Saturday, August 30, 2008

Magnetized // Poetry slam

It's been a hectic few days, but gratifying. Yesterday was, weirdly, a first: one of those listening sessions where you go to a label's office to hear an upcoming release. In short, I sat on a couch in a fancily outfitted lounge--gold and platinum records on the wall for Tool, RHCP, Madonna--and listened, straight through, to Death Magnetic, the new album by Metallica. Afterward I debriefed with the band's affable manager, Cliff Burnstein, who cameos in the infamous Some Kind of Monster. Then I went back to work. It was all very surreal. I'll keep mum on the record for now, but will reveal my spiel soon enough. (Hint: thumbs up.)


And I was thinking: Is this a Cecil Taylor blog? I guess it sort of is. The first post on here featured him and I've almost certainly discussed Taylor on here more than any other artist. Well, here we go again...

Wasn't feeling super-compelled to attend tonight's Taylor show at Highline Ballroom--the occasion for my aforementioned Time Out NY piece on the man--but I figured why the heck not. My bud and bandmate Tony had never seen Taylor live, so he came with and off we went.

The Highline is a cavernous, unfriendly place with "sleek" decor and drink minimums and other such extramusical distractions. I've only ever seen Negativland there before and both this and that were seated shows. I think they do rock shows there with no chairs, but who could say. Anyway, I thought it might be kind of a weird venue for Taylor, what with its huge stage and aforementioned distractions, but actually it wasn't. It was a hell of a lot better than hearing him in, say, the cramped, unclassy Blue Note. The fact that he was elevated and spotlit added a nice focus to the proceedings.

It was a solo show, the second I've seen after an '06 Merkin Hall performance that absolutely blew my mind. This was subtler, less hard-core, but it had the distinction of being perhaps the most singular Cecil show I've seen, mainly because it involved a heavy component of Taylor's vocalization and not just as a prelude or interlude, which is mainly how I'd heard him use voice before.

The concert was billed as "Words into Music," a somewhat pretentious title that just seemed like a space filler--anyone remember the "New AHA 3" w/ Henry Grimes and Pheeroan AkLaff, unseen for some time now, that may or may not still be Taylor's working band?--but in retrospect it was right to give the evening a special designation. This was, as always, Cecil being Cecil, but it was a specially tailored event. The meat of the program was an hour-long piece which built slowly and covered familiar Cecil motifs (the probing echo figure that I've come to call the Lick-- dabada DWENG-a / dabada-dabada DWENG-a DWEEENG-a; flurries of perpendicular-fingered downstabs, etc.) before segueing into a fascinating vocal-driven section, which I'll discuss below.

Taylor's mouth was miked the whole concert, even when he wasn't explicitly speaking into it. I'm not sure if this was intentional but you could hear his every grunt and groan; in short, he seemed to be vocalizing along with each note he played. Weirdly, just before heading over to the Highline, I read this passage from the outstanding section on Cecil in A.B. Spellman's Four Lives in the Bebop Business:

[This is early Taylor bassist Buell Neidlinger speaking.]

"We shared an apartment for awhile, and I had the opportunity to watch him practice, and his practicing revolves around solf├Ęge singing. He'll sing a phrase and then he'll harmonize it at the piano and then he'll sing it again, always striving to get the piano to sing, to try and match this feeling of the human production, the voice, in terms of pianistic production so that it gets the same effect. Cecil's trying to get the vocal sound out of the piano, and I think he's achieved it on many occasions. You can almost hear the piano scream or cry."

I've never thought of Taylor's piano sound as particularly vocal, but having just read about this practice method--now mind you, this is a description of Taylor in the mid '60s--the illustration of that at this show was obvious. Simply put, he mouths what he plays and here you could discern more of that method than usual b/c of the amplification.

I mentioned above a clear demarcation in the lengthy featured piece. What happened was that Cecil picked up one of the sheets of paper--I assume it contained poetry--off the piano's music rack and began to vocalize based on what was written there. For a while, I couldn't discern any English (I caught "Yuba 1, Yuba 2," etc.); it was just that strangely strangled, at times cartoonish growling and wailing that Taylor often uses to open his performances. But what he would do is a call-and-response between his voice and his one free piano hand. There was a direct correlation, almost like he was accompanying himself with an obbligato. I was fascinated to see the spoken word so integrated into the performance.

The words seemed to inspire him to explore new places. For one, since he was only using one hand while reciting, he was forced to compromise in terms of density. Sometimes, he would just sort of flap or swat his hand at the piano, eliciting a little daub of sound; other times he trilled out a brief phrase. But there was this great back and forth dance happening between voice and instrument.

And as I noted in my post on the Taylor/Tony Oxley show at the Vanguard last month, Taylor's attack continues to grow ever more caressive (I think I made that word up). Lately he seems to be massaging out the seams in his playing, the juxtapositions between his outbursts and his daintier moments. (Of which there were many tonight--i.e., dainty moments--in fact, I'm starting to think that it's less accurate to describe Taylor--as many, including myself, have--as an aggressive player who *can*, at times, summon incredible restraint and suppleness. The fact is that the overall effect is one of uncanny versatility; neither mode of playing dominates his current performances.) The more I see him, the falser the far-past-cliched "88 tuned drums" description of his playing rings for me. Much of the time he seems to want to eliminate the percussive attack, to sort of lift the notes *out* of the instrument rather than slam them in. I noticed tonight how he often raises his fingers immediately off the keys after tapping out a phrase. This concert occasionally traversed turbulent terrain, but it did so in an entirely fluid manner. I don't know how else to describe where Cecil's playing is at these days. It can be very aggressive, but its defining feature, to me, is a warm, almost pillowy sense of non-attack. I had thought to myself at the last few shows that he'd been losing steam overall--he is, after all, 79--but now I think that's an illusion. He's as energetic as ever, just more tender vis-a-vis the mechanics of playing. I don't think its an exaggeration to say that he simply keeps getting better. His playing is less kinetic now than it once was, but, to me, more integrated.

I noticed some new hand figures too, including some awesome one-fingered slides during the poetry/obbligato section and these incredibly dancelike hand-over-hand leapfrog shapes, like tumblers diving, somersaulting, weaving their bodies in and out of one another. During these moments I really felt a delight from Taylor, a sense of him choreographing new digital dances.

As for the poetry itself--things got more intelligible after that initial spate of wordlessness--it was in keeping with the mathematico-spiritual decrees I've often heard from Taylor. The man loves him some 50-cent words and this show was full of them: "Separating radium from pitchblende / Oxide from radium," "eccentrically oblique but nevertheless transparent," a reference to what I believe was air "pressing on the glottis." The latter line came during the encore, which found Taylor at the microphone in the front of the stage rather than at the piano. He's a great reader, so willfully peculiar, often elongating words, messing with their natural accents, repeating them, up- and downshifting his tempo, bouncing his body up and down while speaking: "A book printed with immovable type before 1501 / A *book* printedwithimmovabletype before1501." Yes, he actually said that, and a lot more, including his by now trusty "hypotenuse" reference and words like "incunabula." When I interviewed Taylor, he showed me one of his notebooks, and it was just absolutely inked to the brim; in other words, he probably has an inexhaustible storehouse of such verbiage. Mumbo-jumbo? Depends on your mood I guess. I don't sense a coherent thrust in these works such as a delight in the sound of weird words, which I can totally relate to.

All I know is that it's wrong to consider the voice as a secondary ingredient in Taylor's work. Judging by Neidlinger's quote, it seems to be integral to how he approaches the piano and tonight made that explicit. As I mentioned in the aforelinked article, another integral factor is flamboyant fashion: The man consistently upstages himself in that department, and tonight he had on an oversized black pinstripe shirt with a white tie and rainbow socks, and of course, his customary do-rag. As always, to Cecil, his own.

Let's hope there's more of these "Words into Music"-style concerts. This was unique and way fascinating. In the meantime, among Cecil's recorded works, Chinampas and In Florescence are both heavy on the spoken word; they need to be considered as part of the full Taylor picture rather than tangential distractions.

Also, have folks spent time w/ the solo You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To on Taylor's 1956 debut, Jazz Advance? If not, please do click the link above. It's totally odd and abstract and it's truly the blueprint for all the inspired weirdness that was to come (not to mention easily one of the strangest pieces of music I know from the '50s). Don't miss it.


Goodbye for the weekend, off w/ Laal to... Prog Day. If you check out the lineup you can probably guess who I'll be there to see.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the description of the show. Last night was my first time seeing him live after years of listening to his records, and I was astounded by the combination and power and finesse.

Prof. Drew LeDrew said...

Awesome description of the Highline show, which I sadly missed. Reminded me of what I did see at the Oxley duo at the Vanguard, though. Agree about the greater finesse not being about advanced age but advanced ... what? ... presentation? Synthesis?

Anyway, have you seen the Cecil doc "All the Notes"? After your "interview" session, it will seem awfully familiar. Aside from the pleasure of an extended time with Taylor, the movie really allows you to see the elements of his personality -- and then, inevitably, his playing -- that are straight-up diva-y. The fabulousness of him, if you will.

Anyway, thanks for the long great post.