Saturday, August 16, 2014

Dealing with CT: 'Nailed' and beyond

Plenty of times, when listening to Cecil Taylor (either live or on record), I've taken notes, diligently trying to process what I was experiencing. I've listened to a lot of Cecil Taylor this week—all recorded, of course; to my knowledge the Maestro hasn't performed live since last year, when he dueted with Min Tanaka after receiving the Kyoto Prize. For much of that time, I've happily let my pen fall pretty much slack. My jaw, as well.

To digress, I have these Cecil Taylor phases. They've been a fixture in my life for more than a decade (and an intermittent central theme on DFSBP). Periods where I need his music—often a certain phase or group—in my ears more or less constantly. Until this week, it had been a little while, maybe even a couple years, since I'd gone really deep with Cecil. What kicked off this latest listening jag was the troubling recent news of Taylor's swindling at the hands of a contractor. It's an outlandish story, one that would be absurdly comic if it hadn't happened to an 85-year-old man, let alone one who happens to be, in my opinion, one of the greatest artists who has ever walked the earth.

In keeping with my post last week, which only brought up the recent Sonny Rollins New Yorker flare-up so that I might do my best to dismiss it and deflect attention elsewhere, I feel the need to shoo away this real-world Cecil insanity. Let's hope and trust that he's getting the legal help he needs, and let's not fixate on the incident, reduce the man to a caricature—the batty eccentric he's being portrayed as. (Maybe I've been guilty of same.) Let's use the opportunity, rather, to get back in touch with his art, which is what matters.

So, the note-taking, or lack thereof. I just spent a restorative near-hour with "First," the 52-minute lead track on Nailed, a Taylor quartet record (with Evan Parker, Barry Guy and Tony Oxley) on FMP that, like a bunch of other Taylor FMPs, is available as a Bandcamp download through the noble efforts of Destination: Out. (I'm grateful to Seth Colter Walls for pointing me toward Melancholy, recorded a few days after Nailed—SCW singled it out as one of the more precise, coherent Taylor large-group recordings, and I fully concur.) While listening to Nailed today, walking around Crown Heights, I scrawled down just a few hyperbolic phrases: "Raining down of hell, or heaven"; "Nobody has ever come close to describing this experience."

I guess with that last one, I was thinking about all the times I myself had written about Taylor, and how much I'd read about him. (After flipping back through Howard Mandel's Miles Ornette Cecil during the past few days, I've been reminded that the lengthy CT section in this book is perhaps our definitive contemporary Cecil Taylor reference work—the key early-Cecil text being, of course, the lengthy CT section in A.B. Spellman's Four Lives in the Bebop Business—containing as it does both an honest critical grappling with the essential unknowability of Taylor's art, and a wealth of intermittently lucid interview material with the man himself, and with key collaborators ranging from Dominic Duval and Jackson Krall to one Max Roach.) And how inadequate all those words felt in the face of what I was hearing. Eventually I stopped writing phrases and began jotting down only time codes, denoting moments when, basically, I was in blissful disbelief. The other night, while listening to the equally marvelous Celebrated Blazons (another 1990 CT set available via the D:O/FMP Bandcamp, recorded a few months before Nailed; the band here is the divine Feel Trio, with Oxley and William Parker), I wrote, at one point, "How could this have occurred in, like, human life."

So you reach the end of words, the place where there is no substitute for the listening. And why would you want there to be? I have about ten time codes here referring to different sections in "First." Interestingly, many of them refer to moments that don't feature Evan Parker. With all due respect to EP, he almost seems like an onlooker during this performance. He's in the mix, of course (there's a nice Parker/Taylor duet section around the 30-minute mark), but he also lays out for long stretches. It's hard to blame him. The amount of sustained "Are you fucking kidding me?"–level intensity in this track is almost comical. During the trio sections, when Guy and Oxley are going full-tilt, which they are most of the time, you get this riot of sound, a flurry of sonic event. I've dialed up one of my notated time codes: the 26-minute mark. Taylor scampering across the keys with his patented frenzied whimsy, sounding simultaneously savage and mirthful; Oxley approximating wind whipping through a junkyard, furnishing a mist of thuds and scrapes and clangs; and Guy tearing through—or attempting to—the thicket of sound.

Collective mania around the 34-minute mark. All four players this time, racing and gushing. You can feel the Englishmen's desperation: "How long can this guy keep this up?" (A long, long time. I think it was in the Nailed CD booklet that I first read Oxley's classic quote, maybe my favorite thing ever uttered about CT: "To play with Cecil Taylor you need the stamina of an athlete and the imagination of a god.") There's a brief respite around the 40-minute mark, with Cecil ramping down, segueing into his classic murmuring warm-up/cool-down motif, which I think of onomatopoetically as bangada-banga… bangada-banga-banga. And then he can't resist speeding up again, going back in for one more assault. Again, Parker is laying out here. Guy is playing with the bow. Pure mayhem around 43 minutes, more flirtation with the warm-up/cool-down, and then the flailing madness returns. There is something so magical about the outpouring of energy in these moments. You can't get this anywhere else in life, this sort of incandescent freak-out. When it's musicians of this caliber doing the freaking out, and you get to pay witness, it's like seeing/hearing God. 

Buy Nailed if you don't already own it. Drop the needle at 45:40. Let this splatter of precision and brutality just happen to you. I don't know how to talk about music like this. I don't know why you would, unless you, like me, have an obsession with trying to process your own relationship to sound, or you, like me, are trying to encourage others to listen. In moments like this, the engagement of player and, ideally, listener, is total, the level of detail infinite. There is so much of that on Nailed, and on Celebrated Blazons too—and in the ’88–’90 zone of the CT discography generally, with all those divine European encounters. 

Some of the thorniest moments of Nailed come around 49 minutes. The velocity and density decrease here, but not the jagged intensity. All four players are taking their last stabs, measuring their blows instead of flurrying maniacally. And Taylor gets the coda. Around 51 minutes, he quiets for good, musing with consummate restraint. Guy and Oxley providing perfectly attuned accompaniment. There is less than a minute to go in the performance, but this last section is a mini mansion of mystery. All the wildness that's come before, slowing to a trickle. Just like the barrage that precedes it, this ending brims with purpose and precision. That is Cecil's gift to us: total concentration, total conviction, whatever the dynamic zone. He is always, always, always going for it. That is why I have collected his records and attended his performances obsessively over the past decade-plus. When I go and commune with CT, I'm never disappointed. We can't all live in that zone every day, but when you take the time out to really sit with this music, you feel a kind of solar heat. (And you might, as I have, worry that the man is aging and, selfishly, that you might not get to see him perform again…)

We have to appreciate him now—even in the wake of this week's insane real-world news, we have to refocus and remember what the point is: CT is still here. His music is a rich bounty. There's a ton of it. Dip into whatever period you choose—1978 and ’88–’90 seem to call out to me most often—and spend real time there. Put down your pen, your phone, anything that's getting in the way. Let words go; let time go; just deal with CT. It's one of the best feelings I know.


Other treasures I've turned up during my current Taylor fixation:

*A 1970 live performance with Jimmy Lyons, Sam Rivers and Andrew Cyrille. CT's fierceness and frenzy here are almost unbearable. Till yesterday I had absolutely no idea that footage of this band (heard on The Great Concert of Cecil Taylor, from ’69) existed. The CT portion starts around 11 minutes in.


*A genial, charming, lucid 2013 interview, in conjunction with the Kyoto Prize. Definite parallels with the lovely CT episode of Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz, which you can grab here. I've said before that CT is impossible to interview. That's unfair. He was impossible for me to interview, when I visited him in 2009 for the Time Out piece linked above. The truth, I think, is that he's simply selective re: whom he'll converse with linearly and warmly—certainly his right.


*Some fascinating audio documentation—boots from a series of 1998 shows—of an unusual, short-lived Taylor quartet with vibraphonist Joe Locke, bassist Santi Debriano and drummer Jackson Krall, augmented in spots by Oluyemi and Ijeoma Thomas. (For an easy MP3 download, scroll down a bit in the comments and check out the links provided by "mew23.") The Locke/Taylor chemistry is really something to behold. Another fascinating oddity is the Taylor/Parker/Oxley meeting with Anthony Braxton. I think this group played a few times back in ’07; audio boots are floating around, though I can't find any active links at the moment. (Can anyone help?) There is this tantalizing snippet on YouTube:


*A complete stream of Burning Poles, a live-in-studio performance (date uncertain—’90/’91?) by the Feel Trio plus percussionist Henry Martinez. I remember renting this ages ago on VHS and being somewhat baffled by the pacing—at that time, I wasn't accustomed to CT's famously circuitous invocations/introductions—but rewatching this morning, I was just extremely grateful that we have a proper video document of this band.


*Again, I'm in disbelief that this exists: a video from CT's 1974 Montreaux Jazz Festival performance, which would be released as Silent Tongues, simply one of Taylor's greatest recordings. The balance between abandon and deliberateness that, to me, defines CT's work has rarely been captured so well. The passage that begins at 9:27 blows my listen—listen to how Taylor sets up this repeated figure, a two-handed run up the keys, and then mutates it, first answering with his patented declamatory left-hand pounds and then upending the call-and-response structure with a tempestuous flurry. Then at 9:50, he begins this sort of see-saw motion between a version of the aforementioned chilled-out warm-up/cool-down figure and these manic action-painting outbursts. Throughout this clip, the clarity and speed of execution are astonishing. As I've described above, later CT has its own magic, but during this period, he seems superhuman.




*All the Notes (full-length documentary by Chris Felver from about ten years back; as accurate a portrait as you're going to find of what it's like to actually spend time in CT's presence; essential)

*Imagine the Sound trailer (incredible 1981 doc w/ CT, Archie Shepp, Paul Bley and Bill Dixon; see the full film at all costs)

*CT live in studio, 1968 (w/ Lyons, Cyrille and Alan Silva, the band from the album Student Studies)

*CT w/ the Art Ensemble of Chicago (need to give this one a good, hard listen, along with the record this group made together)

*2 Ts for a Lovely T on Amazon MP3 (less than $12 for a download of the entire 10-CD box?! I've heard a few discs of this limited-edition Feel Trio set, and the thin sound quality—drastically inferior to, say, Celebrated Blazons above—has always turned me off. But at this price, I can't resist giving it another shot.)

*Q'ua: Live at the Irridium [sic], Vol. 1 (another reconsideration; I've sometimes been on the fence about CT's mid-’90s–through–early aughts working trio with Dominic Duval / Jackson Krall trio, but this one is sounding awesome to me at present. Pluses: rich recording quality; Krall's organic, swinging feel—so different from Oxley's alien sound factory; engaged, sympathetic playing from Duval and soprano-saxist Harri Sjöström.)


Phil Freeman said...

2 Ts is essential. I remember pre-ordering it and waiting months to get it, because of production screw-ups; it cost me somewhere in the neighborhood of $200. I don't have any issues with the sound quality, certainly not when compared with, say, Nefertiti, The Beautiful One Has Come.

I recently revisited the two volumes of Garden, which are my third-favorite solo Cecil releases (my top two are Air Above Mountains from 1975 and The Willisau Concert from, I think, 2000; the piano he plays on the latter disc sounds three or four times the size of a normal one). When he gets all baroque and traditionally beautiful on solo piano, it's literally breathtaking.

Sam said...

Thank you so much for this article! I have tried to stay on top of Cecil's output, but I had two glaring gaps, one I knew about and one I didn't, and you've helped with both of them. I was thrilled to see that amazon had mp3s of "Two Ts for a Lovely T," and since I knew I'd never be able to plump for the box set, I jumped on the mp3s and have been gorging myself on the music all week. The other gap, "Melancholy," I haven't gotten yet but it's now on my list.

I definitely understand what you mean about going through phases where you gotta have Cecil. I went on a "listening jag" of my own about two year ago, working my way chronologically through all my Cecil recordings (albums, boots, CDs, tapes). It was blissful. One of my recent discoveries that you really should check out if you're not aware of is the 1965 Newport Jazz Festival recording available on Wolfgang's Vault ( It's brilliant and is a wonderful complement to "Unit Structures."

Anyway, your writing does what all good writing about music should: it's sending me back to the music. I will have an intimate session with "Nailed" soon and reconsider it based on your words. The Yoshi's material is extraordinary as well and deserves further listening.

For years, I always thought Andrew Cyrille was my favorite drummer with Cecil (with Sunny Murray a close second--wish there was more)...but after my last chronological listening jag I have to say I think Tony Oxley suits him best. Or rather, to put it in a less hierarchical way, Tony Oxley's playing is the perfect match for his work post-Berlin. He responds nimbly and pushes Cecil in ways few drummers have done, and his timbre choices always complement what' Cecil's doing instead of clashing with it. These are not just two payers sticking to themselves while they play; they interact and truly feed off each other and it's always beautiful to behold.

Rod Warner said...

Some great writing about the unwriteable, as you say! When I was blogging some time back I hit the same wall... how to come anywhere near describing CT's performances. I think you have done so much better than my lame attempts,a great post. I attended the London concert with CT, William Parker, Tony Oxley and Anthony Braxton and was completely overwhelmed on so many different levels... there was a passage of about twenty minutes in earth time where I felt that I had never experienced such amazing music, that to really understand it would require evolving to a new level of existence, if that does not sound too pretentious!
I first heard CT when Conquistador came out and some of it was played on a crackly European radio station way back - as a teenager coming to grips with Thelonious Monk it blew me away. Maybe Monk had prepared me for the journey...