Friday, April 29, 2016

Architecture and explosion: Cecil Taylor, the composer

Chances are, if you're reading this, you wouldn't have too much trouble humming 10 or so compositions by Duke Ellington (whose birthday is today!) on command, just about that many by Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus, and probably double that by Thelonious Monk. Ditto at least a handful by Charlie Parker and Wayne Shorter, maybe even a few by Andrew Hill or Henry Threadgill or Pat Metheny. But could you hum even one by Cecil Taylor?

An easy answer would be something like, "But he's a composer in a different class..." True, to some extent. But then we have something as direct (and great) as this:

Much like Cecil Taylor, the pianist, or Cecil Taylor, the poet, Cecil Taylor, the composer, is far too massive a creative spirit to be contained by any shorthand characterization.

The idea of who Cecil Taylor is as a composer has fascinated me for a long time. It's an idea that's clear in my mind but so very hard to quantify. He wrote—the term seems inadequate to describe what he achieved with his various Units; maybe "enacted" or "animated" is more apt—music as great as any of the figures above. But it's music that, in its totality, is generally much harder to grasp, and much more elusive than the great, memorable tunes composed by Ellington/Strayhorn, Monk, Ornette, etc. The below is my attempt to make some kind of sense of it all.

Having read a good deal of Taylor's thoughts on the subject of composition, I would go so far as to say that the idea of Cecil Taylor is as a composer has fascinated him, too—or maybe "plagued him" would be a better way of putting it. If you have time, I strongly recommend giving this transcript of a 1964 panel discussion involving Taylor and composer Hall Overton a close read, but for now:

[The example at hand is Lennie Tristano's 1949 "free" piece "Intuition," as compared to the works of Duke Ellington.]

Overton: What was the difference between what Duke and what Lennie did? Duke wrote it out, didn’t he?

Taylor: Oh…That’s another problem. What difference does that make? The only thing that we know about—the only thing that the listener knows about—is the sounds that he hears. I don’t think it makes any difference that the sound is notated because the symbol doesn’t make the music. It is the men striking the instruments, striking the pieces of wood or whatever. It's the sound that we're confronted with, not the symbol. Because in other cultures they don't use our symbols, but they make music, they make sounds.

Overton: I would disagree on that one point because I would make a distinction, Cecil, between an idea that's improvised and that just occurs at the moment, and an idea that is already arrived at, preconceived.

Taylor: How can an idea come, you know, into being without certain things happening?  I mean, if you write a composition—all the great composers that you were talking about which happened to be in a particular school—all the great composers have been improvisors…

Overton: That's right.

Taylor: Now, the only difference is that certain people wish to notate their improvisations. That’s all. And other people improvise—now what does that mean? It simply means that these people who choose to improvise utilize certain physical things in their characteristics and and transpose them to the instruments and, after a certain amount of years, these things take shape in a form…Like the Charlie Parker expression. He uses certain material, certain forms if you will, and he brings these to like his improvisations.
The topic is also covered extensively in the invaluable chapter on Taylor—probably the best single biographical/journalistic resource on CT that we have seen, or ever will see—in A.B. Spellman's Four Lives in the Bebop Business. I could excerpt about 20 pages here, but here are just a few passages that seem relevant to the discussion at hand:

"Stockhausen's menagerie of effects was, when they were translated [from a complex score, i.e.], just musical sounds, the way the notes you read from a Bach thing are musical sounds. In jazz, the cats don't waste their visual energy. They don't divide themselves, and they should divide themselves even less. You look at the instrument and you spend your energy creating sound with the instrument."


"I've talked to British intellectuals, and they can tell you about Shakespeare, man... But they don't seem to understand that there's another English language, American, which has nothing to do with the King's English...

"But when you start talking to the people about what music is about, why, just what is it that makes Horowitz' touch superior, then I don't know on the basis of what presumption they're going to talk about Monk's limited technique. It always comes out to, 'Well, we've got this tradition' or some shit like that. I have a tradition, and my tradition informs me the way theirs informs them..."


"I've had musicologists ask me for a score to see the pedal point at the beginning of that piece. They wanted to see it down on paper to figure out its structure, its whole, but at that point I had stopped writing my scores out. I had found that you get more from the musicians if you teach them the tunes by ear, if they have to listen for changes instead of reading them off the page, which again has something to do with the whole jazz tradition, with how the cats in New Orleans at the turn of the century made their tunes."
It would be close to impossible to sum up all the issues raised in the quotes above, but for shorthand's sake: Taylor is essentially railing against cultural and musicological racism, the idea that the European classical tradition, with its emphasis on uniform technique and music written on paper, is inherently superior to the black American one, driven by improvisation and the practice of learning by ear—and, I should add, laying out the absurdity of that position with unique force and wit. In the Spellman chapter, Taylor, despite his own sturdy background in European classical music, makes it clear that he would much rather be associated with the Ellingtons and Horace Silvers of the world. (Not to mention the James Browns: "...when James Brown goes into his thing ... it's like a complete catharsis. ... Every fucking thing goes and there ain't no holding back. And it's beautiful. That's the technique of rhythm-and-blues singing, man, and no academy but the genuine tradition of a people can give it to you.") But, crucially, he doesn't want that association to ghettoize him as inherently non-"traditional" or non-schooled. Whether he's writing his music down or not, whether he's playing "jazz" or "classical," whether he's "improvising" or composing with paper (which, in his mind, may very well be the same thing), he wants to be considered—and he wants his black peers and forebears to be considered—as a serious composer, full stop.

Amen to that, of course.

[Note: Henry Threadgill has a lot to say on this general topic.]

But if I may just set aside the racial and cultural issues surrounding the idea of what a composer is, I'd like to come back to my initial rhetorical question: How many Cecil Taylor tunes can you hum? I'll leave that inquiry open, but I'll note some interesting trivia, for the record:

Cecil Taylor has been active as a pianist and composer for more than 60 years, and has released dozens upon dozens of recordings. In that time, his compositions have been recorded by other artists on, by my count, less than five occasions. Two would be ex-Taylor sideman Steve Lacy's recordings of "Louise" (published as "Little Lees" on CT's 1959 Love for Sale album) and "Air" (from 1960's The World of Cecil Taylor) on his 1961 album The Straight Horn of Steve Lacy, and, 40 years later, the Vandermark 5's recording of one of the themes from "Conquistador" (from the album of the same name) on their Free Jazz Classics set. Scanning Discogs, there are a couple other examples but none as straightforward.

I'm tempted to ask aloud why that is. At least one reason is simply that, seemingly, Cecil's music is meant for him to play, and is meticulously taught to his sidemen via the process described above, wherein Taylor is not just the author of his music, passively handing his sidemen a score, but is more accurately the teacher or reciter or oracle of it, teaching it to them by example in a sort of painstaking yet lovingly parental way. (Another reason Spellman's chapter is so great is because we get to hear directly from Sunny Murray, Jimmy Lyons, Buell Neidlinger and Archie Shepp what that's like; here's Shepp: "Cecil has returned to natural music. At that point, Cecil stopped writing his music out and started to teach the cats the tunes by ear. He would play the line, and we would repeat it. That way we got a more natural feeling for the tune and we got to understand what Cecil wanted.") I could of course be misreading the situation, but to me, CT doesn't seem terribly concerned with his music living in standard literature the way that the contributions of many of the artists named in the first paragraph above have. It's meant for him and his inner circle alone.

But another reason might be, and this is the real crux of where I was hoping to go with this piece, that concrete examples of Cecil Taylor, the composer, are relatively hard to come by on record—and I emphasize the word "relatively"; no absolutes intended here—especially after a certain juncture in his career (let's use 1978 as the point of demarcation).

Please understand, I'm using "composer" in a very straightforward and, I'm fully prepared to admit, facile sense. I have to admit that I side with Hall Overton somewhat in the 1964 debate. To me, composition is different from improvisation—very, very different. Not better; there's no hierarchy implied here. But yes, I would argue that creating in the moment, such as we heard Cecil Taylor and his collaborators do last Saturday at the Whitney, is a very, very, very different phenomenon from what you hear Cecil Taylor and his collaborators doing on the 1961 recording of "Pots" embedded near the top of this post.

To me, composition implies clear themes and clear arrangements, period, indicated by moments in an ensemble performance where you can hear a band playing, to use an extremely reductive term, a song. ("Theme" or "line" or "figure" would do just as well—really just a shorthand for an "intelligible nugget of composed musical information.") "Pots" is a song, the same way "Billie's Bounce" or "Evidence" or "In a Sentimental Mood" is. The same is true of countless Cecil Taylor compositions recorded between 1955 and 1978. Basically, throughout the Jimmy Lyons era, and on some select occasions afterward, you can hear Cecil's bands playing tightly arranged, obviously rehearsed music. (The presence or absence of a physical score is, as Taylor has often pointed out, beside the point; the point, at least as I see, is whether or not the band is working off some sort of predetermined compositional model that manifests in a kind of group arrangement that is distinct from straightforward improvisation, however dialed-in and cohesive that improvisation may be.) But from the '80s on, these occasions are rarer and rarer, and as a listener, this fact has always perplexed me a bit. I adore, for example, to put it broadly, Cecil's European work from '88 on, especially the overwhelming tactile thunder of the Feel Trio and its offshoots. But the Feel Trio did not do this:

The arrangement of "Petals," as a breathing organic thing is breathtaking to behold. This music moves like no other music. You have Cecil setting up these spiky, declarative intro figures and the band answering him with staggered fanfares. There is a kind of band intelligence at work here—the language is internalized, the "score" (again, not in the physical sense; I mean more the procedure or the method) is encoded so that the music can sort of auto-arrange. The chaos elements, in this case the piano and the drums, can exist in perfect harmonious tension with the ensemble themes.

This music is not the slightest bit "free," but it's also completely unorthodox, outside of traditional jazz or classical time and structure. It's clearly the kind of thing you only get to with intense, sustained group rehearsal. As I suggest above, this band is breathing the Cecil Taylor compositional method in and out of its collective lungs.

Cecil's bands in the mid-to-late '70s achieved a breathtaking degree of ensemble cohesion. I'd argue that this period, documented on Dark to Themselves (which features the same lineup of Taylor, Lyons, David S. Ware, Raphe Malik and Marc Edwards heard on the UMich recording of "Petals" above) and the rich flowering of 1978 recordings with Taylor, Lyons, Malik, Ramsey Ameen, Sirone and Ronald Shannon Jackson, represents the apex of Taylor as a composer and bandleader. (You'll want to read Phil Freeman on the '78 band, and watch Malik discuss his early encounters with Taylor.) Live in the Black Forest, in particular, is equally as staggering as "Petals" above.

That kind of auto-arrangement I mentioned before is in full effect here. In this and many other CT performances spanning the '60s and '70s, you hear Jimmy Lyons taking a sort of captain's or conductor's role, stating these gorgeous, dancing melodic figures that punctuate the ensemble statements and seem to cue and dictate the band's motion. The other players echo him, flank him, fall in behind him. Again, the tension of a fluid group sound clashing with the rumbles and swells of piano and drums. The music is playing itself.

One reason I treasure the 1961 recordings of "Bulbs," "Pots" and "Mixed" (collected on Gil Evans's Into the Hot and later the Impulse twofer Mixed) is because they have that similar hermetic cohesion; everything you hear on "Petals" and "The Eel Pot" above is here on "Mixed"—one could say in embryonic form, but then again, the Into the Hot recordings are in no way underdeveloped.

It's hard for me to get my head around how good this is. You hear all this talk of Third Stream, of jazz/classical fusion, whatever you want to call it. Taylor had it all down in '61. (Bill Dixon would pick up the thread on '67's awesome Intents and Purposes.) Trumpeter Ted Curson has the Taylor concept nailed, as does Captain Lyons, already playing the "section leader" role—listen to his heartbreaking line at 1:20—and the magisterial Archie Shepp, who knew how to inject old-school romance and swagger into even the weirdest settings. The swing begins around 2:45, Taylor setting up a sort of musical carousel that he can scamper on and around.

The Into the Hot recordings represent Taylor at his most Ellingtonian, painting for ensemble, juxtaposing lush creations of his pen (whether they're written down or not) with the inspired madness of his and his sidemen's improvisations. These three pieces ("Bulbs," "Pots" and "Mixed") represent a kind of road not taken for CT; his compositional sense would flower but it would never again be this orderly and lush and sort of romantic, for lack of a better term. I guess, again, it's really "Ellingtonian" that I'm looking for here, though there are of course parallels with Mingus' Elington-inspired works such as Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. I wish we had many, many more examples of Taylor in his full-flower Into the Hot "Jazz Composer" mode. I bet if we did, we'd see many, many more examples of other artists covering Cecil Taylor.

But as we see with the '76–'78 recordings, CT moved along to something even more personal. And of course we have the famed '66 Blue Note recordings—which, though great, I can't help but, given my obsession with what came before and after, view as transitional, a checkpoint in between the glories of '61 and '76–'78. Still, Conquistador!, especially, is a staggeringly great album, one in which the ensemble behavior of '76–'78, the breathing, the auto-arrangement, is already very much in evidence.

After 1978, Cecil Taylor ensemble recordings that exhibit the alertness, cohesion, poise, command, intrigue, spark, magic, what have you, of classics such as the Into the Hot material, Conquistador!, Dark to Themselves, Live in the Black Forest, The Cecil Taylor Unit, 3 Phasis, etc. are rarer. Again, I'm a huge Feel Trio fan. Huge. But the Feel Trio is not where you hear the fullness of Cecil Taylor's creative genius. On the aforementioned classics, you hear Taylor the deep-feeling, deep-thinking, exacting-but-not-restrictive composer and his mind-meld link with his ensemble players, as well as Taylor the hair-raising, pugilistic yet extraordinarily dynamic and agile improviser. On the Feel Trio recordings, you hear mostly the latter—I think of Berlin '88, out of which the Taylor/Oxley collaboration grew, as sort of a "Beat the Champ!" scenario, in which the European scene's finest free-improvising drummers, e.g., Bennink, Sommer, Lovens, enter the ring one-by-one to trade blows with the visiting U.S. knockout king—with the added bonus of William Parker and Tony Oxley being some of the most sympathetic pure-improv partners Taylor has ever performed with.

(The Taylor/Lyons trio recordings of '62 and '73—released on the Nefertiti, the Beautiful One Has Come and Akisakila, the former with Sunny Murray and latter with Andrew Cyrille—represent an interesting midpoint between the two poles discussed above. The former in particular is an absolutely essential document that foreshadows some of the magical cohesion and chemistry of '66 and beyond, esp. as concerns the Taylor/Lyons hook-up, but both recordings are more about long-form small-group improv than they are about Taylor's compositional and bandleading vision.)

Again, I emphasize that my statements above about the general nature of post-'78 Cecil are generalizations. There are, of course, select other examples of the aforementioned spark/fullness to be found after that glorious period. Winged Serpent (Sliding Quadrants) is a beautifully recorded 1985 little-big-band album that exhibits many of the qualities of the best CT group recordings named above. I don't know the full backstory behind this hybrid American/European band—labeled as Segments II (Orchestra of Two Continents)—but you can tell they put in some serious rehearsal time:

Alms/Tiergarten: Spree is another extraordinary album—this time recorded with all European players, as part of the spectacular '88 Berlin blowout (Destination Out and Seth Colter Walls have you covered there)—maybe the best available recording of Cecil directing a true big-band-style ensemble. Grand, majestic themes ripple through the performance like weather events, as Taylor and drummer Han Bennink run glorious interference. CT Organic Auto-Arrangement at its finest. Again, rehearsals for this music must have been intensive.

Melancholy, recorded in '90 in Berlin and released in '99, seems like a sort of sequel to Alms. I'm just digging into this album for the first time, but it's obvious that this is an extraordinary example of biggish-band Cecil, and perhaps even a slightly sharper set than Alms, jam-packed with gripping themes and ominous dynamics, which is interesting given that the ensemble is made up mostly of unknown players—though, interesting to note the presence of Finnish soprano saxist Harri Sjöström, who played with Cecil twice at the Whitney and also appears on various '90s- and 2000s-era CT recordings, including the excellent Qu'a. (Evan Parker seems to be the one holdover from Alms.) Though we do get the treat of hearing the Taylor / Tony Oxley duo—as well as the Taylor / Oxley / Parker / Barry Guy quartet that recorded the astonishing Nailed just a few days before Melancholy was recorded—embedded within the Taylor orchestral concept.

My first impression of Owner of the River Bank, a 2000 set that teams Cecil with the Italian Instabile Orchestra is that it's very similar to Alms in approach but muddier-sounding and less confidently executed. Still, though: definite moments of CT compositional intrigue here. (On a first listen, I feel roughly similarly about Legba Crossing, a large-ensemble Berlin '88 offering on which Cecil does not play piano, though I'm digging the ritualistic percussion and voice episodes.) Re: other instances of CT working in this format, I recall missing at least one Taylor orchestra run at Iridium in NYC. Would love to hear from anyone who caught that group!

(Note: Alms and Melancholy sound similar to what I heard at Ben Young's fascinating 4/23/16 CT listening session at the Whitney, in which he played various unreleased Taylor recordings, specifically a sampling of early-'70s student-band tapes from, I believe, Antioch College, where Cecil was then in residence. Apparently tons of rehearsal recordings exist from this period, documenting a sort of CT intensive workshop ensemble that rehearsed constantly at the college. Judging by what I heard, these tapes are a treasure trove of large-ensemble Cecil.)

In a way, as Cecil's career has progressed, he's transferred his marvelously personal bandleading/compositional concept more to the solo piano setting, in which he simulates the organic auto-arrangement effects heard in his best group recordings with his own 10 fingers, employing many of the same organizational devices, specifically the call-and-response form so often heard on countless CT recordings; the sort of curlicued, repeating-yet-additive warm-up figures, which I've in the past quixotically attempted to transcribe as "bangada-bangada-baanga… bangada-baanga-baanga"; the declarative thunder in the low register echoed by the dancer-like trills in the high. He is very obviously an ensemble unto himself.

Yet there was something going on in the early part of his career, a concept he was driving at, and one that, as Ben Young put it, Taylor's own Johnny Hodges, Jimmy Lyons, was integral to and helped him achieve, time and again, in the glory years between '61 and '78. The result was a compositional concept as identifiable and indelible as that put forth by Taylor's own heroes such as Ellington and Monk. I might not be able to hum "Petals" or "With (Exit)" or "Taht" or "The Eel Pot" or "Mixed" on cue (well, maybe I could hum the latter, now that I think of it...), but I know and feel that sound of Cecil Taylor driving a band, infusing it with this kind of electric, three-dimensional vision, with layers upon layers of structure and engagement, an almost eerie sense of self-governance, self-organization, self-question/-answer, a play between frenetic ensemble density and confident solo melodic voices, cohering—held together by sturdy but invisible structural cables—and collapsing at the same time, architecture and explosion becoming one. The question, now and in the years ahead, and yet unanswered for the most part, is whether this Cecil Taylor concept can travel forward in time without Cecil Taylor being present. For now, the evidence is there, beautiful and resplendent, in the recorded archives.


Postscript 1: My question to any fellow CT fiends who might be reading this: What are your favorite examples of Cecil Taylor, the composer/arranger/ensemble-directing oracle?

Postscript 2: One area of CT's career I didn't cover in detail above is the pre–Into the Hot phase, from Jazz Advance on. (Another plug for the Spellman: It goes back even further than that, and traces CT's entire history as a listener and player.) It's definitely relevant to the above to think about how Cecil got from, say, "Excursion on a Wobbly Rail" ('58) to "Matie's Trophies" ('59) to "Cell Walk for Celeste" ('61, nine months before "Bulbs," "Pots" and "Mixed," and a track that clearly advances a sort of a proto-Unit Structures sound).

Postscript 3: An album that has shot to the very top of my Must Hear list is Cecil's Dreaming of the Masters collaboration with the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Within seconds of trying out "Caseworks," it's clear that this is a document I'll be taking a long, close look at, a) in light of the above and b) just because it sounds awesome, and I cannot for the life of me explain why I haven't sought it out yet. Here's Joseph Jarman on the album, quoted in Howard Mandel's essential Miles Ornette Cecil: "Mr. Taylor's compositional process is to give you the pitches, you internalize the rhythm after he plays it several times, and he tells you he wants you in this section but not this one. Bounds and parameters are not defined by time, but by feeling, idea and awareness of his personality."


Tony Alexander said...

Thank you so much for this amazing post. You have clarified much of my Cecil listening experience for me, and I have to tell you, your writing on Cecil may be almost as valuable as the Spellman. I've never seen Cecil with large groups, but I agree with everything you said, which almost never happens when I read about music. Keep on, sir.

Garret Kriston said...

After hearing Unit Structures, my first large ensemble CT recording was It Is In The Brewing Luminous from 1980, which I discovered via this nearly lost piece of writing from the early '00s:

It is of course unrelenting and overwhelming and monstrous, and is particularly notable for featuring two drummers (one of whom is Sunny Murray) some highly entertaining vocals at the very end. One long piece, dense as hell, coming right off the momentum of all that late '70s large group insanity.