Friday, October 27, 2006

Kick It with a Tasty Groove



[below is an account of the late Cecil Taylor Trio set at Iridium from Thursday, 10/26. i had the pleasure of attending with Steve Smith, who really knows his Cecil cold. we had a brief but fruitful talk about the show afterward and i'm sure you'll read a detailed account soon on "Night After Night," so keep checking over there (link to the right). no pressure, Steve!]

saw Cecil Taylor play last night for the second time in two weeks (which is kind of amazing). the last one was solo and this one was a trio with Henry Grimes and Pheeroan akLaff. i and just about every other Cecil fan i know was psyched about this personnel b/c his last working trio (Albey Balgochian on bass and Jackson Krall on drums) was not the hottest. saw them at Castle Clinton a few years ago and at Iridium last year and i thought the bass playing was really weak--tentative, clunky and just sort of aimless. Krall i never thought was bad so much as kind of neutral. when i saw that trio, his playing was really choppy and kind of timid; he always seemed to be waiting for Cecil to make the first move.

after seeing last night's show, it was clear to me that the best Cecil sidemen are the ones who confront him head on, who really have a concept of their own to advance and don't mind getting in his way a little. i think akLaff did a completely excellent job of doing this. at times, i was thinking that if i wasn't familiar with the players beforehand, i actually might have thought that he was the leader rather than Cecil. i loved what Grimes did as well, but it took me longer to figure that out.

the set i saw was one long piece, maybe about 70 minutes, though i could be wrong. it started off very tentatively, with Grimes bowing (amp and mike setup weren't kind to him at first; the bass sounded really murky) and akLaff playing quietly with his hands. Cecil seemed really low energy at first and i was worried that the others were going to be too submissive and let him dictate the flow.

about 10 to 15 minutes in, though, akLaff really started to move. as soon as he started playing more busily, i knew i had misjudged him from previous times i'd seen him. i saw him with Hamiet Bluiett at the Knit like five or six years ago and with Roscoe Mitchell and Sam Rivers at the Vision Fest in '05 and both times i came away thinking that he played way too loudly and didn't listen. last night, though, i had almost the opposite impression. he was awesomely sensitive and really the heart and soul of the band.

i was talking to a friend before the show and he said he was excited to hear akLaff with Cecil b/c he was the kind of drummer who could play free and also imply a really deep pocket. i pretty quickly heard what he was talking about. akLaff moved around the kit really nimbly, and with a light touch; his darting movements reminded me of Tony Williams. he gradually worked up the intensity and brought in the cymbals more, just to the point where he was threatening to be too loud, but not getting there.

there was definitely a kind of implied groove happening. especially when akLaff would move to the closed hi-hat and snare, he seemed to be threatening to drop into some kind of backbeat thing, like you'd catch just a hint of that feel. (to my knowledge, Ronald Shannon Jackson is really the only other Cecil drummer who has experimented with this kind of thing.) it was sort of like he was goosing Taylor to come out of his shell and Taylor responded. he was moving more at his stool and working up into a feverish mode of playing.

the band hit a real stride about 30 to 40 minutes in. i started to really hear what their sound was at this point and how Taylor fit in. it was fascinating, because to me, what the rhythm section did was kind of smooth out the choppiness that you hear in Taylor's solo playing. i mentioned in the post about the solo concert (look way down below) how Taylor does this thing where he'll play either deep, dramatic chords or high kind of commentary stuff. unlike a bop-style pianist, he doesn't seem to really go for a lot of left hand/right hand separation. that was true last night too but because the band was simmering underneath, there was no sense of empty space. i'm not saying that i dislike that space in the solo playing, but it was just cool to hear how the band moved in to fill those gaps.

i couldn't see Taylor's face but he was glancing up at akLaff frequently and the drummer was just beaming and clearly having the time of his life. there was this amazing exchange where i started to hear Cecil almost like an electric guitarist. he was doing those deep chords and when he'd move to the high trills, his whole body would sway and he'd play these awesome bluesy figures that really reminded me of single-note blues-guitar lines. he seemed to want to dig really deep into that soulful feel, and this seemed to come right out of akLaff's funkiness. the pocket was sort of right on the tip of the band's tongue and that was an awesomely tantalizing effect.

during this more heated section, i really started to hear Grimes. though his bowing seemed kind of unfocused, his pizzicato stuff here was just on fire. i was totally amazed by his speed and precision--people really aren't bullshitting when they say he's returned to full strength as a bassist. what he was playing didn't jump out at me so much as how consistent it was. he was really gluing the band together and supporting the momentum and this was the perfect contrast to Balgochian's tentative approach.

as with a lot of Cecil sets, the ending was kind of awkward. at one point, the volume came way down and akLaff did this press roll and looked at Cecil and you could totally tell he thought that this would've made a perfect stopping point. Cecil just kept right on going. he was at his most high energy--though not necessarily at his densest or loudest--really late in the set. he was really moving at the bench and despite that sort of false ending, akLaff seemed really delighted by this. it just seemed like a real jam vibe between them, like they were just getting off on interacting with one another. there was very much a feeling that this was a new, exciting collaboration for both of them.

overall, i loved what Grimes was doing, but the piano-drums connection was really the heart of the music. which kind of makes sense, given all the duets with percussionists that Cecil has done. right near the end of the set, though, there were some awesome quiet exchanges between Grimes and Taylor where they were almost echoing each other. it was a really brief moment, but it was some of the most interactive playing i've ever heard Cecil do.

if the solo set i saw at Merkin had this kind of arduous, mountain-climbing feel--i felt a lot of strain from Cecil at that one--this one was much more about a feeling of exhilaration. i hope this band stays together for a while. what would be great is to see the solo and trio settings in one concert so you could hear the differences up close. when i've been particularly frustrated with a Taylor sideman, either live or on record, i've often said that there's just no point in listening to him play with anyone else. but someone always proves me wrong (Jimmy Lyons, Raphe Malik, Tony Oxley, Andrew Cyrille, etc. etc. etc.). i think these players definitely belong in that category.

1 comment:

Sam Byrd said...

Hey, this is some of the most inspiring writing I've ever read about Cecil Taylor, and I especially loved and appreciated the description of the interactions with Pheeroan akLaff. I got to this post from Taylor Ho Bynum's excellent review of this show. I sure hope this trio records sometime soon! Thanks for the review. I was also fascinated by your statement that "the best Cecil sidemen are the ones who confront him head on, who really have a concept of their own to advance and don't mind getting in his way a little"--I have definitely sensed this from listening to the duets with Han Bennink and with Paul Lovens.