Thursday, June 19, 2008

MOC, fyi (again)

A quick thank you to Howard Mandel and the JJA for a very enjoyable awards ceremony yesterday at Jazz Standard.

Additional thanks is due to Howard for his new Miles Ornette Cecil tome, which I just finished. I had written before (go here and scroll down toward the bottom) about the endearingly personal, subjective tone of the book, but as I moved through it, I started to feel that its strongest feature is actually the outstanding array of interviews it features and the skillful way they're woven together.

Aside from a brief, though fascinating, interview with Miles, the Davis chapter is more about Mandel's engagement with Davis's recordings. The Ornette section, though, is a virtuoso composite portrait that really could function as a standalone book. Mandel gets extensive face time with Coleman, though the saxist often speaks in cryptic existential musings. But what really blew me away was the series of passionate and candid interviews with Ornette's sidemen: You get Charlie Haden's boundless reverence, Dewey Redman's slightly skeptical yet nevertheless devoted take on being Ornette's faithful "foil" (he calls critics out for overusing that term) and Don Cherry's thoughtful unpacking of harmolodic theory. Not to mention the wealth of conversations with lesser-known Coleman collaborators, such as guitarist Chris Rosenbering, who recalls an audition with Ornette where the saxist improvised brilliantly on a Bach prelude without any prior knowledge of the chords or key.

The Cecil section also features some valuable musician commentary, most notably a groundbreaking section that details the pianist's fruitful relationships with a variety of legendary drummers. There's commentary from Ed Blackwell (who actually did play with Cecil in the '60s though we sadly have no document of that pairing) and a remarkable extended interview with Max Roach where he makes this succinct case for Cecil's maverick path:

"Cecil to me is more like Bud [Powell] than a person who imitates Bud, just as Anthony Braxton is more like Charlie Parker than a person who imitates Charlie Parker."

There's also some nice commentary on the Cecil Taylor/Elvin Jones hookup, an important collaboration that's way underdocumented on record. Anyone have any bootlegs of their Blue Note duos? I was lucky enough to hear one live, but I wasn't really savvy enough at the time to know what a special occurrence I was party to.

Mandel's first extended interview with Taylor is another treat. It's obvious that Cecil was only really half-cooperating, but there are some important insights, namely a section where Cecil notes, "...there are a group of [my] pieces that have emerged in the last four years that I think I want to play as long as I live... "Beautiful Young'un," that piece really turned me on to certain things at a certain point, that's one of those favorite songs."

Now it's obvious that Cecil is very much a composer, but since the tightly arranged works of his late '70s band, it's been hard to really tell if Cecil was actually composing, or merely playing extemporaneously inside a predetermined focus area. The idea of Cecil having "tunes" or set pieces that he works with is weirdly fascinating, since, given the way the pieces on his records are labeled (i.e., to my knowledge, not a single title has ever been reprised), you'd think each concert brought with it a new set of parameters. Though, as I've noted on here before, I do agree with Gary Giddins (I think it was him who said this first) in thinking that Cecil's work can often seem like one monolithic piece, examined from countless different angles over years and years.

Anyway, I digress. This book is a great mixture of critical commentary and potent musicology. No one who has an enthusiasm for these three musicians will walk away from it without some new insight on the men and their work.

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