Wednesday, July 16, 2008
Conversant: Taylor/Oxley at the Vanguard
I've heard Cecil Taylor live at least six times before tonight, maybe more. In fact the inaugural post on this blog, back in October of '06, featured some words on a solo Cecil show (the only one I've seen) at Merkin Hall. I also wrote a more formal review of a Taylor trio set--with Henry Grimes on bass and Pheeroan akLaff on drums--later that same month and then this past February I mused on a slightly different trio lineup I caught (William Parker was in for Henry Grimes). I guess what I'm getting at is, I keep going, trying to catch at least one set every time he plays. Tonight--I almost can't believe I'm typing this because I've waited so long to see this match-up--I went again, this time to hear Cecil in duet with... yeah, Tony Oxley. At the Village Vanguard. Truly, truly, this was something.
So why do I keep going? I've seen my share of disappointing Cecil sets, believe me. Four years ago in July of '04 I caught what I think was the debut of Cecil's thankfully short-lived trio with Albey Balgochian on bass and Jackson Krall on drums. Krall is not the most arresting drummer, but perfectly competent. Balgochian on the other hand... I won't go there. Suffice it to say that this performance--at Castle Clinton--and another one by this same band at the Blue Note--can't locate the date but I think it was '05--were really, really frustrating and it was very easy to pinpoint why.
But tonight shares the distinction--with the solo Merkin set, which so, so took me where I wanted to go--of being the most satisfying Cecil live experience I've had yet. And it summed up why I keep going back, at least in part. It is truly awesome, and exceedingly rare, in our current (urban) world to behold a performer so entirely devoted to concentration, to nearly unbelievable levels of sustained attention and construction. You find this with the truly elite improvisers such as Cecil and Evan Parker (and with Now giants such as Mick Barr). You'll find your attention wandering--as most people's does, no matter how interested you are in something--and you'll snap back and realize: Dear God, Cecil's still at it!
And tonight Oxley was too. The duo has a long history, dating back to '88 (Steve Smith offers a refresher in this week's Time Out NY). Early duets gave way to the justly celebrated Feel Trio with William Parker on bass and then to a more recent trio with Bill Dixon on trumpet. Part of me wishes Parker would sit in for some of this week's Vanguard run--after all, he is, presumably, just across town--but I'm really not complaining.
The two men were a little late emerging--the lights dimmed and then they let the suspense build. Then out they came from the back room, Cecil in his customary do-rag, plus a highly set reddish leather belt, tank top and what can only be termed a little white capelet draped over his back. Oxley in a white t-shirt and droopy black cardigan. They played for roughly an hour and change. One piece of 40- or 50-something minutes--with mini rest spells but no definitive ending until the final one--and one of about 10. Oxley was playing his customary hodgepodge kit--this time with a foot-pedal bass drum, which I believe is often absent from his set-up--outfitted with bongos, small toms, plastic woodblocks, small china cymbals, bells and something that looked like a gigantic rusty cowbell.
Those are the facts, really, but the reality, for me, was more in the shape of the improvising. Many Cecil improvisations of the last 20 years or so take a sort of plateau form, starting sparse and then heating up--either gradually or not--to a point of boiling, where they tend to remain for some obscene length of time, until they slope back down into the original sparseness and end there. Not a plateau structure at all, this set was much more like a series of undulating waves. It had extremely intense crescendos, but they were fleeting. The music never hit that full-throttle stride that many Cecil sets achieve. To someone who came to gawk at Cecil's freak-out tendencies, this might have been disappointing, but I was thrilled. Truthfully Cecil's marathon sets, especially with his less sympathetic groups such as the Balgochian/Krall trio, can often overstay their welcome, as though he plays long past the point when his sidemen have anything left to say. This conversation with Oxley, though, could seemingly continue forever: It wasn't a contest, it was more like a game, testing out various degrees of intensity, but never allowing density and volume to take over. In short it was a marvelous combined feat of concentration, a set completely devoid of cruise-control free jazz, i.e., that so-intense-for-so-long-that-it's-completely-numbing-and-exhausting quality that's almost become an inherent fact of this area of music-making over the years.
By design, Oxley makes brief sounds, quick on the decay, slashing the china cymbal or rolling furtively on a little tom. If you've never heard him, it's like a chandelier tinkling in the breeze, except the chandelier is made of plastic, taut animal skin and jagged metal. The sounds are pointillist, tiny, parched, cryptic. And as a performer, he gives nothing away, completely stonefaced, except when he glances over to give Cecil a sly grin. There is no coasting whatsoever in this man's playing. He is comfortable with silence. He has no interest in what Anthony Braxton has termed the mythology of the "sweating brow"--the idea that apparent physical exertion in a performance automatically signifies aesthetic intensity. Oxley is *not* an intense performer in the traditional sense--the only way I can describe his demeanor onstage is "casual." He flits, pauses, taps, pauses, scrapes, jumbles, pauses some more. It is anti-momentum soundpainting, a study in dryness and precision.
And there was no argument from Cecil. He wasn't trying to push things anywhere Oxley didn't want to go. Not that his was a deferent performance. But it was outstandingly measured. The Cecil hallmarks were there, i.e., a good deal of what I've termed "The Lick" and "The Flurry" (see this earlier post for some--but only some--elucidation), not to mention some nice crab-handed stabs. But what this set was about for me vis a vis the pianism was ATTACK. And not in the offensive sense, but in the sense of coaxing sound from the keys. During the quieter moments in this set--and as I said, it had a fairly regular and rapid ebb-and-flow between frantic and dreamy moments--Cecil demonstrated what was surely the most sumptuous and sophisticated finger attack I've EVER seen/heard. He was summoning the notes, caressing them out, seemingly lifting them from UP out of the keys rather than striking them DOWNward. He sways dancer-like as he plays these balladic passages--it makes me think of a section in Miles Ornette Cecil where Max Roach recalls Cecil saying to him, "No one knows when I'm playing a ballad." Well tonight it was very clear when he was playing a ballad. The set was filled with air-light drifts across the keys; plush, bluesy twinges that you just wanted to bathe in. (Who knows how much of this was preplanned, but there was a lot of scribbled notation on the piano rack in front of him; he cycled through three or four sheets' worth.)
Oxley, inscrutable mostly, shot a few wry smiles Cecil's way during the grittier passages as if to say, "You want to go there? We can visit but we won't stay long." Again, it was anti-momentum, this dialogue. No coasting, no forgetting to listen, just concentration and the purity of the duo. In a historic jazz club, to boot. Oxley finally broke out in full beam when the set was over. It wasn't a sweaty set, a hammer-till-you-drop thing like I've heard Cecil do so often. It was clean, modest, delineated, impossibly eloquent. The conversation could've kept going tonight and will tomorrow, and anyone who descends that Seventh Avenue staircase this week is blessedly lucky to eavesdrop.