These two albums fill some gaps and broaden our understanding of Cecil Taylor’s music-making during 1976, in each case with a “bonus” from the previous decade. Despite being rather disparate compilations, we can hear some of the connections that run through Taylor’s work and lend continuity to his musical vision.
Cecil Taylor – Mysteries:Untitled (Black Sun Music, 2018) ****(*)
The chief attraction of this album is an almost 50 minute, previously unreleased solo performance by Taylor given at New York University in November 1976 as part of the Bösendorfer Festival, a benefit series for the Kitchen performance centre. His previous solo recital that year had been in August at Moosham Castle in the Lungau region of Salzburg during an open-air festival, subsequently released as Air Above Mountains (Buildings Within) (Enja, 1977). Taylor had come across a Bösendorfer piano in the basement of the University of Wisconsin while he was artist-in-residence in 1971 but the Alpine concert was his first recorded performance playing the instrument, which may have provided connections with the New York festival three months later. Built in Vienna, a Bösendorfer remained his favoured piano with the Imperial Grand model extending the usual 88 keys to 97 to provide a full 8 octaves, the somewhat spooky sounding extra keys in the bass coloured entirely black and covered by a removable panel on earlier builds. Even when the lowest notes are not used – and it’s unclear how often Taylor employed them – more importantly those additional strings, combined with the huge frame and uniquely tailored body, add a sympathetic resonance and rich undertones producing what he described as a mellow lower register. The Bösendorfer was also preferred by the classical and jazz pianist Friedrich Gulda with whom Taylor played at the Austrian festival: ‘Begegnung auf Moosham’ on Nachricht vom Lande (Brain, 1976). It had been at Gulda’s request that MPS installed an Imperial Grand in its studio at Villingen on which Taylor later recorded the seminal Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! (MPS, 1981) in September 1980.
As noted in Ekkehard Jost’s illuminating essay, Instant Composing as Body Language, “for Taylor, the type and quality of his instrument is an essential component of his technique; it comprises, along with the technique itself, a cornerstone of his musical message” which is one of the reasons why, where possible, he asked for long rehearsal sessions with the piano before a concert. A Bösendorfer is known for having distinct tonal qualities in its different registers, unlike the more integrated sound of other pianos, something that would have appealed to Taylor’s stratified conception of the instrument and its potential for multiple voicings. In this performance he explores a vivid palette with relish as his hands dance furiously at opposite ends of the keyboard. Warm layers of veiled resonance open and close the recital, fulsome chords sound out in the bass and contrast with dizzying, toccata-like passages that gain a crystalline sparkle as they race into the upper register.
Beneath the sheer exuberance of his playing however, is a cool intelligence and a technical understanding that was hard won. Take rhythm for example – for Taylor this is not a matter of an underpinning regularity but something that becomes a generative power in its own right, a motion from within and inextricably linked to his motifs. Typically, the smallest unit dictates the pulse of the material, his rapid fingerwork multiplying small values rather than dividing larger ones so that rhythm turns into an energy source having a particular density and momentum. Basic patterns remain recognisable, but he augments or contracts disrupting their flow as they spread outward: splintered, juxtaposed, intertwined, caught in the pull of competing forces and giving his music its distinctive vitality.
I’ve written about these antiphonies previously – staccato judders against arpeggiated ripples, broken clusters interrupting runs that snake across the keyboard, pearly clarity then a haze of trills. Over time Taylor’s structural sense increased without losing any of his spontaneity, introducing long-range correspondences and an attention to recurrence and renewal. Ideas are introduced often in pairs as a call and response using contrasting figures in different registers. They shape and modify one another in a series of ricochets and chain reactions, sometimes by a sort of seepage and osmosis as they veer and vacillate eventually to dissolve, reappearing later in new formations. As a result, the ear senses familiar elements but their interaction and trajectory are unpredictable. Instead of a monodirectional thrust we have a multidimensional process of rotation, reflection and reversal never to be grasped in totality – not so much a mosaic of sounds as a Rubik’s cube – which makes for demanding, though absorbing, listening. Throughout this recital we hear Taylor’s teeming imagination at its most creative and highly addictive best.
After a break between tracks that should have been longer the bonus items are the three works recorded in 1961 which appeared on the Gil Evans curated Into The Hot (Impulse!, 1962) performed by Taylor with Jimmy Lyons (alto), Archie Shepp (tenor) Henry Grimes (double bass) and Sunny Murray (drums), later also released on the album Mixed (Impulse!, 1998) and various compilations of Taylor’s early music. These pieces were the first recordings with Lyons, who became his closest collaborator, a musical partnership that continued until the saxophonist’s death in 1986.
Taylor was inspired by Ellington, not just in his piano playing but for the organisation and sonorities heard in the big band recordings from the 1940s. He wanted to get colours out of sounds the way Ellington did. These pieces contain in embryonic form the articulations and harmonic displacements that were to play such a fertile role in his ensemble music, Taylor’s piano injecting spurts of hairpin energy into a kaleidoscopic succession of jump-cuts and superimpositions which still sound fresh. On ‘Mixed’, the quintet is expanded to a septet with Ted Curson (trumpet) and Roswell Rudd (trombone) in voicings of muted and glowing brass around a propulsive central section. The pungent melody of the opening and close was to be reworked as ‘Enter Evening (Soft Line Structure)’ onUnit Structures and ‘Caseworks’ on Taylor and the Art Ensemble’s Thelonious Sphere Monk: Dreaming of The Masters Vol.2 (DIW, 1991).
Cecil Taylor – On Air 1976 (Lo-Light Records, 2019) ***(*)
Taylor’s best known albums Unit Structures and Conquistador!, both on Blue Note from May and October 1966, might also be his most significant in terms of larger groups. Some of the compositions had long histories – three of the pieces on Unit Structures had been played in an advanced form by his quintet at the Newport festival in July the previous year, and according to double-bassist Alan Silva there were four months of rehearsals before the Unit Structures session. Certain material also provided a continuing resource, a repertoire of charts for assorted navigations usually under different names. The harmonic and rhythmic cells of ‘Steps’ from Unit Structures are recast and elaborated for the title track on Conquistador! – or perhaps more accurately, they both spring from the same core components – and are also the foundation for later pieces such as ‘Taht' on Winged Serpent (Sliding Quadrants) (Soul Note, 1985). ‘With (Exit)’ from Conquistador! was also drawn on subsequently and plays a prominent role in the framework for the two epic improvisations of the European Orchestra on Alms/Tiergarten (Spree) (FMP, 1989) from Berlin ’88. Ben Young’s forthcoming biography of Taylor may shed further light on such matters.
The present album, which so far as I can tell is only available via Internet streaming on Spotify and Apple Music , is taken from three radio broadcasts, two from 1976. Working through them chronologically, the final item is a recording of Taylor’s quartet with Lyons, Andrew Cyrille (drums) and Sam Rivers (tenor and soprano saxophones, flute) which played in the U.S. and Europe from February 1969 to February 1970. Off-air recordings of the European tour in October and November have circulated on the Internet for some time, from Stockholm, Berlin, Stuttgart and the current performance at De Doelen Concert Hall, Rotterdam, previously released on vinyl as In Europe (Jazz Connoisseur).
Based on the available recordings each performance by this quartet was set in motion the same way, using the segments of ‘Steps’ in rousing fanfares and cascades which are restated from time to time, spawning lengthy improvisations usually titled (as here) ‘Fragments of a Dedication to Duke Ellington’. Notwithstanding the stirring start, this quartet is a problematic combination due to an uneasy fit between Rivers and a trio which by this point had become something of a self-contained unit. Whereas Lyons engages in tight interplay with Taylor, displaying a firm melodic logic – a rapport they’d established over several years – during Rivers’ solos he seems largely lost relying on vague textural meanderings rather than motivic invention, unable to accommodate for more than relatively brief spells the superheated pace that characterised Taylor’s music during this period. As the driving force Taylor makes no adjustments for him even though three long solos, one on each of Rivers’ instruments, must have been taxing. It doesn’t help that the recording is poor with a skewed balance so that only Taylor’s piano emerges from the fog with any real definition. There’s better sound, though still a musical mismatch, on the one official recording of the quartet taken from performances in July 1969 at Fondation Maeght, St. Paul de Vence near Nice: Nuits de la Fondation Maeght, Vols. 1 – 3 (Shandar, 1971). Footage of rehearsals the day before the two nights can be seen in the French TV programme Lìnvité du Dimanche .
From 1970, outside his teaching activities, Taylor’s group work was once more primarily as a trio with Lyons and Cyrille, occasionally with bass, again using ‘Steps’ to provide the initial ingredients for the development of each set: Akisakila - Cecil Taylor Unit in Japan (Trio, 1973) and Spring of Two Blue-J's (Unit Core, 1974). In early 1976 new blood and broader perspectives were introduced in a quintet with Lyons, a young David S. Ware (tenor), Raphé Malik (trumpet) and Marc Edwards (drums). The recordings in this collection are the second set from Michigan State University at Ann Arbor, broadcast by WCBN-FM (previously available as Michigan State University, April 15th 1976 (Hi Hat, 2015) and just over an hour transmitted by Radio Stadt from the two hour show at Bremen in July, which was new to me. (The quintet’s concert from the Yugoslavian Jazz Festival, Ljubljana in June was released as Dark to Themselves (Enja, 1976)).
The Michigan set suggests that greater mobility and more generous spaces were available in this ensemble. ‘Wavelets’ is divided into three parts. After a short drum solo Part 2 is an impassioned, ballad-like duet with Taylor pounding out thick chords as accompaniment to Ware’s rasping tenor, merging into Part 3 with piano, alto and drums. The ballad returns on trumpet and Taylor’s delicate arpeggios, crumbles but is finally restored. ‘Petals’, announced by Taylor, is for the whole quintet and uses a riff taken from ‘Steps’ in fruity horn unisons over the piano’s stabbing cross-play. Both become more elaborate as solo and group textures overlap, the motif remaining a telling presence.
There are two lengthy pieces from Bremen, in superior sound and with a better piano. Once again, on ‘Winds Alight Stepping Silver, Part 1’ there’s a focus on sub-groupings and graduated sound Like players in an unknown drama they combine in duos and trios with commentaries and embellishments instead of solos and frequent changes of pace, ending in a searing crescendo. Part 2 introduces music of near stasis: prismatic chords and a faltering melody are opened out slowly, punctuated by moments of silence, drum rolls and strange taps. The quintet then launches into a version of ‘Steps’, the piano/ensemble dialogue leading into ever more complex excursions by Taylor, urged on by Edwards’ drums, peaking at molten glow and bringing in the rest of the band for a full-on rendition of the theme. As heard here, in its sectional diversity and variety of colours this group looks back to Taylor’s work of 1966, something he explored with even greater success in his 1978 sextet, which for the curious might be a good place to move onto next. I recommend Phil Freeman’s essay The Unit: Cecil Taylor in 1978 as an introduction.