Sunday, April 24, 2016

Thesis and play: Cecil Taylor at the Whitney, 4/23/16

AP Photo/Barbara Woike

Much like the prior Cecil Taylor performance at the Whitney Museum, Saturday's night's concert began and ended with a poignant display of frailty: the 87-year-old artist, walking with a cane, being led to and from the stage by a small entourage. But what went down in between told a different story. Even more than the first show, Saturday's event was a confirmation of alertness, of vitality, of a man in full control of his expressive faculties. For around 90 minutes, Taylor's presence, his pianism, his poetry, his dramatic poise, and, crucially, his sometimes hidden but always present playfulness, owned the room.

Like the April 14 show, this concert was divided into two halves, but this time, there was no break or personnel change in between, a set-up that made for a more focused experience. More so than at the earlier event, there was a real sense of Cecil and his collaborators building something monumental together over the course of the night. On the surface, Cecil's ensemble here—a quintet with Harri Sjöström on soprano and sopranino saxophones, Okkyung Lee on cello, Jackson Krall on drums and Tony Oxley reprising his subtle electronics role—seemed a bit haphazard, a jumbled assemblage of various past collaborators and one new face (Lee). But in practice, they jelled almost instantly. There was no announcement that this band was an official CT Unit, but in practice, it absolutely was: Taylor was the unmistakable leader, but the group proved to be one of the more responsive and sensitive of the many ad hoc groups he has put together during the past quarter century.

As with the prior show, dynamics were the thing here. The concert began with an absolutely stunning episode of what I'll call Taylor's ballad territory. I'd argue that in his later years, he's reached a place of pure luminous certainty in his sparser playing that feels like a new benchmark in his work. The reflective moments have really always been there, but now they feel sort of laser-pinpointed, as though Taylor were snapping his fingers and transporting you to a realm of otherworldly reverie. Oxley was not really a full participant in the trio with Min Tanaka, but here, he approached the set with what felt like a renewed confidence. His contributions—whooshes and swipes of sound at the edges of the musical frame—were subtle but essential. Lee too proved absolutely integral. Near the beginning of the performance, she waded boldly into Taylor's serene soundworld with perfectly complementary arco accents.

The performance heated up, entering a choppier and more frantic zone. Taylor began to test out his various percussive tactics—there was a lot of flat-palm playing at this show, along with his trademark double-jackhammer two-finger runs. As he often has in the past, Krall seemed tentative at first, limiting himself to choked accents on bass drum and cymbal. But he got his footing and the music took on a rushing density. Krall in full flower is a booming, bashing, clearly bop-indebted player, and many of the louder moments of the performance seemed like sweaty, old-school sparring matches between him and the leader. Taylor's preference of the drummer from the '90s through the mid-2000s has sometimes seemed puzzling to me, but last night, his role made perfect sense. At his best, he brings out the rawer, funkier side of the Taylor endeavor, the part of the pianist that wants to get onstage, roll up his sleeves and spar with pugilistic glee—a part of Taylor's art that was on glorious display at both shows. (I don't think I've ever seen Taylor having so much obvious fun at the keys as he seemed to be during the New Unit set on April 14 and during the wilder moments of last night's quintet performance.) Sjöström too helped accentuate the nastier, scrappier sections of the set, especially when he brought out the sopranino—an instrument with a lovably obnoxious quality, as often heard in the Anthony Braxton arsenal—and really went for it.

The music made its way back and forth across the dynamic spectrum. Taylor would be slugging it out with Krall and then suddenly a space would open up and Lee would be right there to provide gorgeous bowed accompaniment. I'm not sure I can recall a Taylor band so readily equipped to traverse these diverse areas of musical inquiry in such rapid, responsive fashion. Both in Saturday's set and in the April 14 ones, the contrast between Taylor's torrential, tempestuous, Dionysian side and his delicate, exquisite, chamber-like one was especially acute; these days, he seems to be more determined than ever to explore the yin-yang principle that Sonny Sharrock so beautifully articulated: "I want the sweetness and the brutality, and I want to go to the very end of each of those feelings." And fortunately, the band from last night was on him like glue whenever he felt compelled to make the switch. There were moments during the New Unit set on April 14 when I feel like Cecil's sound had been swallowed up by his own band, but that never happened last night; even when they raged, the players let the leader lead.

And never more so than during the extended poetry/recitation/oration/etc. that closed the set. I wasn't keeping track, but I'd estimate that this lasted at least as long as the "main" performance, and I have to say that for the first time while attending a CT performance, I was not wishing for him to go back to the piano. I'd have to say that at this point in his career, when he gets on the mic and really takes charge, embraces his MC side, as it were, Cecil Taylor is just as captivating a vocalist and poet as he is a keyboardist. Last's night reading wasn't just accent or interlude; it was in some ways the meat and climax of the performance.

Taylor stood at the piano bench as he read, starting out in his now-familiar pan-disiciplinary avant-science-treatise mode. "Vegetative propagation," "mycelium of a fungus" (a theme that also cropped up on April 14), "amino acids," "hypotenuse," and so on. The words declaimed, insisted upon, occasionally elongated, growled, extended into a sort of stagily guttural song or abstracted into borderline-goofy glossolalia. (I think there is something in certain moments of Taylor vocal performances that both embraces and satirizes the practice of high-drama oration, but it's impossible to know how much the comedic element figures into his thinking.)

The band homed in admirably, creating a rich yet unobtrusive backdrop. Occasionally, Sjöström would growl in agreement or murmur along, as though playing an obbligato for a singer. Oxley slyly weaved in sampled snippets of Taylor piano when the maestro wasn't himself playing the keys.

About 15 minutes in, something strange happened. Taylor started to speak in sentences, paragraphs, rather than disconnected phrases. He started to tell a story, really. As best I can summarize it, his subject was the arbitrary nature of what we think of as gender, race and culture. It sounds high-minded, but what he was saying actually made a perfect, plainspoken kind of sense. He started out by talking about how the concept of gender was essentially chance-based in nature, the ideas of male and female determined in certain reptile species by environmental factors such as the temperature of the egg, and how the first human couple was perhaps made up of two females. (There's a lot to unpack here, perhaps related to the idea of Taylor as an unabashedly though still tacitly queer artist, with a fierce devotion to a sort of sacred femininity as embodied within the characters of his mother, the great female jazz singers, the spirit Erzulie, etc.; see also: this piece.) Then there was a discussion of how pigmentation, and thus race, was also environmentally determined, and again totally arbitrary. And lastly he went into a sort of prehistory of art, discussing cave paintings from Namibia, presumably these, and how they predated and prefigured the more famous European sites. If I were to risk a distillation of what he was getting at, it was the idea that Western, Eurocentric, patriarchal culture has it wrong. He was arguing for an Afrocentric, female-oriented (or at least gender-neutral)—I could also say fair or just or properly historically attuned—view of human history.

I'm perhaps putting this poorly (though hopefully not misinterpreting the message), but thematically, the talk—and by the end, that's really what it felt like, not in the sense that it was tedious, but that Taylor was spelling out a larger thesis rather than simply reciting words—had a real sense of purpose. As the speech went on, his delivery became softer, more musical. Less growling and more lilting. At various points, he looked out the window as he spoke. A sort of dreamy quality crept in, but at the same time the sense of coherence and conviction deepened. He began to punctuate his words with brief pounding episodes on the keys, played while standing, making him seem almost like a boogie-woogie showman. Then he picked up a drumstick and began to smack and prod the strings inside the piano. Final moments of pure play—impromptu, self-justifying sonic research—it seemed to me.

"Thank you all, that's it!" he said, abruptly wrapping up the performance. He encouraged his collaborators to bow and be recognized. He called for Oxley, almost good-naturedly razzing him—"Oxleyyyy." There was an immediate sense of mirth, and it was clear that this wonderful Whitney residency has been—its many moments of profundity, of visceral thrill, of weird mystification notwithstanding—fundamentally a playground. Not a frivolous space, but a forum of joy and exorcism and see-what-happens collaboration. I sincerely hope that Cecil can continue operating in this manner in the coming years, and that we'll all be privileged enough to witness the results.

1 comment:

TSK said...

The recitation commenced at about 38 min. into the set, the whole set running about 83 min. I was sitting on the side of the room, not in the main section, on the piano side. All the instruments sounded fine from there, but the recitation was substantially lost. Since his back was to me, not clear if CT was facing the mic properly; I've seen him in the past when he seemed unable or unwilling to keep himself in front of the mic during a poetry section, so I'm not sure if this was a side-of-the-room problem or a general problem.