Tuesday, April 24, 2018

HMB 14: Ben Monder + The Starebaby outtakes

I'm proud to present the 14th installment of Heavy Metal Bebop, a series of conversations about the intersection of jazz and metal. The subject this time around is guitarist Ben Monder, who I've been wanting to speak to about this topic for some time now. A big thanks to him for a great, in-depth interview. Check it out here.

I've also posted extended conversations with Dan Weiss, Matt Mitchell and Trevor Dunn, outtakes from reporting I did for the aforementioned Times feature on Dan's Starebaby project. (I also spoke with Craig Taborn for the piece, and I hope to be able to post that interview soon.) Enjoy!

Photo: Stephanie Ahn

Friday, April 06, 2018

The fuchsia-colored awning: What Cecil Taylor taught me

[Update, April 6, 3:55pm ET: See also this CT appreciation for Rolling Stone.]

I thought about Cecil Taylor often during the past couple years. After the Whitney concerts in 2016, there was a lengthy period of no-news, and I often found myself wondering how he was doing. Whenever I was in Fort Greene, I would walk by his brownstone, at which I spent one unforgettable afternoon (then: baffling; now, in retrospect: invaluable) in the summer of 2008, and just sort of pay my silent respects. There was always that question of when he, that seemingly eternal, towering, incomparably enriching presence, both in the larger culture and in my sound-obsessed brain/heart, might no longer be there. And the answer to that is, really, never, because — after a partial spin through his early-'80s solo classic Garden on the train yesterday, after I got wind of the sad news that we're all still coming to terms with — he seems as alive to me now as he ever did.

Aside from a few close friends, ones I met shortly after I arrived here for college just shy of two decades ago and who at this point I'd simply consider family, Cecil Taylor has been one of the few unwavering constants of my life in New York. I now wish I had a complete record of the times I got to see him in concert, but here's what I can piece together from memory, and from the backlog of this blog you're reading, which, in many ways, has often resembled a Cecil Taylor Fan Site more than anything else (I was apparently owning up to that fact as early as 10 years ago):

*Duo with Elvin Jones at the Blue Note. Probably fall 1999. Maybe even this show. [Oh, to re-hear this concert. At the time, I barely had any idea who either musician was, and hadn't really begun to cultivate what would become my respective obsessions with the soundworld of each.]

*Duo with Max Roach at Columbia University. June 2000

*Trio with Albey Balgochian and Jackson Krall at Castle Clinton. July 2004.

*Trio with Albey Balgochian and Jackson Krall at the Blue Note. Probably February 2006.

*Solo at Merkin Hall. October 2006. Thoughts here.

*Trio with Henry Grimes and Pheeroan akLaff at Iridum. October 2006. Thoughts here.

*Duo with Tony Oxley at the Village Vanguard. July 2008. Thoughts here. [I will say that this stands as one of the greatest sets of live music I've ever witnessed, period, and it is my constant regret that I didn't go back and hear them every night they were there.]

*Trio with William Parker and Pheeroan akLaff at the Blue Note. February 2008. Thoughts here.

*Solo at the Highline Ballroom. August 2008. Thoughts here.

*Trio with Min Tanaka and Tony Oxley + [I think] Octet with Bobby Zankel, Elliott Levin, Albey Balgochian, Tristan Honsinger, Jackson Krall and others at the Whitney. April 2016. Thoughts here.

*Quintet with Harri Sjöström, Okkyung Lee, Jackson Krall and Tony Oxley at the Whitney. April 2016. Thoughts here.

There were plenty of other opportunities that I should have availed myself of. I never caught, for example, the orchestra that he would often bring to Iridium. Nor did I make those 2012 solo shows at Issue Project Room and the Harlem Stage Gatehouse, respectively, which have taken on a sort of mythic quality in my mind based on the rapturous testimonies of those who were there. (Though I did attend the 2015 Taylor tribute at the Gatehouse, and as good as it was, like everyone else, I was bummed that the man himself didn't make it.)

It now seems strange, given the relative scarcity of Cecil performances, both in NYC and elsewhere, during the later years of his life, that for a while there (and this could very well have been going on long before I arrived in the city), his presence, both on various stages and on "the scene," was common, expected. (Chris Felver's revelatory and now hard-to-find documentary All the Notes, with its window into Cecil's day-to-day life — holding court at home, heading out to his frequent haunt the 55 Bar — will stand as a key document of this period.) We have a vision of him as perhaps the ultimate musical eccentric, but he was by no means apart from society. I'd always hear stories from various musicians who had hung out with him either at his place or elsewhere (Howard Mandel's Miles Ornette Cecil book is another great reference for this kind of lore), and I remember seeing him out at a show at least once, at the 2003 Sunny Murray performance at Tonic documented here. During the afternoon I spent with him in '08, we strolled from his home to a neighborhood café and then to a local food market, and he exchanged friendly, neighborly greetings with employees and pedestrians.

All I mean to convey here, really, is that I feel extremely fortunate that my time on the planet, and especially in New York, overlapped with that of this creative giant, whose work sparked in me seemingly unbounded interest.

Beyond the live shows, I developed a whole other private relationship with the recorded work. Following my first exposure to CT, probably around the time of that '99 Elvin Jones gig, his albums, plus whatever videos, bootlegs or other documents I've been able to turn up, gradually became cyclical listening staples for me. For something like 15 years, I've moved in and out of various phases, but I've always, eventually, returned to Cecil and fixated on some new period or wrinkle. Here I was in '08, trying to devise a sort of DIY taxonomy for his piano language (even last night, revisiting Garden, I still found myself thinking in terms of the Lick and the Flurries); and here, in 2014, following a relatively quiet period for CT, going deep with the mighty Nailed; and here, in 2016, trying to make sense of Cecil Taylor, the Composer. The latter is one of my favorite posts on DFSBP, not because I think it's some sort of brilliant analysis, but because, looking back on it, I feel that it at least captures my level of immersion and, let's face it, obsession. As with any great art, especially art that exists in such vast quantities as Cecil Taylor Music, there is no "getting to the bottom of" this body of work. But there is a certain pleasure that comes, for me at least, in drinking it in and trying to make sense of it. Not sticking pins in it and displaying it under glass, but simply concentrating on it, recording impressions, maybe even formulating wild theories. Just sort of reveling in it, really, and relishing the fact that you're never going to apprehend it, so you might as well just stand underneath the waterfall and let it engulf you.

I feel this anew, now, just sort of taking stock of the Cecil Taylor music I have at hand — dozens of CDs, a handful of LPs and a daunting amount of digital files — in light of the news of his passing. Honestly, since around the time of those Whitney performances in 2016, I haven't gone through another one of those heavy CT listening phases. It's been a while since I've felt truly, presently immersed. But browsing the collection now, I feel like I never left. Because what is music, or any kind of art, but an invitation to concentrate. With Cecil, there was always that sense of "Could I ever hope to match, in my beholding of this, the level of engagement he's bringing to this performance?" I can vividly remember sitting in my seat at, say, the Merkin Hall solo concert mentioned above and feeling a great sense of almost physical exertion in trying to take in all the musical information that was rushing past me. I would leave these performances completely wired, in an almost frantic state, feeling utterly compelled to rush back home and record what I'd heard, seen, felt. And again, this has so little to do with the idea of "reviewing" something; this was and has been and I believe always will be an exercise of pure play.

Which, in a sense, it seems to have been for Cecil. This quote from All the Notes: "It's fun, if you don't let them make you write-all-this-stuff-down-forever, when all that shit'll drive you mad. Cause that's not fun, and everything should be fun, it should be a celebration of life."

And then this:

"You practice so you can invent. Discipline? No. The joy of practicing leads you to the celebration of the creation."

And so it was with listening to Cecil. The more time I put into it, the more astonished I was and, crucially, the more fun I seemed to be having. And that was, I think, a direct byproduct of the enormous, unthinkable, seemingly unprecedented investment Cecil Taylor had made in his own art. "It seems to me what music is, is," he says in Ron Mann's Imagine the Sound, the other great CT documentary (which also features Archie Shepp, Paul Bley and Bill Dixon; I highly recommend renting or buying the film here if you haven't seen), "everything that you do... "

He continues: "Hopefully, everything that I try to do in this situation has the same kind of control over the senses that the making of the particular art of music is. So to read, or dance, to converse, is all a part of the making of music. So that when one walks down the street and one looks, and if there is a fuchsia-colored awning sticking out on the 30th floor, one says, 'Oh, wow...' So that, to me, what it is, is, everything one does."

What he's really talking about in these passages is the cultivation of a fertile artistic mindset. Whether you're creating or beholding, the act is essentially the same: putting yourself in the best possible position to receive and channel inspiration, which then gives way to "the celebration of the creation." For me, as a Cecil Taylor devotee, what I was relishing, through the constant hours of "disciplined" (a.k.a. wildly enjoyable) listening, through the practice of getting the thoughts down, was the sonic equivalent of that fuchsia-colored awning. Walking one day, you noticed it — and it's hard not to think of Cecil's penchant for flamboyant, brightly colored dress here — and it fascinated you, and you wanted a closer look. And you entered the building in question and you began to climb the stairs. And maybe today, close to 20 years later, upon hearing the news that Cecil Taylor, the man, had passed, you realized that the awning was still out of reach, and maybe always would be, but that its obvious brilliance, richness and singularity still captivated you, drove you, and made you want to know more, to push toward that space of wonderment and rigor and exactitude and abandon. An ultimate free space achieved, paradoxically, through ultimate devotion and commitment. And you realized that you'd always keep seeking out that feeling, and that what he left you with was a kind of infinite curiosity.

Those performances, those records, those bits of spoken wisdom or poetic abstraction (I still think of the endless notebooks displayed under glass at the Whitney exhibit, among countless other ephemera from a life lived in the throes of intertwined celebration and creation) were all just parts of the same invitation, saying, essentially, not with admonishment but with a twinkle in the eye, that the music doesn't have to end just because, well, the music has ended. Look, listen closely, and, like that awning high above you, or anything you might behold with wonder — even, maybe even especially, now that Cecil Taylor, the human, the artist, the teacher, is gone from the Earth — it's still there, all around you.


A wealth of great CT commentary and materials has surfaced in the past 24 hours. It's striking how many people he touched.

*I found this installment of Piano Jazz to be one of the most illuminating primary sources on Cecil Taylor's art that I've ever encountered. What lovely company he was when he was at ease with his host. His breakdown of his working method to, essentially, the "pleasure principle" is both disarmingly simple and utterly profound.

*Richard Brody at The New Yorker

*Ben Ratliff at the Times

*Nate Chinen at NPR

*Matt Schudel at The Washington Post

*John Fordham at The Guardian

*Ethan Iverson at Do the Math

*Seth Colter Walls at the Times