Thursday, August 28, 2008

Taylor made

Hello again, good people. My apologies for the hiatus. As is often the case with blogging, the days just sort of got away from me and here we are two weeks later. Lots of business on the plate, yet energized after a recent trip to Kansas City with Laal. Friends and family were seen--some all in the same place for the first time in like a decade. It was too brief.


And here I present you with what I'll label, if I may, a real piece of work: a profile on Cecil Taylor from the new issue of Time Out New York.

I have no idea how to frame this one, really. I guess one way to put it would be that I have a Post-It on my wall that says, self-explanatorily, "Dream Interviews." Listed on it are four musicians: Glenn Danzig, Trey Azagthoth (wizardly guitarist of Morbid Angel), Charles Brackeen (excellent out-jazz saxist, active in the '80s and still apparently alive though not heard from for many moons) and lastly Cecil Taylor. As of now, there is a line through Taylor's name and next to it I have written "ha!"

I did meet with Taylor, last week. We dined together near his home in Fort Greene and then hung out in his living room for a while--a long while. All in all, the proceedings lasted five hours, and I'm confident they would've lasted several more had I not simply called it quits. I'm struggling with how to put this... I guess the best way to express my feelings about the experience is that I wouldn't classify it as an interview at all, more as a monologue, or even a performance that I was witness too. Taylor responded cryptically or confrontationally or blankly to inquiries. (To be fair, he did describe himself as "irascible" several times.) This was occasionlly humorous and engaging, such as when we spoke on the phone to arrange the interview. He told me what he had been reading--including Ron Suskind's The Way of the World, which I've since picked up and am really loving--and then asked what I was working on and what I did generally at Time Out. I began by saying that I wrote mostly about jazz and rock; he quickly cut me off and asked, "How would you define rock music... mathematically?" Caught off guard, I stumbled. I think I tried to make a point (in retrospect, a wholly nonmathematical one, but hey, what're you gonna do?) about how in rock the musicians all work together in the same rhythmic structure while in jazz they all come at it from different angles. Yadda, yadda.

Anyway, so I was sort of energized by this unpredictability, but the idea that Taylor would keep me on my toes, not obeying the traditional interviewer-subject one-way-street relationship. That would've been cool, but it wasn't what happened. After several attempts to pursue what I thought would be a fun line of questioning--on the eve of Taylor's show at the Highline Ballroom, which is on Friday, I wanted to talk with him about the huge variety of NYC venues he's played over his 50+ years of local performance--I threw in the towel and just became a sponge, absorbing everything I could, in essence resigning myself to a monologic experience rather than a dialogic one. I was there, in his presence, but I ceased to become a factor. No interchange, no repartee, no nothing. I felt talked *at*, not the most pleasant sensation.

Maybe I gave up too easily, but I was rattled, and I just didn't sense that I was going to get anywhere. So I just tried to listen and watch as hard as I could. If nothing else, hopefully the piece portrays what it's like to spend an afternoon with Taylor in his apartment. Is any of this observational detail relevant to his music? In some cases, I think it is; in others, maybe it's just entertaining. He is, after all, a marvelously eccentric person.

Was I disappointed with my dream interview? I'd have to say yes. Do I resent Taylor for resisting the standard operating procedure (I couldn't even get him to sit in one place and speak into the tape recorder)? Nah. He is who he is. Cooperating with journalists isn't exactly a prerequisite for great artmaking. But when I think how often I've been able to have these really stimulating dialogues with great artists--people like Muhal Richard Abrams, Cecil's contemporary and one of the kindest, most dignified individuals I've ever had the pleasure of meeting--it makes me a little sad that this couldn't be one of those. Music journalism is, of course, nonessential to music, but that doesn't mean one enjoys that fact in the face.

But hey, maybe the fault is all mine. Some journalists have elicited warm, insightful commentary from Taylor. Here's an outstanding interview w/ Miya Masaoka (at first I thought that maybe he was so open with her because she was a fellow musician, but then again, when I mentioned to Taylor that I was a drummer he labeled me a "spy") and here's one with the Times' Peter Watrous that I really enjoyed.

My piece certainly portrays a side of Taylor you won't really read about elsewhere; if that's for better or for worse, I'll leave it up to you to decide. I did what I could do with the information at hand; if any quotations seem off-topic, I can say only that they were entirely indicative of what Taylor chose to expound on. (As you'll read, the experience overall was a weirdly humorous one, even verging on the absurd.) I'll never forget the encounter, that's for sure, nor will I forget the deliciousness of the nonalcoholic cocktail Taylor prepared for me: Looza nectar (mango, maybe?) with an entire halved lemon thrown in. It was sweet, sour, divine.

There will be none of this "Now I'm turned off of Taylor's music" nonsense. I think any reader of this blog could tell you that I'm hooked for life. I'll even be there on Friday. But something tells me I won't be sticking around to exchange pleasantries.


Three records of the moment:

Graham Smith - Yes Boss (downloadable here)

Krallice - s/t (available via Profound Lore)

Harris Eisenstadt - Guewel (available soon via Clean Feed)

Also really digging on some old Ui records I retrieved from home.


Unknown said...

Big ups to Ui. Lifelike indeed.

Stephen Haynes said...

The experience you had was an authentic one, Hank, and not an interaction tailored (forgive the choice of word) for you alone. Hard to say why Cecil wraps himself this way but, by all accounts and through my own direct experience, I can confirm that communication remains indirect and controlled much of the time.

I love the man on certain levels, and enjoyed the experience of working with him in an orchestral setting. And Cecil, in spite of his reputation, was very generous with the orchestra over the five year span of our work in Europe and at Iridium in New York. Convening such a large ensemble with annual frequency was, financially, an extravagance.

With Ben Young at work on a book on/with/about Cecil's work, one wonders what layers of the onion may be peeled back and put into view. Will this be another bio-discography (e.g. Young's Dixonia) that shows the clear editorial imprint of it's subject (in Bill's case a good thing!)?

Keep up the good work Hank. Perhaps we can get you up to Vermont for an in-depth interview with Bill, as we have just finished a week with him at Firehouse 12 in New Haven. Your coverage of our work (17 Musicians in Search of a Sound) at the 2007 Vision Festival was well written and helpful.

-Stephen Haynes

lee said...

it must have been either you or Cecil's mood. I , a pale skinned celt, have spent many hours conversing with Charles Gayle, allegedly the most obtuse of all. you cant apply the same method to all, and you must be on your toes.
journalism of art is a mostly futile puruit, and jazz artists are clearly the ones least respected of all the arts. ive read reviews of tepid stuff that are glowing rollercoasters of emotion/insight. when the record is some okey dokey pentatonic whatever.
Folks like Cecil tho are usually spoken of as freaks, or aggressive or ooooo looook how weiiiiird.... As old as he is , i'd be sick of the journalism too. the musician status is no help. lots of great musicians have bad taste, or have no concept of the artist processes outside of those they have chosen to take the time to investigate.
I'm with Cecil.