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Friday, February 25, 2022

Cecil Taylor: The Complete, Legendary, Live Return at The Town Hall NYC November 4, 1973 (Oblivion Records, 2022) *****

By Lee Rice Epstein

First thing first, given this audience tends to prefer physical media, inarguably digital is the right, best solution for this release. Yes, inarguably. Here’s why: the last major group performance recorded before 1973, The Great Concert of Cecil Taylor or Nuits De La Fondation Maeght, Vols. 1–3, is one set split across six sides of three LPs. Without a digital transfer, it’s impossible to get the feel of the whole thing, and Cecil Taylor works on a large canvas, as evidenced by the hour-and-a-half Town Hall opener, “Autumn/Parade.” To splice or edit this set in any way would do a disservice to Taylor’s intention at the time. Consider the LPs from 1976 and 1978, where the limits of physical media at that time led to edited release, which remained the de facto canonical recordings until the advent of compact discs. And here, we have a recording that simply doesn’t exist in full outside of the digital format. For some, the loss might be worth the artifact (have at it in the comments), regardless the release of the complete November 4, 1973, Town Hall performance is a major milestone for any fan of free jazz.

The 1973 group presaged the great 1978 Unit configuration, where Taylor brilliantly played with combinations of horns and strings. Here, steadfast partners Jimmy Lyons and Andrew Cyrille are joined by Sirone on bass, in his first official appearance with Taylor’s Unit. And this Unit is on fire.Taylor’s facility for bringing together sympathetic players is evident from the start. “Autumn/Parade” opens with an initial 5-second statement from Taylor, followed by an echoing call-back from Lyons, ballasted with Cyrille and Sirone. All three are among Taylor’s most important partners, helping him realize the fullness of his vision, thrillingly synthesizing blues, jazz, folk, and rock forms. Lyons is, as always, phenomenal. A lyrical player with a style mimicking something like dance, he and Cyrille’s deep knowledge of swing and blues plays off Taylor’s playing just beautifully. Near the midpoint a long trio stretch with Cyrille and Taylor helps foreground Sirone, who brings a striking avant-garde voicing to the Unit. He was fresh off the first couple of Revolutionary Ensemble albums, and his ability to play across the various planes of the Unit demonstrates why he remains one of the most important players. Having just spent the past several years at University of Wisconsin and Antioch, Taylor was returning to New York City to kick off a big, bold vision for 1974, as he wrote in the program:

“The premiere of the first of these projects will take place of ( sic) Avery Fisher (Philharmonic) Hall, January 1, 1974. By what can only be termed an ambitious undertaking, it will include the unit core, dance, voice, special effects, an ensemble of musicians who have participated in the Cecil Taylor Unit program at the institutions mentioned… Other projects funded in part by a Guggenheim fellowship, include a solo piano recital, publishing both prose and poetry, a dance recital, and a series of recordings, the first of which has already been released.”

With all of this looming, the Town Hall performance was a homecoming and practice run, a return to form and a preview of what was to come. Taylor seems to have been absolutely buzzing when he came back to NYC. About 30 minutes into “Autumn/Parade,” he plays a gorgeous, leaping figure that extends into the upper register, as Lyons performs a dense, circular pattern. It’s all thunder and lightning, the two crackling and sparking and shaking the house. There’s a drive and relentlessness demonstrating just how happy and prepared Taylor was to be back home. And the crowd bursts into loud, appreciative applause in response.

In the evening’s program, “Autumn/Parade” took up the first set, and the second featured “Spring of Two Blue-J's” in solo and quartet settings, followed by a “Service.” The Complete, Legendary, Live Return release brings the second set—previously released in a limited edition on Taylor’s own Unit Core label—back in print in a lovely remaster. Listening to the solo performance, the piano’s acoustics are nicely highlighted, without losing any sense of the room. And for anyone who has heard the original LP, the fiery quartet performance remains one of the finest in Taylor’s discography. Sirone is a bit easier to hear now than he was on the LP, and Cyrille’s cymbals and snare sound bright and snappy.

Taylor is a fascinating composer, and listening to sets of performances within the same year really help listeners focus on how the compositions were shifting and changing, where lines are played within clusters or through solo runs. Circulation of dubiously sourced bootlegs has filled many gaps in our knowledge of Taylor’s career, but quality masters of archival material are invaluable.

Complete liner notes


Captain Hate said...

Excellent review. The first time I saw this was available for streaming I blocked off as much time to listen to this uninterrupted because, yes, that's the best way to experience this. Thanks for linking the booklet also. Hard to believe that such a legendary recording was only available on 2000 lps previously.


One of the extraordinary events in C.Taylor's oeuvre -probaly the most amazing of all- is the given fact that he (and his comrades, or call them as you wish) made so many excellent recording.
Ok, obviously, a great artist will produce great artworks, but considering that a musician (apart from playing live) needs technology (and the people who own the means of technology) in order to be heard, Taylor managed to produce a lot of great stuff.
We take it for granted that this is/was an easy task, but it never was and never will be. In addition to my aforementioned remark the time span of those recordings extends over than three decades.
I consider myself as someone who listens to a lot of music and, still, i find myself bewildered by the numbers of his recorded output and the excellence of it//

Martin Schray said...

Very, very good review, Lee. Although I'm a vinyl fan you're absolutely right with what you say about the digital format here.