Friday, April 15, 2016
Shape and fire: Cecil Taylor at the Whitney, 4/14/16
Cecil Taylor performed at the Whitney last night. He showed up, and he performed as planned. It seemed almost miraculous. I don't mean to suggest that the man is unreliable. But while during the first decade of my life in NYC ('98–'08), Cecil Taylor was a common sight on local stages, the gigs have gradually slowed to a trickle. I could be wrong, but I believe that the "From the Five Spot to the World" event, held last November at Harlem Stage, was the first advertised CT live appearance in NYC since the spring of 2012, when he played solo concerts at both HS and Issue Project Room. I was there for last year's event and crestfallen that Cecil didn't show up. There was, of course, Ornette's memorial last summer, but that's its own special case.
So we have the Whitney's ambitious Open Plan undertaking, a true residency, for which, according to curator Jay Sanders and Phil Freeman's excellent Wire cover story, Taylor has actually been rehearsing in the museum—on a "Yamaha baby grand piano in a conference room on the eighth floor"—in preparation for last night's performance, and for whatever may follow. (I've heard rumors of other possible CT concerts going down before the exhibition closes on April 24, but nothing's solid yet.)
So last night, after a long and somewhat chaotic wait, both in the queue outside and in the enormous fifth floor gallery where the exhibit is housed and the performances are taking place (in front of a huge wall of windows looking out over the Hudson), Taylor took the stage, led by an assistant and wearing a beautiful embroidered jacket, joining Tony Oxley, who—to my dismay, was seated not at his glorious custom drum kit, but at a table filled with electronics—and dancer Min Tanaka.
Taylor began to play immediately. Tanaka began his movement improv off the stage, on the far right side, where I could barely see him. Oxley waded in with a sort of electronic percussive chatter, which sounded to me a lot like a sample-based simulation of his typical drum set, though marred here by a crackling speaker. It was a bit of a cluttered, abrupt scene, visually and sonically. The maestro's transmissions were not coming through, to my ears and from my vantage.
I don't remember what happened exactly, what the turning point was, but it may have been the first time—the first of many—during which Oxley went silent. Tanaka was sort of capering across the stage, making jerky, exaggerated, almost parodic movements (his style, for me, took some getting used to, but ultimately proved to be a fascinating addition to the performance). Taylor was playing what sounded to me like a kind of underwater counterpart to his signature style, sort of hanging and murky and drawn out and drifting. And then, suddenly, the sound became crisper. It may have been Oxley's absence, or my own ears adjusting, or Cecil settling in, or none of the above or some totally other factor, but I felt the performance snap into some sort of focus, and from that point on, I felt little but rapture and privilege.
During the first section of the piece, maybe 10 minutes or so of a performance that lasted roughly an hour, the thought occurred to me, as it did during a 2008 Taylor show at the Highline Ballroom, that Cecil's speed and stamina were on the decline, maybe for good. No. Simply not so. He was playing sparser, quieter figures with a delicate and reflective feel. But the sound shapes started to take on a crystalline clarity. Cecil had not yet "gone Cecil," whirled into one of his trademark high-volume, high-density runs or stabs, but you felt that sensation of utter poise and laser-focused intent. Every note started to seem like a hyper-vigorous act of will, of a sonic shape in the mind coursing through the digit of a hand. You feel, at these passages of focus and momentum at a Cecil Taylor show, like you're inside the artist's brain. Ideas unfolding and filling the room. The piano is everything, but it is incidental.
When this sort of exalted space comes about, too, what happens in my listening brain is that the "soft parts" and the "violent parts," the handy ways we attempt to process this man's art and break it down into gestures, start to conflate. The "soft parts," the caresses and slow figures, start to seem every bit as diamond-cut as the obvious peaks and, last night, seizures, these sudden sonic poses struck, mirrored in space by Tanaka and clipped, hanging curiously and even grotesquely in the air before vanishing. I kept thinking of those single frames you see in one brief illumination from a strobe light. Taylor found his way to the zone of speed and power and volume (physical and sonic) we recognize and attempt to stereotype him with. But the truth is that, when he's on, everything he plays has that intent and will and focus. Every sonic shape is as unique and finely honed and exact as every other. Quieter, sure, louder, sure, but the flow of exactitude is unbroken. You feel every sound-shape transmitting directly from his brain. I have never known another musician to touch his/her instrument with anywhere near the level of confidence and respect that Cecil does. Respect, first and foremost, for the music in his head and for the act of getting it into and out of the piano. Taylor has talked widely of his mother rapping his hands with a ruler to instill proper technique. At his best performances, I feel consumed by this sort of ruthless discipline as channeled and sublimated into a wholly loving act.
As he played, Cecil gazed often at Tanaka, clearly relishing the piece's spatial component. He talked in the Wire story of watching birds as he practiced, of studying the forms of trees. His interaction with Tanaka did not seem imitative or even so much reactive, but you could feel him breathing that air, allowing that in. Tanaka, on the other hand, seemed buffeted by Taylor's sonic actions, at times like a puppet, or like a cartoon character plugged into a socket—as we all were, in a way. He moved up and down the center aisle, back toward the stage, exploring the wall of windows, crouching and twisting and clearly just feeling it all course through him. Oxley eventually reentered, and the electronics found a space within the music. Once the speaker crackle quieted down, there was a brief, magical episode where it seemed that Taylor's lines were being haunted by digital ghosts, the sound sources blurring. I don't have a clear idea of what implements Oxley was using, but I could have sworn I perceived some sort of live remixing going on, with Oxley sampling Taylor and reinserting scrambled versions of his just-played lines back into the real-time performance. Taylor and Oxley acoustic, that exalted duo, it wasn't, and I think Oxley would have been the first to admit that, which is probably why he didn't play for roughly two thirds of the piece. But toward the middle, there were these moments of beautiful, rushing, disorienting electroacoustic density.
And then the last 15 or 20 minutes. Oxley ceased playing altogether, a sort of poignant spectacle in itself. I had my eyes closed for a while, soaking up the clarity of Taylor's lines. Again, the contrast that is really All One Thing. There were some of the bravura runs, punctuated by heartbreaking tenderness. A clear, soft intent that seemed like it could have gone on forever. Ideas made physical, briefly, before disappearing. Emotion and concentration unifying. The poignancy of these moments of Cecil Taylor performance is, to me, indistinguishable from the precision, the mastery. Part of me wishes I could describe it all more exactly; part of me is glad I don't really have to. No one does. We flock to this man, now 87 years old—reflect on that for a second—as to a crisp, determined flame, burning intently, with vehemence but also compassion, for some 60 years. That's really the best way I can describe it, my attraction to what Cecil Taylor does. There is some inner fire that he calls upon in performance that simply burns hotter and truer than anyone else's, and again, not only during the demonstrative moments, but just in the whole sustained now of the creative event.
We're all drawn to that flame, and we all stand in awe of it. And during this extended solo episode that concluded the concert, Min Tanaka—at some point; I'm not sure when; I only know that I opened my eyes and beheld this—went over and actually sort of physically slumped on Cecil Taylor, still seated at the piano and playing, seeming to rest his head on Taylor's shoulder. Taylor exhibited no visible sense of disturbance. You have to assume this sort of thing has happened in rehearsals or private sessions between the two, but who knows. (I'm exceedingly curious about this new documentary on Taylor and Tanaka, which screens on Sunday.) But to me, the gesture mirrored exactly what I feel when I give myself over to Cecil Taylor, a kind of crumpling in the face of, a week-kneed tribute and offering only of awe. Not abject but fervent and, it has to be said, religious.
And in terms of Tanaka/Taylor, this wasn't just a one way flow of appreciation. These two are clearly soulmates. The same goes for Taylor and Oxley. I found myself reflecting last night on the inner sanctum of Taylor collaborators. Jimmy Lyons, whom Taylor likens to John Coltrane in the Wire piece, seems to live at the center. Andrew Cyrille is there too. The Feel Trio too, is near the heart of things, it seems. But the Oxley relationship is special. The long history of duets—beginning, I believe, in 1988, with the concert released as Leaf Palm Hand, and continuing on stages across Europe and later at our temple the Village Vanguard. I cherish this partners-in-crime on-/offstage document.
Tanaka and Oxley were the primary receivers and muses last night. Even though Oxley's contribution was diminished—and I should stress that no official explanation was given for why he wasn't playing physical percussion—he was vital to the feeling of exalted creation and listening that filled the room during that glorious final chapter of last night's performance. Again, I can't resist the urge to want to capture it better. I keep coming back to the ideas of precision as emotion, and of the stillness and the violence in his playing becoming one. I guess I could say one simple thing, which is that last night, Cecil Taylor sounded as good as I've ever heard him. And by good, I mean clear, free, at peace and at play and at liberty to realize the shapes that dance in his mind.
There was a second set, a previously unannounced performance by what was announced as the New Unit, a name that paid clear homage to various earlier Taylor bands. I experienced this set on a whole different plane. There was a sort of casual aspect to the proceedings. Much of the audience filed out, players made their way to the stage. (I recognized various familiar faces from past Taylor groups: Jackson Krall on drums, Albey Balgochian on bass, Elliott Levin on flute and tenor sax, Bobby Zankel on alto and Tristan Honsinger on cello; there was also a soprano-sax player and a female poet, neither of whom I could name.) It wasn't even clear if Taylor would be playing at all. But he did make his way up, and what followed was a sort of loose, old-school free jazz jam. Moments of inspiration, moments of tedium, but what was striking was the smile on Taylor's face.
You don't get the sense that he gets to cut loose with a group like this very often these days. As in some particularly cacophonous Taylor group performances of yore, his contributions were hard to pick out. But he was clearly after sensation, clearly relishing, just as in the first set, the collective experience he had brought about. (I should say that Bobby Zankel stood way out. I heard fleet, fluid mastery, with shades of Lyons, Dolphy, Ornette. It seems somewhat of a shame to me that he and Cecil have never recorded in, say, a quartet setting.) The performance reached a peak when Taylor himself took to the mic and presided over what had the flavor of a classic Beat-poetry session. His speaking/reading voice is at this point as singular as his pianism: a kind of aristocratic croak, enunciating forcefully a litany of strange, striking terms. I remember "stalk," "alluvium," "fungus." He sounded great reading in front of a sympathetic band—again, something I don't recall hearing him do before. Most of the times I've seen him read or speak, it's been in a solo context, or only as a quick preamble, rather than a fully integrated part of a given set, as it was last night. I've never heard Tzotzil/Mummers/Tzotzil, from '87, but it occurs to me that a new Cecil Taylor vocal recording, where he reads as a band plays live behind him, would be a very welcome thing.
The New Unit set rambled. I got up at one point and wandered around the exhibition. I made note of several items and displays of particular interest: one, an LP jacket, mounted on the wall alongside many familiar titles, for an album of Cecil Taylor and Bill Dixon duets (!) from 1992*. Two, a viewing station, with headphones, where you could watch a vivid color video, from 1965, I believe, of Taylor, Lyons, Henry Grimes and Sunny Murray performing. Unlike some of the other footage on view, this was totally unfamiliar to me. I had no time to sit down and take this in, but you bet I'll be back asap.
Taylor is most certainly in residence. He's inviting his friends down, mixing it up. Welcoming the audience to join them, if only tacitly. He was hidden for a while but he's back, undiminished. The appearance seems all the more precious now that we know how rare it is. It may be that we are in the midst of his grandest chapter.
*More info here.