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Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Bill Dixon & Cecil Taylor - Duets 1992 (Triple Point Records, 2019) *****

By Stef

Without a doubt, this is one of the albums of the year, and this for several reasons, even apart from the quality of the performance itself, which is very high. First, it is a rare meeting of two masters who both shaped modern free music to what it is today. They have inspired creative artists and they have been mentors to many. Second, it is amazing that these duets dating from 1992 are now finally released, and available for music lovers around the world, if it was not for the fact that - third - discussions will rise about the high price of 94$ for a limited print edition of 665 copies. I can already anticipate the comments and the Facebook discussions.

For those of you who have followed the two artists' music over the years, this album is not comparable to the trio album with Tony Oxley released in 2002. The absence of the drums makes the music even more singular. And amazingly enough, the only other album on which both men collaborated was Taylor's "Conquistador" from 1966.

The music on this album is driven by a desire for abstraction, a desire to rise above the descriptive, figurative, foundational patterns. They want to break through conventions and because of that also create something higher, more valuable, more universal. Both artists hated the narrowness of definitions, including concepts such as 'blues' and 'jazz'. Once you define things, you put a frame around them, you box them in. Both men went in the other direction, and nothing can be more free and challenging and rewarding than a duo improvisation. That's why the pieces have no titles either. Naming them would mean to restrict them with words, to label them with existing linguistic categories or imagery.

The A-side starts with spacious and slow trumpet sounds, enhanced with reverb and resonating in empty space, supported by precise, almost impressionistic piano playing by Taylor. Both are very attentive to each other, on the edge of listening, deep in the music they create, which turns darker and more dramatic as the improvisation evolves, and the original calm becomes an agitated nervousness of speedy interactions, only to move into more experimental territory where bare sounds and silence dominate the dialogue, and the piece ends open-ended, hesitating between welcoming stretched phrases and unpredictable sonic bites.

On the B-side some of the most remarkable moments of virtuosity can be heard when both musicians challenge each other in rapid-fire interaction, enjoying the game, enjoying the music they produce which even pushes Taylor into some classical music, inserting a playful minuet in the middle of a dark storm. Their music is austere in a sense, not only because of the duet configuration, but because both musicians try to reach some kind of musical essence, unburdened by flourishes and embellishments and superfluous technical prowess or even cultural baggage. They keep this single voice throughout the album. This is their unique music, and there is actually nothing like, anywhere else. There are no digressions from this well-kept level of musical abstraction. At the same time, and paradoxically maybe because of this austerity, the music is incredibly rich, with both artists demonstrating the depth of their art, full of unexpected changes, with deep emotions and constantly evolving and shifting roles between clarity and darkness. This is full co-creation. There are no moments when one instrument is supportive of the other. There is no concept of soloing over chords here, there is not one real moment of soloing as such: just a continuous stream of interaction between both instruments and both artists.

There is also some anger in the music, especially on Side C, when Dixon's trumpet bursts turn aggressive and violent, accentuated by dark and percussive rumblings on the piano. There has always been anger in the attitudes of both Dixon and Taylor with regard to society and the establishment, its prejudices and injustice. But here they don't dwell on it. They deal with it and create something above the din of normal life, something that is in entirely different space, one of technical competence supporting inventive creativity and disciplined freedom. The music is in a realm of its own, open-ended, open-textured, free.

All this results in an album of a rare beauty. It's aesthetic is austere, and it will require a lot of listening to really appreciate its full power.

Bill Dixon passed away in 2009, and Cecil Taylor last year. It is wonderful to have both masters back with us, even if only musically, and together, for a phenomenal collaboration that demonstrates their value and what they have contributed to free music.

Note: A last comment on the price: 665 vinyl copies at a price of 94$ plus shipping costs may seem excessive. I do not think it is. Compared to many other value-less things we buy and use only once (food, drinks, ...), this is an album to have and to cherish. You will listen to it a lot. Think of the cost per time you listen to it, and then how you enjoy the music. How much is that worth? Music is not a commodity. If labels and musicians want music to be considered valuable, they should treat it themselves as if it was very precious. Don't let the price discussion cloud the value of this album.


Anonymous said...

Imagine yourself locked in a cell with your record player and these discs. Your captors will only give you food and drink in exchange for the discs. How long do you think you will keep the discs before you exchange them for these "value-less things we buy and use only once"? If labels and musicians want music to be considered at all, they need to make it accessible to a wide audience who can value it for what it is, not what it costs. High-priced limited editions are luxury commodities targeted at a tiny niche market of true believers (= preaching to the converted). By all means enjoy your ownership of these discs, but please recognise this form of marketing for what it is, i.e. putting recorded music behind a paywall. The most egregious example of this approach to marketing in recent times was Denardo Coleman's merchandising of his father's funeral service.

Stef said...

My idea was not to put things to such an extreme level. My point is that art has value. That is also true for music. If labels treat it as a commodity, the value will diminish. Considering the quality of this music, it is worth something. Appreciate its value. Reward the musicians and the labels.

Colin Green said...

It seems to me there are two questions here: is the album over-priced given what it cost to produce? and the quite separate issue of whether it represents value for money.

As to the first, I’m satisfied that Triple Point are not charging an inflated price given their outgoings. It should be borne in mind that even an album featuring these two august free jazz musicians is, relatively speaking, only ever going to sell in very small quantities and Triple Point a specialist label unable to absorb the costs elsewhere.

The issue of value for money is another matter, and is very much a question for each individual, which is why I didn’t address it in my review yesterday. I can see that for some spending $94.00 on two LPs is not worthwhile irrespective of the musical merits, but I didn’t consider that a sufficient reason not to review what is an important album.

And to put things in perspective, compare this with two other albums. Miles Davis’ “Miles Smiles” was recently released in a remastered edition on two 45rpm LPs by Mobile Fidelity, currently retailing at $57.54 on Amazon ($49.99 on the label’s website) limited to 4,000 numbered copies. Produced in that quantity they can afford to charge a lower price, and it’s also available on SACD helping to further spread the cost. Radiohead’s “OK Computer OK NOT OK 1997 2017”, the twentieth anniversary release of their classic album with substantial extras, currently retails on Amazon for $41.64 for the 3 LP vinyl version. It’s also available on CD, is produced by a major record label, has sold and will continue to sell in vast numbers, and both musicians and label have made enormous sums from the original album since it’s release back in 2017.

Music itself may not be a commodity but the means by which it is produced and made available has to be paid for, and one shouldn’t lose sight of that.

Anonymous said...

Here are a couple more of my observations on pricing and marketing:

I see from my purchase records that I was happy to pay Amazon UK £61.99 for Cecil Taylor's "2 Ts For A Lovely T" (ten cds in a plain black box with minimal doumentation) back in November 2010 because I thought that it was a fair price for the product. If I wanted to buy those recordings through Amazon UK today I could either pay their bargain price of £9.90 for the MP3s or the grotesquely inflated scarcity price of £654.32 that a Japanese marketplace seller is asking for the CDs.

I think that Anthony Braxton (running his own record label) strikes a good balance between making his recordings widely accessible (online via Bandcamp) and expensively packaged (for people who wish to buy the physical products).

Music needs to be heard before it can be appreciated.

Alek Hidell said...

I don't buy or play vinyl, so I may never hear this. I wish they would at least make available a download. I don't even need FLAC files; MP3 would be fine.

Martin Schray said...

The example of "2T's for a Lovely T" compares apples to oranges, because here we are talking about a box that is out of print (at discogs you get it for $ 220). Colin's examples are much more interesting. Over many years Triple Point has put energy into the production of the record, in addition there's the really elaborate and loving cover design. That's expensive, no question, but there's also a saying in Germany: "What doesn't cost anything isn't worth anything". That's not meant polemically. Maybe one can find someone who's willing to pay the price for the record. He can then record it on cassette. Music can also be heard that way. Again, this is not meant in a negative way.
However, it's a sad thing that we're discussing the pricing in this forum, instead of talking about the music.

Anonymous said...

The main point I wanted to make about "2T's for a Lovely T" concerned my idea of what was a fair price when the CDs were in print. The music was previously unreleased and the organisation of its release was (as I recall) something of a labour of love on the part of the late Richard Cook. I rather think that Colin is talking apples and oranges when he mentions the umpteenth up-market remastering of "Miles Smiles", an album that was originally released in a standard edition at a standard price and has remained in print (often at lower prices) ever since. It is odd that you talk about "What doesn't cost anything isn't worth anything" and then immediately acknowledge that some people make copies of records for their friends. It is fairly widely recognised in the UK that some of the biggest spenders on re-issues are middle-aged music lovers who started out as habitual tapers and swappers when they were younger and poorer. I think it is important to draw attention to pricing (and vinyl-only editions of previously unreleased material) on this forum, because it makes the point that many people are just not in a position to talk about the music. Here endeth my respectful reminder that the Free Jazz Blog is occasionally in danger of sounding like the Expensive Jazz Blog.

Mjy said...

I'd be willing to bet that there will be an mp3 release once the records sell out. It is laughable to even entertain the notion that only 665 people with a certain amount of disposable income are the only ones entitled to ever hear this music.

friccolodics said...

i think we should be pausing a moment or two to realize how much money 94$ really is.
most of the readers of this blog will in fact be reading this discussion on smartphones laptops tablets and computers costing upwards of 500$ or even 1000$...
the providers charge quite a lot for the use of the internet and it is fair to assume that anyone on the internet spends upward of 10$/month for those services alone.
Consider the fact that Triple Point is cooperating with masters in their respective fields only, it is astonishing that they can make a living out a business like this.
Nowadays most music is sold out rather than appreciated and rewarded financially.
Just keep in mind how much one night out in a jazz club would cost you e.g.
If there was a mass market for freejazz recordings they would be available cheaply on every it seems we still have some work to do spreading the word.