Sunday, March 18, 2012

Cecil Taylor: inner creation

Words: Gian Paolo Galasi

Mary Lou Williams and Cecil Taylor
“The eye looks, mind deciphers, hands attack, ear informs”. This is one of the methodological indications the New York City-born pianist Cecil Taylor gave the listeners through the liner notes to his 1966 milestone “Unit Structures”. Since his first 1956 recordings with his own band, and next year appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, the pianist stands up in his own right as one of the pivotal figures of last century contemporary music.

“I immediately felt that I would be able to figure out my own universe from his propositions: they were really brilliant; his way to develop monumental improvisations from little melodic cells was gifted with so much structural strength […] I sincerely think that Cecil Taylor is one of the great geniuses of our times as the creator of a real synthesis, as Anthony Braxton, between jazz and Western tradition” [Marilyn Crispell interviewed by Stéphane Ollivier, Jazz Magazine, Dec. 2009]

Born in 1929 and active in R&B and swing bands before giving life to his first quartet featuring soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, bassist Buell Neidlinger and drummer Denis Charles, whose concerts at the Five Spot Café in 1957 have been taken as Ornette Coleman’s two years later as the beginning of the ‘free jazz’ movement, in 1964 Cecil Taylor also created with his alter ego trumpeter Bill Dixon the Jazz Composers Guild.

Andrew Cyrille
“Playing with Taylor I began to be liberated from thinking about chords. I'd been imitating John Coltrane unsuccessfully and because of that I was really chord conscious.” [Archie Shepp, from the liner notes of 1964 Impulse! Record “Four for Trane”]. If one listens to the ‘Involution/Evolution’ movement of Alms/Tiegarten (Spree) recorded with a large ensemble in Berlin, more than a relationship with Iannis Xenakis music can be found. Not by chance, since Taylor’s way to relate music to architecture is something he has in common with the Greek born composer.

In 1961 Impulse! Records issued Gil Evans’ Into the Hot, a record split between the two pianists bands and visions. For the first time, Taylor left off traditional notation and started to develop his own modus operandi. With a band featuring Archie Shepp and Jimmy Lyons on reeds, Ted Curson on trumpet, Roswell Rudd on trombone, Henry Grimes on bass and Sonny Murray on drums, on rehearsals Taylor was repeating the lines for the musicians, so to prevent “western notation blocks total absorption in the ‘action’ playing”. [from Unit Structures liner notes]

In the few years following ‘Pots’ and the other compositions for the album, Taylor developed the rhythmic aspect of the music thanks to drummers as Sunny Murray and Andrew Cyrille. Conscious of the developments in Cage’s piano music, Taylor imagined another way to step away from ‘classical’ culture. As in A.B. Spellman’s Four Lives in the Bebop Business: [talking about David Tudor, Cage’s main collaborator on piano] He's so detached he ain't even there. Like, he would never get emotionally involved in it; […] it's a mental exercise in which the body is there as an attribute to complement that exercise. The body is in no way supposed to get involved in it.”

John Cage, David Tudor, Merce Cunningham, Barbara Dilley
Cecil Taylor developed a music based on physical experience of playing, whose basis are “regular and irregular” rhythms. Rejecting the “transformed symbols thru conductor” of the Western modern and contemporary music practice, Taylor practiced both the reintegration of  “all body’s limbs” and the “ultimate communion” between human beings. Also a dancer, Taylor was conscious that from the limbs all body movements emanate; "At the controlled body center, motors become knowledge at once felt, memory which has identified sensory images resulting social response." It’s the same idea underlining Indian classical music and its philosophical premises, Shivaism, as many other non-Western cultures and music practices.

Unit Structures, first Cecil Taylor Lp for Blue Note, recorded in 1966 at Rudy Van Gelder studios in New Jersey, and his first fully accomplished work, saw the application of his creator’s “form is possibility” program as rhythms, pitches, shapes and contents “arises through the individual experiences of the performers, their personal history as contained in memory.” [Matthew Goodheart, Freedom and Individuality in the music of Cecil Taylor]

Cecil Taylor Unit is at that point in time composed by trumpeter Eddie Gale Stevens, Jr., altoist Jimmy Lyons and multireedist Ken Mc Intyre, bassists Henry Grimes and Alan Silva, and Andrew Cyrille on drums. The following Lp Conquistador! was recorded in October the same year always at Van Gelder’s studios and issued by Blue Note; here Jimmy Lyons’ alto sax is finally placed side by side with Bill Dixon’s trumpet on a record. Actually collaborating with the pianist since 1951, and involved during his career in projects involving many of Taylor closest partners such as Archie Shepp, drummer Tony Oxley and bassist William Parker, in 1966 Dixon was also issuing for RCA Victor his first accomplished masterpiece Intents And Purposes, starting the recording sessions four days later Conquistadors!’s .

Bill Dixon in Italy, 1980
His wide intervals, not implying a specific key or mode while relying on timbre and tone-colors – Dixon was also a painter, as many album covers can directly testify – were the perfect counter altar for Taylor’s dense cluster, percussive figures. And while the two basses (Silva’s bowed lines, Grimes lower registers) generate contrasting parts instead of dictating a pulse whose sense is suggested through contractions more than using a ‘rhythm section’, Andrew Cyrille’s textures and Jimmy Lyons rooted in bop melodic phrases are completion for a music that through the following decades is still at his creative peak.

This is highly exemplified by a series of astounding, beautiful records that, since the 1970s, Taylor released for labels such as Arista/Freedom and New World in the US, Black Saint in Italy and FMP in Germany. While attaining a wider popularity through the praise of the critics, a concert for Jimmy Carter on the White House Lawn, and then a Guggenheim and a McArthur fellowships through 1973 to 1974, the albums Cecil Taylor issued in this period are highly explicative of his musical practice.

Some notable releases are 3 Phasis (New World, 1979), featuring again Jimmy Lyons, Raphé Malik on trumpet, Ramsey Ameen on violin, Sirone on bass and Ronald Shannon Jackson on drums, the two-Lp set Historic Concerts recorded at the Columbia University in 1979 with Max Roach and released in 1984 by Black Saint, Alms/Tiegarten (Spree) recorded in Berlin in 1988 and released on FMP featuring the Cecil Taylor European Orchestra – Enrico Rava on trumpet, Hannes Bauer and Walter Wierbos on trombones, Louis Sclavis and Peter Brotzmann on reeds, Tristan Honsiger on cello, Peter Kowald and William Parker on bass and Han Bennink on drums amongst the others – while the solo practice is widely witnessed through records as Silent Tongues (Arista/Freedom, 1974), recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival and exemplifying perfectly Taylor’s percussive approach to piano, once described as a Santeria’s altar, and 1987 For Olim on Black Saint, that is one of his most lyrical statements.

William Parker
While containing a dedication to Julian Beck, For Olim – Olim being an Aztec hieroglyph meaning movement, motion, earthquake – as 2004 Algonquin, issued by Bridge and featuring Mat Maneri on viola, suggests a direct connection with ancient cultures and rituals. Joseph L. Enderson, follower of C.G. Jung and author of one chapter of his mentor’s The Man and His Symbols, talks of the Algonquin archetype of Red Horn, a semi-divine character usually associated with a thunder bird as the main figure of some rites at the end of which the beginner was becoming a fully responsible human being. Archetypes are predictable patterns of inner conditioning that lead to essential changes and shows between individual development and the ancient initiation rites.

In the 1990s, Taylor activity sees the preponderance of the Feel Trio with long time associated bassist William Parker and drummer Tony Oxley, beautifully documented in the 2 T’s for a lovely T 12 Cd FMP box set, without dismissing his larger ensembles and solo performances. Matthew Goodheart issued a beautiful essay on how the music of Cecil Taylor is going to develop through rehearsals. But it is also possible to listen directly to Taylor’s own words on documentaries such as 1981 Imaging the Sound, directed by Ron Mann and digitally restored in 2007, or Chris Felver All the Notes, released on DVD in 2006.

“I was young when I met Cecil Taylor: 24 years! […] For me, he was an intellectual as much important as James Baldwin. He opened my eyes on the meaning of black music: our music was something more than dance, vaudeville music, our music had a history, it was coming out of slavery, from struggle.” [Archie Shepp with Samuel Thiebaut]

Nat Hentoff Jazz Is, New York: Random House, 1976
Amiri Imamu Baraka Black Music, New York: Apollo, 1968
Ekkehard Jost, Free Jazz, Vienna: Universal Edition, 1974
A. B. Spellman, Four Lives in the Bebop Business, New York: Pantheon, 1966
Valerie Wilmer, Jazz People, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merril, 1970

1 comment:

  1. Rob Wrote me (unluckily I deleted his comment, but since I have a copy on my email adress I can paste it here): "The fourth photo in your essay which you tag as "Bill Dixon in Italy, 1980" is actually a picture of trumpeter Stephen Haynes who studied with Bill Dixon and played in Bill's band during that 1980 tour. He appeared on the two "Bill Dixon in Italy, 1980" albums on Black Saint. He has also played with Cecil Taylor. Stephen Haynes continues to play masterfully and lives and teaches in Connecticut. "

    I leave this comment and my mistake so to pay tribute to a great trumpeter, with whom I also disscussed a little the music of Taylor and Dixon last summer, whose music is fully enjoyable through Bill Dixon's (I was listening myself the two on Black Saint yesterday) and his own albums.