collective splintered, he had trouble finding his way both in the industry and in life. But at the start, he was unabashedly wide-eyed: Allison's enthusiastic recounting of the State's initial breakthrough at MTV is priceless:
"To have access to costume departments, to people working on your hair and makeup, to have a staff helping you create these ridiculous scenarios that you otherwise had been working on for the past several years in college by going to thrift stores to pick stuff up, it was like being a kid in a candy shop. It just felt so exciting to be twenty-two years old and treated like a creator, being treated like artists, and having people wondering what they could do for you next to help you create this joke that you thought of."After a couple seasons' worth of glory, the classic years that all State fans remember so fondly, the group started to think about expanding its horizons. The idea, agreed upon by pretty much everyone, was that they would jump ship and head to a network. They left MTV, and after a tentative ABC deal fell through, they started a brief, ill-fated partnership with CBS that yielded only one barely seen late-night special. In the midst of all this, the group parted ways with longtime member Todd Holoubek. All of the above is depicted in the book as a sort of protracted, excruciating downfall/misstep, and parts of it are genuinely tough to get through, in an emotional sense. Nearly every member looks back on leaving MTV as a huge mistake:
Even harsher is the portrayal of Holoubek's exit. This phase was, to quote Blink-182, the group's "I guess this is growing up" moment, the point at which the principles of friendship and loyalty collided with the realities of business. See above re: "what happens when your passion becomes your profession," but there's also a "be careful what you wish for" aspect here, or to be less dramatic/moralistic about it, simply the idea that no matter what the endeavor, how closely related it is to your creative passion, there's always that cold-water moment of reality setting in. Garant recalls how other members of the group were questioning Holoubek's commitment:
"I just can't believe I was so stupid that I thought there was some upside to taking us to network TV. It shows how incredibly naïve we were and how cocky and arrogant because I legitimately thought that we would be a hit on network TV." —Lennon
"I remember not feeling supportive but being pretty angry that he was still there if he wasn't gonna commit to us one hundred percent. Not the most supportive friend mind but just a practical mind. I could tell that this wasn't what he was into anymore. We all kind of knew that, but he was coming from a place that was still this sort of 'friends doing this as a club.' It wasn't that anymore. It was a real job." —GarantIt gets better from there, but not before it gets worse. Lo Truglio describes how, while out drinking one night as the group was fraying, he had "a nervous breakdown, a legitimate one." Then a few members score a deal to make the show Viva Variety without the bulk of the group, a move that's seen as traitorous by some. The bad blood worsens.
There's a happy ending to all this, or rather, an assortment of happy endings. Many of the State crew reunite on the Wet Hot shoot, which all involved describe as blissful and idyllic and just generally a great hang. (This section reminded me a lot of the mood of Robert Altman sets evoked in Mitchell Zuckoff's incredible Oral Biography.) Lennon and Garant become a lucrative Hollywood screenwriting team. Allison starts his own successful podcast. Wain takes on the challenge of directing mainstream comedy vehicle Role Models. The whole group reunites for a triumphant performance at Tenacious D's Festival Supreme, where they debut new material and revive old favorites while poking fun at their own nostalgia. Here's Kerri Kenney-Silver on that show:
"I'm always just so concerned with the written, with the sketch and which wig I'm going to wear for this, and I forget that ninety percent of what's about to happen is that the audience is going to be involved. And that's a good thing, because you can't count on it in comedy. ... So it's always a pleasant surprise when they show up for you, and they're reacting in the way that you dreamed they would. I'd say that happened a million fold at that show."
There's so much surreality in this book, so many episodes that seem like fantasy experiences for the members of the group: the time Garant, Holoubek and director Michael Patrick Jann stopped in New Orleans during a roadtrip they took in the MTV show's heyday and ended up crashing Lollapalooza and holding court with State fans; the time the whole group went to the Bahamas, of all places, to record a comedy album that was shelved and only issued years later; the time Kenny-Silver started a band with her friend and eventually made an album produced by John Zorn. (I have to at least namecheck Craig Wedren, the Shudder to Think member and all-around avant-pop genius who also happens to be a lifelong friend of David Wain and the group's constant musical collaborator from their beginnings through the present day; throughout the book, he provides an entertaining and insightful outside perspective on the whole State circus.)
There's so much elation and heartbreak and bonding and splintering and closeness and wariness and praise and hurt feelings. And there is such a potent sensation of hard-won reward at the end, a reward that is still being paid out, the prize that you never quite receive in full but appreciate in fleeting moments like the one Kenney-Silver describes above. The moments not only when a given audience is "reacting in the way that you dreamed they would," when there's some external reinforcement and support and encouragement for what you have made, but also when you can quietly assess a project, especially a collaborative one, whatever that might be, when you can look back on it and say, simply, "We had an idea and we stuck to it and followed it through. And look where it led." Where it led for the members of the State was essentially to the founding of an entire school of comedy, an entire generation's worth of takes on how to be funny, now. A living family tree of humor, branching ever outward.
"One of the things that I think everybody feels, I know I do, is that when every one of us does well, it furnishes the larger legacy of the State," Black observes. "I think we all feel like there's this hometown that we come from, and we're all interested in the hometown getting its share of the glory."
We should all, anyone who's involved in any kind of creative work, be so lucky as to spring from this kind of core community, one that lasts, and that evolves, seeds, expands in ways you never could have predicted. All the truths of the State saga were there before, but Corey Stulce's project preserves them, interweaves them, underscores them, canonizes them, makes them public. As loving, selfless works of scholarship go — really the only ones worth undertaking, if you ask me — The Union of the State is a masterpiece, a gift not just to fans of these comedic masters but, I'd argue, to the artists themselves. Buy it, and laugh, and learn.
Monday, May 30, 2016
The above video is a handy summation of many of the traits I value in rock music. Right now, I'm fixating on the performance of "Chinese Fork Tie," which begins at 12:14. (The sound quality isn't the greatest, so if you're not familiar with the song — from Jawbox's 1996 self-titled album, which, incidentally, turns 20 in about a month — I recommend checking out the studio version too.) From the start, you'll notice that drummer Zach Barocas is absolutely murdering his kit, pounding out this sort of asymmetrically strutting beat, lurching but danceable. A field of guitar noise from Bill Barbot; Kim Coletta's sly bass line; J. Robbins' shouts and slogans, darting and weaving. The whole band snapping into a snarling pre-chorus riff at 12:52, rising up to the glorious convulsion at 13:05.
Abandon juxtaposed with style, swagger, superhuman control. If the band as a whole were a drum — and given the prominence of Barocas within the overall Jawbox mix, that's not so far off — it would be a snare cranked up to a super-high tension. Their music stretches over a precise grid, then pops, explodes. But there is always an idea of rigor, not just in the performance but in the song itself. The music has purpose, drive, concision, gloss and big, bold hooks. Rhythmic tricks — stabs, chokes, thrusts, syncopations — juxtaposed with the naked, earnest, yearning beauty of Robbins' voice. For Your Own Special Sweetheart is, for me, where the band reached its peak; the performance above draws mostly from that album and the self-titled, an album I love just a hair less. These records and this video are objects of fascination and pleasure for me, emblems of a variety of rock music that seems to give me everything I want at once: power, manifested in enormous, earthshaking groove; the skillful deployment of noise, the scribble that only makes the precision sketch underneath seem all that much more purposeful; and the painstakingly shaped hook.
And all with an attitude of "Let's get on with it; let's make this great." The '90s were a time when we, as listeners and/or music-makers, were being saddled with a sort of aesthetic guilt trip. The hand-wringing over "selling out." The Steve Albini and Ian MacKaye finger-wagging. (I want to point out here that I'm an enormous fan of the latter, particularly Fugazi, and a skeptic as regards the former; he's engineered a lot of records that I love but I find his shtick, whether manifested in interviews or in his own music, pretty tiresome at this point.) This idea of the "post-Nirvana major-label feeding frenzy." OK, so maybe this system did chew up great bands and spit them out, but the fact of the matter is that certain of these bands realized their fullest potential via the major-label system.
To me, the bands most emblematic of what I'll call the genius of post-hardcore, the prime exponents of, to borrow a song title from Jawbox, this cruel swing — the bands best exemplifying the ruthlessness and the sensuality, the ferocity and the funk of this bold new aesthetic — were Jawbox, Quicksand and Helmet. And the albums on which each of these bands reached full flower, respectively, were major-label ones: the aforementioned For Your Own Special Sweetheart (Atlantic, 1994), Slip (Polydor, 1993) and Betty (Interscope, 1994). Three gleaming, slick triumphs with the bite intact. Beefed-up yet not defanged. Three albums that, quite simply, wipe the floor with the independent output that preceded it: Jawbox's Novelty (Dischord), Quicksand's self-titled EP (Revelation) and Helmet's Strap It On (Amphetamine Reptile). (Note: Meantime, Helmet's excellent major-label debut and the album that, to use '90s parlance, "broke" them, came in between Strap and Betty.) Novelty and Strap It On are each awesome albums, brimming with energy and potential, but for this listener, they're only appetizers for the entrée to come.
All three of those original labels — Dischord, Revelation, AmRep — are long-enshrined institutions of the American underground. It's always been cooler to say you liked bands like this back when, before they played 120 Minutes, before they posed for stylish promo photos and shot arty, dated-on-arrival videos, or went out with actresses. (And not all bands weathered the transition as well as the ones mentioned above; with all due respect to the band members' own assessments in Book, I think the Jesus Lizard did their best work before they signed to Capitol.) But the fact of the matter is that the aesthetics of certain bands benefited hugely from the major-label treatment, from almost cartoonishly huge production sounds, from a certain, again, gleaming slickness that only seemed to magnify the inherent grit, nastiness and soul of the music itself.
Quicksand, "Lie and Wait":
All three of these bands (and their fans) were blessed with extraordinary drummers, players who were essentially big-wallop funk specalists, equally invested in piledriving power and stylish groove. Barocas, Quicksand's Alan Cage and Helmet's justly celebrated John Stanier each contributed hugely to the durability of their respective bands' discographies. (It's no wonder that each was a huge inspiration to me when I started learning the instrument roughly 21 years ago, or that each remains a gold standard / basic-food-group staple today.) The frontmen — Robbins, the hugely underrated Walter Schreifels and Page Hamilton — were also brilliant, each in their own idiosyncratic ways, but each equally adept at barking or crooning, or, in Schreifels' case, doing a bit of both at the same time. I can sing every song from every one of these albums.
As the '90s wore on, these bands, and many of their contemporaries, would break up or shed crucial members. Major-label post-hardcore albums became a sort of in-joke among those who continued to frequent used-CD stores, where they were always in abundant supply. The cover art and the fonts looked dated; the song titles maybe a bit cheesy; and the CD booklets, filled with names of management, publicists and fancy legal teams now seemed like relics of a bubble waiting to burst.
But the music remains as bright, forceful and wildly enjoyable as ever. These bands dared to take an underground form and hone it, polish it, to see how big, bold and ballsy it might become. The best of the music that resulted is post-hardcore, turbo-charged, the sound of potential being fulfilled in a way that never would've been possible on Dischord or AmRep. Sure, it couldn't last — I'll be the first to admit that the respective follow-ups to Jawbox, Slip and Betty are each, in their own way, less satisfying than what came before — but for a moment there, these bands had it all, unifying the spirit of the underground with the tools of the mainstream. Uncompromised, unfettered and most of all unabashed, this music will probably always speak to me, loud and clear.
A few other great major-label post-hardcore albums:
Shudder to Think, 50,000 B.C. (Epic, 1997)
Dischord labelmates of Jawbox, and like Jawbox, they did their best work in the major-label realm. Pony Express Record is an obvious classic, but I find myself more often reaching for the lesser-known follow-up, which heads in a glammier direction but still has that essential crunch.
Clutch, Transnational Speedway League: Anthems, Anecdotes and Undeniable Truths (Eastwest, 1993)
Another master drummer, Jean-Paul Gaster, coming into his own here. Monster grooves, quirky humor and plenty of hardcore-derived badassery/swagger. This album is a total delight. Clutch would head to a lot of interesting places after this, but in some ways, they never topped Transnational.
Into Another, Seemless (Hollywood, 1995)
Quicksand's former Revelation labelmates were always aiming at a huge, anthemic sound, and they achieved it on this great yet ill-fated outing. The rumbling bass, the soaring vocals — Seemless represents the unabashed quality I'm describing above in full flower.
See also my post on the interrelated "BP/progressive-grunge" school.
A lot of the above applies to the world of metal as well. Some of my very favorite metal albums of the period — Carcass' Heartwork, Morbid Angel's Covenant and Domination, even something like Melvins' Houdini — were the work of former underground kings flaunting their major-label-abetted polish and girth.
Tuesday, May 24, 2016
I had a great time interviewing Robert Glasper about his new Miles Davis remix album, Everything's Beautiful—which stemmed from his work on Don Cheadle's Miles Ahead film—and a bunch of other stuff (Prince, Erykah Badu, Kamasi Washington, etc.). It's been a little while since I've done an in-depth Q-and-A, so this was a total pleasure.
I'll admit I initially regarded both Everything's Beautiful and Miles Ahead with some wariness. There are honestly not a lot of remixes, tributes, etc. that mean all that much to me—I tend to prefer it when influence and inspiration manifest themselves in less straightforward ways. But I do think there's some great material on Everything's Beautiful, particularly the tracks that sample Miles' voice (e.g., "Talking Shit," built around several remarkable minutes of Davis studio chatter, presumably from this session, during which he's playfully getting on Joe Chambers' case), the Erykah Badu "Maiysha" and the track "Violets," which features a Bill Evans piano sample from a "Blue in Green" false start. Overall, it's a very lush, listenable album with a coherent through-line.
I liked Miles Ahead less. Picking up on my comment above about remixes and tributes: I guess, in the end, I'm a primary-source guy. Mainly what I want to engage with is a) the music itself and b) what the people who made it said about it. I'd have a tough time naming a biopic that I felt illuminated the work of the artist in question; mostly I feel like the genre invites caricature, and I don't think Miles Ahead transcends that tendency. I didn't feel like it was some kind of sacrilege—Cheadle's performance is strong, and there are some funny and poignant moments sprinkled in. I also think the movie makes a very good case for '70s Miles functioning as the perfect action-movie music. In the end, though, I'm just not sure what the movie contributes to the Miles Davis legacy. For me, the best side effect was that it sent me back to the music, specifically the amazing '70s material on discs 3 and 4 of The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4, which has been blowing my mind lately.
But really Miles Ahead just made me yearn for a serious, full-on Miles documentary. So many of his collaborators are still around, and there's just so much footage. Could be a beautiful thing. I realize that this desire places me squarely in the camp that Don Cheadle was not aiming to please—and was maybe even aiming to piss off—with Miles Ahead, but I'm just being honest.
Back to Glasper for a second. I've had his 2015 album Covered on heavy rotation in recent months. I like the Black Radio albums—I heard one over the speakers in a Mexican restaurant the other day, and I loved how it sounded in a public setting—but the trio with Vicente Archer and Damion Reid speaks to me more directly. I'd enjoyed Covered last year but totally forgot about it in the year-end rush. Spinning it over and over recently made me realize how fundamentally arbitrary the year-end list thing is. Anyway, the following (filmed during the recording of Covered) needs no commentary; it's just gorgeous.
Also, don't sleep on Glasper's earlier, shockingly great trio with Derrick Hodge and Chris Dave.
Friday, May 20, 2016
A few weeks back, Mark Richardson published a compelling, comprehensive Pitchfork feature titled "New York Is Killing Me: Albert Ayler's Life and Death in the Jazz Capital." Ayler's story, those few meteoric years of passionate genius followed by a still-mysterious drowning in the East River, lends itself especially well to mythologization. It is, essentially, the archetypal Jazz Myth: the ballad of an artist whose vision is too pure to survive in a cold, racist society.
Ayler's story is especially potent, both because the music he left is so heartbreakingly intense and also because he died so young (34, shockingly, the same age at which Charlie Parker died, succumbing to self-abuse, yes, but also to those same societal forces that ground down Ayler). His story ends with a tragedy straight out of darkly romantic fiction. And many jazz lovers—and especially free-jazz lovers—though we admit it or not, relish such tales because they uphold the idea of a brief, glorious flourishing that was simply too brilliant to last. (It is Coltrane's story too, in many ways.)
Zeroing in on the so-called avant-garde, we have this golden age, lasting just a few years—roughly 1964 through 1970—and famously documented in New York by ESP-Disk, in Paris by Actuel. Many of the musicians who made these treasured albums are dead, but regardless of whether or not they literally survived the period, with very few exceptions (Milford Graves, the late Paul Bley), their work is frozen—again, in the manner of myth—in that time. ESP's stark, striking black-and-white album covers form the visual pantheon, the wall of memory.
Again, though, some musicians made it out alive. Many expatriated: Sunny Murray, Steve Lacy. Some stuck it out in NYC, either with dignity (Graves) or in the shadows (Giuseppi Logan). Cecil Taylor is perhaps the great survivor of them all; his middle-class background always seemed to keep him a bit above the fray, at least in the literature, though he clearly paid his dues for decades, and also predated (and ultimately transcended) the period and scene described above. There are so many others, lesser-known. Clifford Allen and John Rogers are two journalists who have made a concerted effort to track down artists of this generation in their later years and preserve their stories. I have tried to do my part, with Cleve Pozar and others.
Denis A. Charles: an interrupted conversation from Veronique Doumbe on Vimeo.
I have all this on the brain because I just watched Denis A. Charles: An Interrupted Conversation. The film, an excellent, moving documentary by Véronique N. Doumbé, equal parts heartwarming and -breaking, tells the story of a drummer—another musician killed, in some sense, by New York—who lived through all of the above and contributed to it significantly. He appeared on Cecil Taylor's earliest recordings; he anchored Lacy and Roswell Rudd's semi-legendary "School Days" Monk repertory band. He recorded with Gil Evans and, apparently, Sonny Rollins. And then he entered the shadow zone, the realm of drugs, occasional homelessness, intermittent musical joy.
Doumbé's film tells of the story of the final chapter of his life, and what I love about it, why I think it's essential viewing for anyone who has ever derived joy from free jazz, or jazz in general, or even simply black and/or American music, is that it refuses to settle for any pat narrative. The filmmaker clearly sympathizes with Charles' plight, such as it was. She delves into his poignant backstory: Caribbean upbringing; abandoned, along with his brother, the percussionist Frank "Huss" Charles, by his father at an early age; smacked in the face, almost literally, with "that racist shit" after an idyllic, color-blind childhood. Then he's on the scene in Harlem: soaking up bebop in real time, idolizing Art Blakey, and by the mid-'50s, recording Cecil Taylor's debut album in Boston, even (according to Steve Lacy, one of many Charles contemporaries who offer fascinating commentary in the film) sitting in with Thelonious Monk. And then, drugs, not to mention a shameful robbery of an older neighborhood woman, which landed him in jail. And music, and drugs, and fatherhood, and love, and homelessness. More love, more drugs, more music, repeated and shuffled.
We see Charles the performer. Raw, sweaty, enthralling performances with Susie Ibarra, Billy Bang, Borah Bergman; Charles's stunning late trio with Thomas Borgmann and bassist Wilber Morris; Charles playing on piers, in schoolyards, in tiny clubs; Charles, playing brushes, accompanying singer-pianist Rick Dellaratta with poetic simplicity. Charles the absolute earthy master of his instrument, the prophet of WoodSkinMetal, the absolute essence of percussion, tapping out elemental rhythms on the table, explaining the affinity between Caribbean grooves and the jazz cymbal pattern, playing with an odd fist-oriented right-hand grip on a ride tilted eccentrically away from him, as he sits way high up on his stool. Charles the disciple but also peer of the great Ed Blackwell—two players who gave the (again so-called) avant-garde some of its deepest buoyance and bounce. Swing would be too reductive a term for what these men brought to the music. It's a pulse of life, really. Pure earth.
So An Interrupted Conversation gives us all this, but crucially, unlike so much Free Jazz Myth, it doesn't just give us the personal glory and tragedy of a master musician. It also gives us the other side. The feminine side, specifically, via extended interviews with women who were essentially Charles's common-law wives at various periods: Melanie MacLennan and Gabriella Sonam. Women who gave him love and shelter and support—and, in the latter's case, a beautiful daughter—and who, for various reasons, found him impossible to live with. Sonam at one point talks, matter-of-factly and without self-pity, about how her own artistic pursuits fell by the wayside when her and Charles's daughter, Arkah, was born, but how Charles's art just kept going. She questions her own devotion to her creative path and seems to exalt his, but what she's really saying, again, without the slightest sense of bitterness or harangue, is that she slowed down and took on the basically responsibilities of parenthood while Charles pursued his muse around the world, touring with Jemeel Moondoc and others, but mostly just scraping by. Doumbé's film makes you think about how many hallowed yet troubled musicians were essentially propped up by their selfless companions, whose stories have mostly gone untold. That Doumbé takes the time to tell not just Charles's story, but the story of the domestic world, the family that he wrought through his genius, yes, but also through his disease on one hand and his self-admitted immaturity on the other, is extremely commendable.
Here we get a very rare telling of the Whole Jazz Story, not just the easy myth. Denis Charles lived on. And he made great music. And he also, at times, made a mess of his life and of the lives of those close to him. In the film's many interviews with him, you see his charm and his b.s. alike.
(At one fascinating point, he brings the critics and historians into the fray, calling out Val Wilmer for calling him out as a drug addict in her crucial free-jazz chronicle As Serious as Her Life; as a fan of that book, I struggled with this, but I appreciate that complex view—did Charles have this portrayal coming? And yet, was it Wilmer's place to make these private details public?)
The contemporaries and the survivors are also here. Archie Shepp, maybe the most trenchant, witty, learned, knowing social commentator jazz has ever seen—I'm honored to have interviewed him; I need to dig up the rest of that transcript—summing up with no-bullshit flourish the complex societal forces that helped shape the NYC scene of the '60s and beyond. We get, for example, a particularly powerful Shepp diatribe against black artists and athletes who achieve fame and fortune but don't give back to their communities: "Maybe that's the whole thing with capitalism: The final solution to the Negro Problem is a certain brainwashing of the Negro, so he has no context between what's been done to him and what's going on right now." Here's Shepp on the Denis Charles / Cecil Taylor partnership:
"You have to remember, Cecil was from a middle-class neighborhood in Long Island... But Denis was from the nitty-gritty, baby... Cecil was really playing a concept that pretty much had to do with his ambience as a middle-class black. He had studied Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff; he knew the whole classical tradition. And Denis... really didn't give a fuck."And Frank Lowe, a man whose music and story, alluded to in the introduction to Ben Ratliff's The Jazz Ear, I need to know better:
"Sometimes I think it's a known fact that we are not paid enough money because certain forces know that we're gonna play this music whether we get money for it or not, you understand? And to some extent, we're taken complete advantage of, you dig? And to another extent, it's our gift to the world, so it don't matter."This is Frank Lowe sitting on a park bench in "modern times," not in a bygone, mythologized '60s. This is Denis Charles sleeping in a doorway in an East Village of just a few years prior to the one I would live in circa 2002. This is urgent; this is now.
This is not just a "whatever happened to..." tale about a great drummer who dropped off the scene. This is a portrait of a man who was done wrong to, and who did wrong, and who did right, and who left something beautiful and also a trail of perplexity and elegiac fondness. We, the (mostly, it must be said, white, comfortably middle-class) fans, the ones who have benefited so immeasurably from Charles' and Lowe's and all the other greats' "gift to the world" are all complicit in all of this. And I thank Véronique N. Doumbé for sitting us down and immersing us in the whole 360-degree view—as well as MacLennan and Sonam and Lowe and Shepp and Huss Charles and Joel Forrester and Didier Levallet and Roxane Butterfly and Elliott Levin and Bobby Few and on and on—and reminding us that it's not just the music. It's never just that.
Along with the outstanding School Days, one of my favorite Denis Charles recordings is the Steve Lacy album Capers, reissued (though truncated) as N.Y. Capers and Quirks. Charles' jovial bounce is the perfect match for Lacy's lovably demented, angular themes. (The Flame, another Lacy/Charles trio set, filled out by the sublime Bobby Few, is also highly recommended.)
I have Queen Mary on its way to me in the mail—shout-out to Silkheart, one of the most crucial labels of the '80s and beyond. Eremite's Captain of the Deep, released on the day Charles died, is an outstanding document of his later years. I'm dying to obtain Wilber Morris' Collective Improvisations and the jointly credited After the Demon's Leaving, which pair him, respectively, with Frank Lowe and the great Charles Tyler (with whom Charles was set to tour on the eve of Tyler's death, a sad tale recounted in the Doumbé doc), and I need to get familiar with the Borgmann trio as well, e.g., this Not Two release.
To any Denis Charles fans reading this, what are your favorite DC documents?
Friday, April 29, 2016
Chances are, if you're reading this, you wouldn't have too much trouble humming 10 or so compositions by Duke Ellington (whose birthday is today!) on command, just about that many by Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus, and probably double that by Thelonious Monk. Ditto at least a handful by Charlie Parker and Wayne Shorter, maybe even a few by Andrew Hill or Henry Threadgill or Pat Metheny. But could you hum even one by Cecil Taylor?
An easy answer would be something like, "But he's a composer in a different class..." True, to some extent. But then we have something as direct (and great) as this:
Much like Cecil Taylor, the pianist, or Cecil Taylor, the poet, Cecil Taylor, the composer, is far too massive a creative spirit to be contained by any shorthand characterization.
The idea of who Cecil Taylor is as a composer has fascinated me for a long time. It's an idea that's clear in my mind but so very hard to quantify. He wrote—the term seems inadequate to describe what he achieved with his various Units; maybe "enacted" or "animated" is more apt—music as great as any of the figures above. But it's music that, in its totality, is generally much harder to grasp, and much more elusive than the great, memorable tunes composed by Ellington/Strayhorn, Monk, Ornette, etc. The below is my attempt to make some kind of sense of it all.
Having read a good deal of Taylor's thoughts on the subject of composition, I would go so far as to say that the idea of Cecil Taylor is as a composer has fascinated him, too—or maybe "plagued him" would be a better way of putting it. If you have time, I strongly recommend giving this transcript of a 1964 panel discussion involving Taylor and composer Hall Overton a close read, but for now:
[The example at hand is Lennie Tristano's 1949 "free" piece "Intuition," as compared to the works of Duke Ellington.]The topic is also covered extensively in the invaluable chapter on Taylor—probably the best single biographical/journalistic resource on CT that we have seen, or ever will see—in A.B. Spellman's Four Lives in the Bebop Business. I could excerpt about 20 pages here, but here are just a few passages that seem relevant to the discussion at hand:
Overton: What was the difference between what Duke and what Lennie did? Duke wrote it out, didn’t he?
Taylor: Oh…That’s another problem. What difference does that make? The only thing that we know about—the only thing that the listener knows about—is the sounds that he hears. I don’t think it makes any difference that the sound is notated because the symbol doesn’t make the music. It is the men striking the instruments, striking the pieces of wood or whatever. It's the sound that we're confronted with, not the symbol. Because in other cultures they don't use our symbols, but they make music, they make sounds.
Overton: I would disagree on that one point because I would make a distinction, Cecil, between an idea that's improvised and that just occurs at the moment, and an idea that is already arrived at, preconceived.
Taylor: How can an idea come, you know, into being without certain things happening? I mean, if you write a composition—all the great composers that you were talking about which happened to be in a particular school—all the great composers have been improvisors…
Overton: That's right.
Taylor: Now, the only difference is that certain people wish to notate their improvisations. That’s all. And other people improvise—now what does that mean? It simply means that these people who choose to improvise utilize certain physical things in their characteristics and and transpose them to the instruments and, after a certain amount of years, these things take shape in a form…Like the Charlie Parker expression. He uses certain material, certain forms if you will, and he brings these to like his improvisations.
"Stockhausen's menagerie of effects was, when they were translated [from a complex score, i.e.], just musical sounds, the way the notes you read from a Bach thing are musical sounds. In jazz, the cats don't waste their visual energy. They don't divide themselves, and they should divide themselves even less. You look at the instrument and you spend your energy creating sound with the instrument."
"I've talked to British intellectuals, and they can tell you about Shakespeare, man... But they don't seem to understand that there's another English language, American, which has nothing to do with the King's English...
"But when you start talking to the people about what music is about, why, just what is it that makes Horowitz' touch superior, then I don't know on the basis of what presumption they're going to talk about Monk's limited technique. It always comes out to, 'Well, we've got this tradition' or some shit like that. I have a tradition, and my tradition informs me the way theirs informs them..."
"I've had musicologists ask me for a score to see the pedal point at the beginning of that piece. They wanted to see it down on paper to figure out its structure, its whole, but at that point I had stopped writing my scores out. I had found that you get more from the musicians if you teach them the tunes by ear, if they have to listen for changes instead of reading them off the page, which again has something to do with the whole jazz tradition, with how the cats in New Orleans at the turn of the century made their tunes."It would be close to impossible to sum up all the issues raised in the quotes above, but for shorthand's sake: Taylor is essentially railing against cultural and musicological racism, the idea that the European classical tradition, with its emphasis on uniform technique and music written on paper, is inherently superior to the black American one, driven by improvisation and the practice of learning by ear—and, I should add, laying out the absurdity of that position with unique force and wit. In the Spellman chapter, Taylor, despite his own sturdy background in European classical music, makes it clear that he would much rather be associated with the Ellingtons and Horace Silvers of the world. (Not to mention the James Browns: "...when James Brown goes into his thing ... it's like a complete catharsis. ... Every fucking thing goes and there ain't no holding back. And it's beautiful. That's the technique of rhythm-and-blues singing, man, and no academy but the genuine tradition of a people can give it to you.") But, crucially, he doesn't want that association to ghettoize him as inherently non-"traditional" or non-schooled. Whether he's writing his music down or not, whether he's playing "jazz" or "classical," whether he's "improvising" or composing with paper (which, in his mind, may very well be the same thing), he wants to be considered—and he wants his black peers and forebears to be considered—as a serious composer, full stop.
Amen to that, of course.
[Note: Henry Threadgill has a lot to say on this general topic.]
But if I may just set aside the racial and cultural issues surrounding the idea of what a composer is, I'd like to come back to my initial rhetorical question: How many Cecil Taylor tunes can you hum? I'll leave that inquiry open, but I'll note some interesting trivia, for the record:
Cecil Taylor has been active as a pianist and composer for more than 60 years, and has released dozens upon dozens of recordings. In that time, his compositions have been recorded by other artists on, by my count, less than five occasions. Two would be ex-Taylor sideman Steve Lacy's recordings of "Louise" (published as "Little Lees" on CT's 1959 Love for Sale album) and "Air" (from 1960's The World of Cecil Taylor) on his 1961 album The Straight Horn of Steve Lacy, and, 40 years later, the Vandermark 5's recording of one of the themes from "Conquistador" (from the album of the same name) on their Free Jazz Classics set. Scanning Discogs, there are a couple other examples but none as straightforward.
I'm tempted to ask aloud why that is. At least one reason is simply that, seemingly, Cecil's music is meant for him to play, and is meticulously taught to his sidemen via the process described above, wherein Taylor is not just the author of his music, passively handing his sidemen a score, but is more accurately the teacher or reciter or oracle of it, teaching it to them by example in a sort of painstaking yet lovingly parental way. (Another reason Spellman's chapter is so great is because we get to hear directly from Sunny Murray, Jimmy Lyons, Buell Neidlinger and Archie Shepp what that's like; here's Shepp: "Cecil has returned to natural music. At that point, Cecil stopped writing his music out and started to teach the cats the tunes by ear. He would play the line, and we would repeat it. That way we got a more natural feeling for the tune and we got to understand what Cecil wanted.") I could of course be misreading the situation, but to me, CT doesn't seem terribly concerned with his music living in standard literature the way that the contributions of many of the artists named in the first paragraph above have. It's meant for him and his inner circle alone.
But another reason might be, and this is the real crux of where I was hoping to go with this piece, that concrete examples of Cecil Taylor, the composer, are relatively hard to come by on record—and I emphasize the word "relatively"; no absolutes intended here—especially after a certain juncture in his career (let's use 1978 as the point of demarcation).
Please understand, I'm using "composer" in a very straightforward and, I'm fully prepared to admit, facile sense. I have to admit that I side with Hall Overton somewhat in the 1964 debate. To me, composition is different from improvisation—very, very different. Not better; there's no hierarchy implied here. But yes, I would argue that creating in the moment, such as we heard Cecil Taylor and his collaborators do last Saturday at the Whitney, is a very, very, very different phenomenon from what you hear Cecil Taylor and his collaborators doing on the 1961 recording of "Pots" embedded near the top of this post.
To me, composition implies clear themes and clear arrangements, period, indicated by moments in an ensemble performance where you can hear a band playing, to use an extremely reductive term, a song. ("Theme" or "line" or "figure" would do just as well—really just a shorthand for an "intelligible nugget of composed musical information.") "Pots" is a song, the same way "Billie's Bounce" or "Evidence" or "In a Sentimental Mood" is. The same is true of countless Cecil Taylor compositions recorded between 1955 and 1978. Basically, throughout the Jimmy Lyons era, and on some select occasions afterward, you can hear Cecil's bands playing tightly arranged, obviously rehearsed music. (The presence or absence of a physical score is, as Taylor has often pointed out, beside the point; the point, at least as I see, is whether or not the band is working off some sort of predetermined compositional model that manifests in a kind of group arrangement that is distinct from straightforward improvisation, however dialed-in and cohesive that improvisation may be.) But from the '80s on, these occasions are rarer and rarer, and as a listener, this fact has always perplexed me a bit. I adore, for example, to put it broadly, Cecil's European work from '88 on, especially the overwhelming tactile thunder of the Feel Trio and its offshoots. But the Feel Trio did not do this:
The arrangement of "Petals," as a breathing organic thing is breathtaking to behold. This music moves like no other music. You have Cecil setting up these spiky, declarative intro figures and the band answering him with staggered fanfares. There is a kind of band intelligence at work here—the language is internalized, the "score" (again, not in the physical sense; I mean more the procedure or the method) is encoded so that the music can sort of auto-arrange. The chaos elements, in this case the piano and the drums, can exist in perfect harmonious tension with the ensemble themes.
This music is not the slightest bit "free," but it's also completely unorthodox, outside of traditional jazz or classical time and structure. It's clearly the kind of thing you only get to with intense, sustained group rehearsal. As I suggest above, this band is breathing the Cecil Taylor compositional method in and out of its collective lungs.
Cecil's bands in the mid-to-late '70s achieved a breathtaking degree of ensemble cohesion. I'd argue that this period, documented on Dark to Themselves (which features the same lineup of Taylor, Lyons, David S. Ware, Raphe Malik and Marc Edwards heard on the UMich recording of "Petals" above) and the rich flowering of 1978 recordings with Taylor, Lyons, Malik, Ramsey Ameen, Sirone and Ronald Shannon Jackson, represents the apex of Taylor as a composer and bandleader. (You'll want to read Phil Freeman on the '78 band, and watch Malik discuss his early encounters with Taylor.) Live in the Black Forest, in particular, is equally as staggering as "Petals" above.
That kind of auto-arrangement I mentioned before is in full effect here. In this and many other CT performances spanning the '60s and '70s, you hear Jimmy Lyons taking a sort of captain's or conductor's role, stating these gorgeous, dancing melodic figures that punctuate the ensemble statements and seem to cue and dictate the band's motion. The other players echo him, flank him, fall in behind him. Again, the tension of a fluid group sound clashing with the rumbles and swells of piano and drums. The music is playing itself.
One reason I treasure the 1961 recordings of "Bulbs," "Pots" and "Mixed" (collected on Gil Evans's Into the Hot and later the Impulse twofer Mixed) is because they have that similar hermetic cohesion; everything you hear on "Petals" and "The Eel Pot" above is here on "Mixed"—one could say in embryonic form, but then again, the Into the Hot recordings are in no way underdeveloped.
It's hard for me to get my head around how good this is. You hear all this talk of Third Stream, of jazz/classical fusion, whatever you want to call it. Taylor had it all down in '61. (Bill Dixon would pick up the thread on '67's awesome Intents and Purposes.) Trumpeter Ted Curson has the Taylor concept nailed, as does Captain Lyons, already playing the "section leader" role—listen to his heartbreaking line at 1:20—and the magisterial Archie Shepp, who knew how to inject old-school romance and swagger into even the weirdest settings. The swing begins around 2:45, Taylor setting up a sort of musical carousel that he can scamper on and around.
The Into the Hot recordings represent Taylor at his most Ellingtonian, painting for ensemble, juxtaposing lush creations of his pen (whether they're written down or not) with the inspired madness of his and his sidemen's improvisations. These three pieces ("Bulbs," "Pots" and "Mixed") represent a kind of road not taken for CT; his compositional sense would flower but it would never again be this orderly and lush and sort of romantic, for lack of a better term. I guess, again, it's really "Ellingtonian" that I'm looking for here, though there are of course parallels with Mingus' Elington-inspired works such as Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. I wish we had many, many more examples of Taylor in his full-flower Into the Hot "Jazz Composer" mode. I bet if we did, we'd see many, many more examples of other artists covering Cecil Taylor.
But as we see with the '76–'78 recordings, CT moved along to something even more personal. And of course we have the famed '66 Blue Note recordings—which, though great, I can't help but, given my obsession with what came before and after, view as transitional, a checkpoint in between the glories of '61 and '76–'78. Still, Conquistador!, especially, is a staggeringly great album, one in which the ensemble behavior of '76–'78, the breathing, the auto-arrangement, is already very much in evidence.
After 1978, Cecil Taylor ensemble recordings that exhibit the alertness, cohesion, poise, command, intrigue, spark, magic, what have you, of classics such as the Into the Hot material, Conquistador!, Dark to Themselves, Live in the Black Forest, The Cecil Taylor Unit, 3 Phasis, etc. are rarer. Again, I'm a huge Feel Trio fan. Huge. But the Feel Trio is not where you hear the fullness of Cecil Taylor's creative genius. On the aforementioned classics, you hear Taylor the deep-feeling, deep-thinking, exacting-but-not-restrictive composer and his mind-meld link with his ensemble players, as well as Taylor the hair-raising, pugilistic yet extraordinarily dynamic and agile improviser. On the Feel Trio recordings, you hear mostly the latter—I think of Berlin '88, out of which the Taylor/Oxley collaboration grew, as sort of a "Beat the Champ!" scenario, in which the European scene's finest free-improvising drummers, e.g., Bennink, Sommer, Lovens, enter the ring one-by-one to trade blows with the visiting U.S. knockout king—with the added bonus of William Parker and Tony Oxley being some of the most sympathetic pure-improv partners Taylor has ever performed with.
(The Taylor/Lyons trio recordings of '62 and '73—released on the Nefertiti, the Beautiful One Has Come and Akisakila, the former with Sunny Murray and latter with Andrew Cyrille—represent an interesting midpoint between the two poles discussed above. The former in particular is an absolutely essential document that foreshadows some of the magical cohesion and chemistry of '66 and beyond, esp. as concerns the Taylor/Lyons hook-up, but both recordings are more about long-form small-group improv than they are about Taylor's compositional and bandleading vision.)
Again, I emphasize that my statements above about the general nature of post-'78 Cecil are generalizations. There are, of course, select other examples of the aforementioned spark/fullness to be found after that glorious period. Winged Serpent (Sliding Quadrants) is a beautifully recorded 1985 little-big-band album that exhibits many of the qualities of the best CT group recordings named above. I don't know the full backstory behind this hybrid American/European band—labeled as Segments II (Orchestra of Two Continents)—but you can tell they put in some serious rehearsal time:
Alms/Tiergarten: Spree is another extraordinary album—this time recorded with all European players, as part of the spectacular '88 Berlin blowout (Destination Out and Seth Colter Walls have you covered there)—maybe the best available recording of Cecil directing a true big-band-style ensemble. Grand, majestic themes ripple through the performance like weather events, as Taylor and drummer Han Bennink run glorious interference. CT Organic Auto-Arrangement at its finest. Again, rehearsals for this music must have been intensive.
Melancholy, recorded in '90 in Berlin and released in '99, seems like a sort of sequel to Alms. I'm just digging into this album for the first time, but it's obvious that this is an extraordinary example of biggish-band Cecil, and perhaps even a slightly sharper set than Alms, jam-packed with gripping themes and ominous dynamics, which is interesting given that the ensemble is made up mostly of unknown players—though, interesting to note the presence of Finnish soprano saxist Harri Sjöström, who played with Cecil twice at the Whitney and also appears on various '90s- and 2000s-era CT recordings, including the excellent Qu'a. (Evan Parker seems to be the one holdover from Alms.) Though we do get the treat of hearing the Taylor / Tony Oxley duo—as well as the Taylor / Oxley / Parker / Barry Guy quartet that recorded the astonishing Nailed just a few days before Melancholy was recorded—embedded within the Taylor orchestral concept.
My first impression of Owner of the River Bank, a 2000 set that teams Cecil with the Italian Instabile Orchestra is that it's very similar to Alms in approach but muddier-sounding and less confidently executed. Still, though: definite moments of CT compositional intrigue here. (On a first listen, I feel roughly similarly about Legba Crossing, a large-ensemble Berlin '88 offering on which Cecil does not play piano, though I'm digging the ritualistic percussion and voice episodes.) Re: other instances of CT working in this format, I recall missing at least one Taylor orchestra run at Iridium in NYC. Would love to hear from anyone who caught that group!
(Note: Alms and Melancholy sound similar to what I heard at Ben Young's fascinating 4/23/16 CT listening session at the Whitney, in which he played various unreleased Taylor recordings, specifically a sampling of early-'70s student-band tapes from, I believe, Antioch College, where Cecil was then in residence. Apparently tons of rehearsal recordings exist from this period, documenting a sort of CT intensive workshop ensemble that rehearsed constantly at the college. Judging by what I heard, these tapes are a treasure trove of large-ensemble Cecil.)
In a way, as Cecil's career has progressed, he's transferred his marvelously personal bandleading/compositional concept more to the solo piano setting, in which he simulates the organic auto-arrangement effects heard in his best group recordings with his own 10 fingers, employing many of the same organizational devices, specifically the call-and-response form so often heard on countless CT recordings; the sort of curlicued, repeating-yet-additive warm-up figures, which I've in the past quixotically attempted to transcribe as "bangada-bangada-baanga… bangada-baanga-baanga"; the declarative thunder in the low register echoed by the dancer-like trills in the high. He is very obviously an ensemble unto himself.
Yet there was something going on in the early part of his career, a concept he was driving at, and one that, as Ben Young put it, Taylor's own Johnny Hodges, Jimmy Lyons, was integral to and helped him achieve, time and again, in the glory years between '61 and '78. The result was a compositional concept as identifiable and indelible as that put forth by Taylor's own heroes such as Ellington and Monk. I might not be able to hum "Petals" or "With (Exit)" or "Taht" or "The Eel Pot" or "Mixed" on cue (well, maybe I could hum the latter, now that I think of it...), but I know and feel that sound of Cecil Taylor driving a band, infusing it with this kind of electric, three-dimensional vision, with layers upon layers of structure and engagement, an almost eerie sense of self-governance, self-organization, self-question/-answer, a play between frenetic ensemble density and confident solo melodic voices, cohering—held together by sturdy but invisible structural cables—and collapsing at the same time, architecture and explosion becoming one. The question, now and in the years ahead, and yet unanswered for the most part, is whether this Cecil Taylor concept can travel forward in time without Cecil Taylor being present. For now, the evidence is there, beautiful and resplendent, in the recorded archives.
Postscript 1: My question to any fellow CT fiends who might be reading this: What are your favorite examples of Cecil Taylor, the composer/arranger/ensemble-directing oracle?
Postscript 2: One area of CT's career I didn't cover in detail above is the pre–Into the Hot phase, from Jazz Advance on. (Another plug for the Spellman: It goes back even further than that, and traces CT's entire history as a listener and player.) It's definitely relevant to the above to think about how Cecil got from, say, "Excursion on a Wobbly Rail" ('58) to "Matie's Trophies" ('59) to "Cell Walk for Celeste" ('61, nine months before "Bulbs," "Pots" and "Mixed," and a track that clearly advances a sort of a proto-Unit Structures sound).
Postscript 3: An album that has shot to the very top of my Must Hear list is Cecil's Dreaming of the Masters collaboration with the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Within seconds of trying out "Caseworks," it's clear that this is a document I'll be taking a long, close look at, a) in light of the above and b) just because it sounds awesome, and I cannot for the life of me explain why I haven't sought it out yet. Here's Joseph Jarman on the album, quoted in Howard Mandel's essential Miles Ornette Cecil: "Mr. Taylor's compositional process is to give you the pitches, you internalize the rhythm after he plays it several times, and he tells you he wants you in this section but not this one. Bounds and parameters are not defined by time, but by feeling, idea and awareness of his personality."
Sunday, April 24, 2016
Much like the prior Cecil Taylor performance at the Whitney Museum, Saturday's night's concert began and ended with a poignant display of frailty: the 87-year-old artist, walking with a cane, being led to and from the stage by a small entourage. But what went down in between told a different story. Even more than the first show, Saturday's event was a confirmation of alertness, of vitality, of a man in full control of his expressive faculties. For around 90 minutes, Taylor's presence, his pianism, his poetry, his dramatic poise, and, crucially, his sometimes hidden but always present playfulness, owned the room.
Like the April 14 show, this concert was divided into two halves, but this time, there was no break or personnel change in between, a set-up that made for a more focused experience. More so than at the earlier event, there was a real sense of Cecil and his collaborators building something monumental together over the course of the night. On the surface, Cecil's ensemble here—a quintet with Harri Sjöström on soprano and sopranino saxophones, Okkyung Lee on cello, Jackson Krall on drums and Tony Oxley reprising his subtle electronics role—seemed a bit haphazard, a jumbled assemblage of various past collaborators and one new face (Lee). But in practice, they jelled almost instantly. There was no announcement that this band was an official CT Unit, but in practice, it absolutely was: Taylor was the unmistakable leader, but the group proved to be one of the more responsive and sensitive of the many ad hoc groups he has put together during the past quarter century.
As with the prior show, dynamics were the thing here. The concert began with an absolutely stunning episode of what I'll call Taylor's ballad territory. I'd argue that in his later years, he's reached a place of pure luminous certainty in his sparser playing that feels like a new benchmark in his work. The reflective moments have really always been there, but now they feel sort of laser-pinpointed, as though Taylor were snapping his fingers and transporting you to a realm of otherworldly reverie. Oxley was not really a full participant in the trio with Min Tanaka, but here, he approached the set with what felt like a renewed confidence. His contributions—whooshes and swipes of sound at the edges of the musical frame—were subtle but essential. Lee too proved absolutely integral. Near the beginning of the performance, she waded boldly into Taylor's serene soundworld with perfectly complementary arco accents.
The performance heated up, entering a choppier and more frantic zone. Taylor began to test out his various percussive tactics—there was a lot of flat-palm playing at this show, along with his trademark double-jackhammer two-finger runs. As he often has in the past, Krall seemed tentative at first, limiting himself to choked accents on bass drum and cymbal. But he got his footing and the music took on a rushing density. Krall in full flower is a booming, bashing, clearly bop-indebted player, and many of the louder moments of the performance seemed like sweaty, old-school sparring matches between him and the leader. Taylor's preference of the drummer from the '90s through the mid-2000s has sometimes seemed puzzling to me, but last night, his role made perfect sense. At his best, he brings out the rawer, funkier side of the Taylor endeavor, the part of the pianist that wants to get onstage, roll up his sleeves and spar with pugilistic glee—a part of Taylor's art that was on glorious display at both shows. (I don't think I've ever seen Taylor having so much obvious fun at the keys as he seemed to be during the New Unit set on April 14 and during the wilder moments of last night's quintet performance.) Sjöström too helped accentuate the nastier, scrappier sections of the set, especially when he brought out the sopranino—an instrument with a lovably obnoxious quality, as often heard in the Anthony Braxton arsenal—and really went for it.
The music made its way back and forth across the dynamic spectrum. Taylor would be slugging it out with Krall and then suddenly a space would open up and Lee would be right there to provide gorgeous bowed accompaniment. I'm not sure I can recall a Taylor band so readily equipped to traverse these diverse areas of musical inquiry in such rapid, responsive fashion. Both in Saturday's set and in the April 14 ones, the contrast between Taylor's torrential, tempestuous, Dionysian side and his delicate, exquisite, chamber-like one was especially acute; these days, he seems to be more determined than ever to explore the yin-yang principle that Sonny Sharrock so beautifully articulated: "I want the sweetness and the brutality, and I want to go to the very end of each of those feelings." And fortunately, the band from last night was on him like glue whenever he felt compelled to make the switch. There were moments during the New Unit set on April 14 when I feel like Cecil's sound had been swallowed up by his own band, but that never happened last night; even when they raged, the players let the leader lead.
And never more so than during the extended poetry/recitation/oration/etc. that closed the set. I wasn't keeping track, but I'd estimate that this lasted at least as long as the "main" performance, and I have to say that for the first time while attending a CT performance, I was not wishing for him to go back to the piano. I'd have to say that at this point in his career, when he gets on the mic and really takes charge, embraces his MC side, as it were, Cecil Taylor is just as captivating a vocalist and poet as he is a keyboardist. Last's night reading wasn't just accent or interlude; it was in some ways the meat and climax of the performance.
Taylor stood at the piano bench as he read, starting out in his now-familiar pan-disiciplinary avant-science-treatise mode. "Vegetative propagation," "mycelium of a fungus" (a theme that also cropped up on April 14), "amino acids," "hypotenuse," and so on. The words declaimed, insisted upon, occasionally elongated, growled, extended into a sort of stagily guttural song or abstracted into borderline-goofy glossolalia. (I think there is something in certain moments of Taylor vocal performances that both embraces and satirizes the practice of high-drama oration, but it's impossible to know how much the comedic element figures into his thinking.)
The band homed in admirably, creating a rich yet unobtrusive backdrop. Occasionally, Sjöström would growl in agreement or murmur along, as though playing an obbligato for a singer. Oxley slyly weaved in sampled snippets of Taylor piano when the maestro wasn't himself playing the keys.
About 15 minutes in, something strange happened. Taylor started to speak in sentences, paragraphs, rather than disconnected phrases. He started to tell a story, really. As best I can summarize it, his subject was the arbitrary nature of what we think of as gender, race and culture. It sounds high-minded, but what he was saying actually made a perfect, plainspoken kind of sense. He started out by talking about how the concept of gender was essentially chance-based in nature, the ideas of male and female determined in certain reptile species by environmental factors such as the temperature of the egg, and how the first human couple was perhaps made up of two females. (There's a lot to unpack here, perhaps related to the idea of Taylor as an unabashedly though still tacitly queer artist, with a fierce devotion to a sort of sacred femininity as embodied within the characters of his mother, the great female jazz singers, the spirit Erzulie, etc.; see also: this piece.) Then there was a discussion of how pigmentation, and thus race, was also environmentally determined, and again totally arbitrary. And lastly he went into a sort of prehistory of art, discussing cave paintings from Namibia, presumably these, and how they predated and prefigured the more famous European sites. If I were to risk a distillation of what he was getting at, it was the idea that Western, Eurocentric, patriarchal culture has it wrong. He was arguing for an Afrocentric, female-oriented (or at least gender-neutral)—I could also say fair or just or properly historically attuned—view of human history.
I'm perhaps putting this poorly (though hopefully not misinterpreting the message), but thematically, the talk—and by the end, that's really what it felt like, not in the sense that it was tedious, but that Taylor was spelling out a larger thesis rather than simply reciting words—had a real sense of purpose. As the speech went on, his delivery became softer, more musical. Less growling and more lilting. At various points, he looked out the window as he spoke. A sort of dreamy quality crept in, but at the same time the sense of coherence and conviction deepened. He began to punctuate his words with brief pounding episodes on the keys, played while standing, making him seem almost like a boogie-woogie showman. Then he picked up a drumstick and began to smack and prod the strings inside the piano. Final moments of pure play—impromptu, self-justifying sonic research—it seemed to me.
"Thank you all, that's it!" he said, abruptly wrapping up the performance. He encouraged his collaborators to bow and be recognized. He called for Oxley, almost good-naturedly razzing him—"Oxleyyyy." There was an immediate sense of mirth, and it was clear that this wonderful Whitney residency has been—its many moments of profundity, of visceral thrill, of weird mystification notwithstanding—fundamentally a playground. Not a frivolous space, but a forum of joy and exorcism and see-what-happens collaboration. I sincerely hope that Cecil can continue operating in this manner in the coming years, and that we'll all be privileged enough to witness the results.
Friday, April 15, 2016
Cecil Taylor performed at the Whitney last night. He showed up, and he performed as planned. It seemed almost miraculous. I don't mean to suggest that the man is unreliable. But while during the first decade of my life in NYC ('98–'08), Cecil Taylor was a common sight on local stages, the gigs have gradually slowed to a trickle. I could be wrong, but I believe that the "From the Five Spot to the World" event, held last November at Harlem Stage, was the first advertised CT live appearance in NYC since the spring of 2012, when he played solo concerts at both HS and Issue Project Room. I was there for last year's event and crestfallen that Cecil didn't show up. There was, of course, Ornette's memorial last summer, but that's its own special case.
So we have the Whitney's ambitious Open Plan undertaking, a true residency, for which, according to curator Jay Sanders and Phil Freeman's excellent Wire cover story, Taylor has actually been rehearsing in the museum—on a "Yamaha baby grand piano in a conference room on the eighth floor"—in preparation for last night's performance, and for whatever may follow. (I've heard rumors of other possible CT concerts going down before the exhibition closes on April 24, but nothing's solid yet.)
So last night, after a long and somewhat chaotic wait, both in the queue outside and in the enormous fifth floor gallery where the exhibit is housed and the performances are taking place (in front of a huge wall of windows looking out over the Hudson), Taylor took the stage, led by an assistant and wearing a beautiful embroidered jacket, joining Tony Oxley, who—to my dismay, was seated not at his glorious custom drum kit, but at a table filled with electronics—and dancer Min Tanaka.
Taylor began to play immediately. Tanaka began his movement improv off the stage, on the far right side, where I could barely see him. Oxley waded in with a sort of electronic percussive chatter, which sounded to me a lot like a sample-based simulation of his typical drum set, though marred here by a crackling speaker. It was a bit of a cluttered, abrupt scene, visually and sonically. The maestro's transmissions were not coming through, to my ears and from my vantage.
I don't remember what happened exactly, what the turning point was, but it may have been the first time—the first of many—during which Oxley went silent. Tanaka was sort of capering across the stage, making jerky, exaggerated, almost parodic movements (his style, for me, took some getting used to, but ultimately proved to be a fascinating addition to the performance). Taylor was playing what sounded to me like a kind of underwater counterpart to his signature style, sort of hanging and murky and drawn out and drifting. And then, suddenly, the sound became crisper. It may have been Oxley's absence, or my own ears adjusting, or Cecil settling in, or none of the above or some totally other factor, but I felt the performance snap into some sort of focus, and from that point on, I felt little but rapture and privilege.
During the first section of the piece, maybe 10 minutes or so of a performance that lasted roughly an hour, the thought occurred to me, as it did during a 2008 Taylor show at the Highline Ballroom, that Cecil's speed and stamina were on the decline, maybe for good. No. Simply not so. He was playing sparser, quieter figures with a delicate and reflective feel. But the sound shapes started to take on a crystalline clarity. Cecil had not yet "gone Cecil," whirled into one of his trademark high-volume, high-density runs or stabs, but you felt that sensation of utter poise and laser-focused intent. Every note started to seem like a hyper-vigorous act of will, of a sonic shape in the mind coursing through the digit of a hand. You feel, at these passages of focus and momentum at a Cecil Taylor show, like you're inside the artist's brain. Ideas unfolding and filling the room. The piano is everything, but it is incidental.
When this sort of exalted space comes about, too, what happens in my listening brain is that the "soft parts" and the "violent parts," the handy ways we attempt to process this man's art and break it down into gestures, start to conflate. The "soft parts," the caresses and slow figures, start to seem every bit as diamond-cut as the obvious peaks and, last night, seizures, these sudden sonic poses struck, mirrored in space by Tanaka and clipped, hanging curiously and even grotesquely in the air before vanishing. I kept thinking of those single frames you see in one brief illumination from a strobe light. Taylor found his way to the zone of speed and power and volume (physical and sonic) we recognize and attempt to stereotype him with. But the truth is that, when he's on, everything he plays has that intent and will and focus. Every sonic shape is as unique and finely honed and exact as every other. Quieter, sure, louder, sure, but the flow of exactitude is unbroken. You feel every sound-shape transmitting directly from his brain. I have never known another musician to touch his/her instrument with anywhere near the level of confidence and respect that Cecil does. Respect, first and foremost, for the music in his head and for the act of getting it into and out of the piano. Taylor has talked widely of his mother rapping his hands with a ruler to instill proper technique. At his best performances, I feel consumed by this sort of ruthless discipline as channeled and sublimated into a wholly loving act.
As he played, Cecil gazed often at Tanaka, clearly relishing the piece's spatial component. He talked in the Wire story of watching birds as he practiced, of studying the forms of trees. His interaction with Tanaka did not seem imitative or even so much reactive, but you could feel him breathing that air, allowing that in. Tanaka, on the other hand, seemed buffeted by Taylor's sonic actions, at times like a puppet, or like a cartoon character plugged into a socket—as we all were, in a way. He moved up and down the center aisle, back toward the stage, exploring the wall of windows, crouching and twisting and clearly just feeling it all course through him. Oxley eventually reentered, and the electronics found a space within the music. Once the speaker crackle quieted down, there was a brief, magical episode where it seemed that Taylor's lines were being haunted by digital ghosts, the sound sources blurring. I don't have a clear idea of what implements Oxley was using, but I could have sworn I perceived some sort of live remixing going on, with Oxley sampling Taylor and reinserting scrambled versions of his just-played lines back into the real-time performance. Taylor and Oxley acoustic, that exalted duo, it wasn't, and I think Oxley would have been the first to admit that, which is probably why he didn't play for roughly two thirds of the piece. But toward the middle, there were these moments of beautiful, rushing, disorienting electroacoustic density.
And then the last 15 or 20 minutes. Oxley ceased playing altogether, a sort of poignant spectacle in itself. I had my eyes closed for a while, soaking up the clarity of Taylor's lines. Again, the contrast that is really All One Thing. There were some of the bravura runs, punctuated by heartbreaking tenderness. A clear, soft intent that seemed like it could have gone on forever. Ideas made physical, briefly, before disappearing. Emotion and concentration unifying. The poignancy of these moments of Cecil Taylor performance is, to me, indistinguishable from the precision, the mastery. Part of me wishes I could describe it all more exactly; part of me is glad I don't really have to. No one does. We flock to this man, now 87 years old—reflect on that for a second—as to a crisp, determined flame, burning intently, with vehemence but also compassion, for some 60 years. That's really the best way I can describe it, my attraction to what Cecil Taylor does. There is some inner fire that he calls upon in performance that simply burns hotter and truer than anyone else's, and again, not only during the demonstrative moments, but just in the whole sustained now of the creative event.
We're all drawn to that flame, and we all stand in awe of it. And during this extended solo episode that concluded the concert, Min Tanaka—at some point; I'm not sure when; I only know that I opened my eyes and beheld this—went over and actually sort of physically slumped on Cecil Taylor, still seated at the piano and playing, seeming to rest his head on Taylor's shoulder. Taylor exhibited no visible sense of disturbance. You have to assume this sort of thing has happened in rehearsals or private sessions between the two, but who knows. (I'm exceedingly curious about this new documentary on Taylor and Tanaka, which screens on Sunday.) But to me, the gesture mirrored exactly what I feel when I give myself over to Cecil Taylor, a kind of crumpling in the face of, a week-kneed tribute and offering only of awe. Not abject but fervent and, it has to be said, religious.
And in terms of Tanaka/Taylor, this wasn't just a one way flow of appreciation. These two are clearly soulmates. The same goes for Taylor and Oxley. I found myself reflecting last night on the inner sanctum of Taylor collaborators. Jimmy Lyons, whom Taylor likens to John Coltrane in the Wire piece, seems to live at the center. Andrew Cyrille is there too. The Feel Trio too, is near the heart of things, it seems. But the Oxley relationship is special. The long history of duets—beginning, I believe, in 1988, with the concert released as Leaf Palm Hand, and continuing on stages across Europe and later at our temple the Village Vanguard. I cherish this partners-in-crime on-/offstage document.
Tanaka and Oxley were the primary receivers and muses last night. Even though Oxley's contribution was diminished—and I should stress that no official explanation was given for why he wasn't playing physical percussion—he was vital to the feeling of exalted creation and listening that filled the room during that glorious final chapter of last night's performance. Again, I can't resist the urge to want to capture it better. I keep coming back to the ideas of precision as emotion, and of the stillness and the violence in his playing becoming one. I guess I could say one simple thing, which is that last night, Cecil Taylor sounded as good as I've ever heard him. And by good, I mean clear, free, at peace and at play and at liberty to realize the shapes that dance in his mind.
There was a second set, a previously unannounced performance by what was announced as the New Unit, a name that paid clear homage to various earlier Taylor bands. I experienced this set on a whole different plane. There was a sort of casual aspect to the proceedings. Much of the audience filed out, players made their way to the stage. (I recognized various familiar faces from past Taylor groups: Jackson Krall on drums, Albey Balgochian on bass, Elliott Levin on flute and tenor sax, Bobby Zankel on alto and Tristan Honsinger on cello; there was also a soprano-sax player and a female poet, neither of whom I could name.) It wasn't even clear if Taylor would be playing at all. But he did make his way up, and what followed was a sort of loose, old-school free jazz jam. Moments of inspiration, moments of tedium, but what was striking was the smile on Taylor's face.
You don't get the sense that he gets to cut loose with a group like this very often these days. As in some particularly cacophonous Taylor group performances of yore, his contributions were hard to pick out. But he was clearly after sensation, clearly relishing, just as in the first set, the collective experience he had brought about. (I should say that Bobby Zankel stood way out. I heard fleet, fluid mastery, with shades of Lyons, Dolphy, Ornette. It seems somewhat of a shame to me that he and Cecil have never recorded in, say, a quartet setting.) The performance reached a peak when Taylor himself took to the mic and presided over what had the flavor of a classic Beat-poetry session. His speaking/reading voice is at this point as singular as his pianism: a kind of aristocratic croak, enunciating forcefully a litany of strange, striking terms. I remember "stalk," "alluvium," "fungus." He sounded great reading in front of a sympathetic band—again, something I don't recall hearing him do before. Most of the times I've seen him read or speak, it's been in a solo context, or only as a quick preamble, rather than a fully integrated part of a given set, as it was last night. I've never heard Tzotzil/Mummers/Tzotzil, from '87, but it occurs to me that a new Cecil Taylor vocal recording, where he reads as a band plays live behind him, would be a very welcome thing.
The New Unit set rambled. I got up at one point and wandered around the exhibition. I made note of several items and displays of particular interest: one, an LP jacket, mounted on the wall alongside many familiar titles, for an album of Cecil Taylor and Bill Dixon duets (!) from 1992*. Two, a viewing station, with headphones, where you could watch a vivid color video, from 1965, I believe, of Taylor, Lyons, Henry Grimes and Sunny Murray performing. Unlike some of the other footage on view, this was totally unfamiliar to me. I had no time to sit down and take this in, but you bet I'll be back asap.
Taylor is most certainly in residence. He's inviting his friends down, mixing it up. Welcoming the audience to join them, if only tacitly. He was hidden for a while but he's back, undiminished. The appearance seems all the more precious now that we know how rare it is. It may be that we are in the midst of his grandest chapter.
*More info here.