Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Cold comfort // Cecilphilia, pt. 283
ANNWN is surely the record of the winter, no? [gotta love that commemorative mug, too, of which i am a proud though totally nerdy-feeling owner.] the space-tech guitar webs looked and felt exactly like falling snowfields on the walk to the train this evening.
there has been no listening constant more, uh, constant for me over the past decade or so besides Cecil Taylor. every time i hear him live (as i did a few weeks back), there's this flurry of listening after. it's like brain food or something. i've got nearly a whole CD book thingie full of his music and i just pick and choose. with him or Bill Dixon (have been really digging on the "Odyssey" box as well), it feels like communion to just LISTEN over and over and over.
anyway, was checking out the awesome 1981 solo concert "Garden" last night and was really feeling plugged into it. noticed many small things: for one, i love the quick spoken intro: "About the thrash-uh ["thrasher"?] ... And they go / into / the / fields / to / plow"--is the piece a meditation on slavery or somesuch?
anyway, i listened deeply to the first long piece on the record, "Elell," and it made me think about Taylor's signature sounds, his tics if you will. i remember reading somewhere--it may have been in a Gary Giddins piece--the notion that Cecil had been playing the same ONE piece of music for the past several decades. i think the writer was mentioning that that monotony had been brought up as a criticism but then proceeded to defend the unity of Taylor's work.
the thing is i can totally see how someone could say that (i.e., that he always plays the same piece of music) because he has these sort of signature moves that seem to define the arc of much of his music. i.e., has anyone noticed how when Eric Dolphy solos he has this one pet lick that he uses in literally every single solo? wish i could transcribe it, but it's like "bah-BLEEP-boo-ba-doo-ba-doo-ba." that "BLEEP" being the key--it's a really honking, sour note that he sort of leaps up to.
well, i've noticed these similar sort of patterns in Cecil. i've often thought how he has these several different modes (i'm using that word in the non-musicological sense, i.e., "types") to his playing, and they seem to be sequential. i.e., when he's playing a longform piece, he always seems to start out in one mode of playing and work his way to another.
it's tough to get specific but i'll try. in "Elell," as in so many other of his long pieces, he starts slow and builds up to a dazzling, hectic climax. in the slow intro section to this piece, he worries over this pattern which i like to think of as "The Lick"--it's like Taylor's pet melodic cell. he tends to always play The Lick, and its attendant variations in this sort of locked-hand pattern, i.e., his two hands play in rhythmic unison. The Lick is this bluesy little figure that's like "boo-ba-doo-ba DWEN-ga DWEEEEN-ga" or "boo-ba-da DWEN-ga DWEEN-ga." it's sort of an infinitely variable pattern (sometimes the "boo-ba-doo-ba" or the "DWEN-ga DWEEEEEN-ga" are extended), but The Lick acts like this center of gravity--in "Garden" and so many other performances, Taylor uses it to build momentum. those "DWEN-ga DWEEEEN-ga" sections are the real signature accents.
gradually he works up to what i call his Flurry playing, those stabbing torrents of notes that he plays with his index fingers perpendicular to the keyboard. this mode of playing almost invariably comes at the climax of a piece, i.e., after he's worried over The Lick for several minutes. he usually alternates those single-note Flurries with grand, pounding chords and little interludes of The Lick, usually played more rapidly and elaborately than in the intro sections.
it sounds simple, but this is one way i make sense of Cecil's work--i hear The Lick, worried over, caressed, messed with building gradually into the Flurries, interspersed with The Lick, and so forth.
i imagine everyone wraps their brain around Cecil in a different way, one reason i'm psyched to check out Howard Mandel's new book on Miles, Ornette and Cecil, which includes a section on "strategies for listening to and enjoying Cecil Taylor."
have been checking out a few other Cecil discs from various periods, including "The Eighth" a nice cataclysmic quartet disc feat. the incredible Jimmy Lyons from only eight days before "Garden"; "Winged Serpent (Sliding Quadrant)," a prismatic and raucous big band session from 1984; and the unbelievable sextet session "The Cecil Taylor Unit" from 1978.
i guess it goes without saying that that late-'70s band (Lyons on alto, Raphe Malik on trumpet, Ramsey Ameen on violin, Sirone on bass and Ronald Shannon Jackson on drums) is Cecil's best group ever, but goddamn that shit is just nasty. the first track on "Unit" is totally revelatory--it's as though the whole band is inhabiting Cecil's brain and sort of acting under his spell, while at the same time making totally spontaneous and incisive gestures of their own.
right at the beginning of that track, the whole band just gets into this jagged, staggered sputtering thing that strongly suggests (to me at least)... The Lick! now maybe it's b/c i threw this on right after "Garden" last night, but it sounded to me like the entire sextet was rendering this sort of 3-D version of The Lick by way of an intro, sawing away at it, worrying over it the way Cecil would.
it's very interesting the way the piece is structured. it sort of toggles between these sparse sections where Cecil is featured, to a horn fanfare, usually begun by Lyons (who seems to lead the charge here and tons of other places, including on "Winged Serpent," where his voice is the most confident) and echoed by the other players.
also: i've pointed out a few times on here how drummer Pheeroan akLaff has been playing this barely sublimated sort of funk under Cecil. well Ronald Shannon Jackson was the original badass who brought that sort of fury to the Maestro's attention. on this piece he's playing this insanely hip syncopated tom-tom stuff and then at various points just breaks into a sick backbeat shuffle. it's very fragmentary, but it's there, and it's so goddamn potent.
this band was just so kinetic. Cecil's discs from the '90s and aughts have so often suffered from either a haphazard, sloppy feeling (e.g., 1996's "Almeda") or a feeling of too much tentativeness, which i felt was often the case with the Dominic Duval and Jackson Krall trio. the trick is to play inside Cecil's concept, but to also--and this is crucial--not be constrained by it and to blow wild and free and to feel the confidence to throw curveballs. that '70s sextet feels like they're really playing the music--you have a very palpable sense of WRITTEN/UNISON music that you hear on "Unit Structures" and on other records like "Dark to Themselves" but is unfortunately sometimes absent from Taylor's group work--but also like they're just exploding as improvisers. brave, brave stuff.
as a postscript, i'm just remembering now another session i checked out recently, which was "Riobec," one of the many duets Taylor recorded w/ drummers as part of his Berlin blowout in 1988. this one is with Gunter "Baby" Sommer and it's a total gas, one of the most exuberant, fun-loving Taylor discs i've heard. Sommer is sort of--for lack of a better word--a card, always changing directions and yelling with joy while he plays and sort of mugging in his improvisations. he throws Taylor a lot of curveballs and eventually you feel Taylor sort of opening up to the glee of the whole thing and finally just jumping in headfirst. you feel Taylor listening and reacting more in this performance more than you often do in his late work. at one point the two are vocalizing together, just jabbering insanely, and you really feel like Cecil has found a kindred spirit. too bad they never got together with a bass player--that woulda been a sick trio.
anyway, i'm really into exploring this Lick thing further, and also investigating the really biggie small-group works more, i.e. Unit Structures, Conquistador, plus the other stuff by the great sextet discussed above. and then there's that crazy "Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly!" record--which as far as i know is Cecil's only solo date that wasn't recorded live in front of an audience. this Cecilphilia is a lifelong thing, i tell you...
ps: finishing up writing this, i'm skimming over a really cool Gary Giddins-on-Cecil Taylor piece, which you can check out here.
the following quote seems to sorta jibe w/ what i was saying about about The Lick and the Flurries, just the general idea of signature motifs or tendencies in Taylor:
"I find that [Taylor's] fifty-minute pieces fly by, and I look forward to them. I understand how they work. There are certain technical things that he does on the piano that I just wait for in the same way that when I listen to Roy Eldridge, at some point I know he is going to start playing amazing high note passages, and I wait for them."
also, check this very cool recent Taylor interview/profile by Patrick Ambrose, who really gives you a feel for what it's like to hang out w/ the Maestro.