FMP/FREE MUSIC PRODUCTION - An Edition of Improvised Music 1989-2004

FMP CD 8/9

Steve Lake



JULY 2nd, 88

The chants, first. I thought l'd caught a hint of threat in those bloodied syllables. Words bitten off at the stem; violence at the roots of language ... But somebody said, later, that the musicians were merely giving voice to a few key Sumerian phrases, to do with - let me try to remember- city rulers ("ensi"), ancient rivers and, well, suchlike. Maybe the incongruity of resolute non-mystics like Brötzmann and Bennink chanting anything at all was, in itself, menacing. Anyway, we gathered that these dark mutterings had a ritual significance. They were a ceremonial preparation for the matter of music making, a "tuning" of band and audience, a means of reminding us that all this - the darkened hall, a bandstand for the levitating, instruments to sound to the borderline of trance - is a practice more grave (and much older) than mere jazz. Cecil Taylor has told us, often, that his concerts are attempts to ensnare and harness primeval powers, to become a force of nature. An impractical goal, he admits. (But has anyone come closer?)

It was like this. They slunk from the Kongresshalle's shadowy corners, moaning and clapping, finally coming within range of FMP's microphones. Improvisers out of everywhere - East and West Germany, Holland, England, Poland, Italy, France, America - trailed by the man who had first stumbled upon their idiom (if we can call it that) thirty years ago. Cecil Taylor feinted a few karate jabs at the concert grand, his resilient adversary. Han Bennink seated himself behind the modest jazz drum kit hired for the occasion, grabbed his brushes, flew at the snare and then ... And then two hours disappeared. The fervour of the music was transfixing, transporting. The audience was swallowed up by it.

Returning, reluctantly, to a more mundane reality as the house lights came on, I was pretty sure that I had just experienced the most magnificent big band music of the post-free era.

It's a conviction that grows as I listen to these pieces, again and again. The clarity of these recordings - an advantage Taylor's work has not often enjoyed - allows a listener to penetrate deep into the sound, below the music's bolder contours, to dive beneath its surface. You can submerge yourself in this music, explore its undercurrents - or breast its raving waves, watch the rollers loom up, mountain high. (From any perspective it is an overwhelming and humbling experience.) Launched upon the sound's fury, the elemental roar of it, the musicians look to Taylor's compositional materials as stars to steer by, reference points.

How much of this music is written? How much improvised? Taylor, who uses words carefully, would question the meaning of each term. In a dismissive tone, he can make "composer" sound like "dictator" or "megalomaniac": "I don't think l'd ever want to be considered a composer," (accompanying the word with an expression of acute distaste.) Composers deal in the fixed and final. Taylor's work, never "finished," is forever reborn in the creativity of the player who can summon the courage to tackle it. Long ago, Cecil Taylor took Ellington as a role model, convinced of the great bandleader's wisdom in letting the musicians' knowledge and character serve as integral elements of the music. Taylor doesn't so much write for the musicians in the strictest Ellingtonian sense, however, as offer structural frameworks to enhance their own contributions. For this Berlin concert, the horns and strings had had their notes given to them during a week of intense rehearsal. There were, finally, sheaves of notation, of melodies and riff-like figures and huge chords that could be driven into the orchestral sound-mass at the discretion of "section leaders" (often Peter van Bergen, Hannes Bauer, Tristan Honsinger), a hierarchical arrangement amicably overturned in the moment's heat. Enrico Rava, Evan Parker and Louis Sclavis, in particular, proved adept at fast solutions, helping to layer the sound as soloists flashed past- in constant rotation, it seemed - and complex chains of call-and-response ricocheted and echoed through the orchestra. Structural specifics could be abandoned, inverted or delayed if the music's momentum demanded other responses. To give just one instance: in Part Two, the duet between Hannes Bauer's trombone (his is the fiercely motoric, almost pneumatic phrasing) and Louis Sclavis's imeassioned clarinet stands out in such dramatic relief against the slashing emphases of Taylor's piano and Hampel's vibes because Evan Parker had held the other horns at bay, delaying their re-entry, by means of frantic hand signals, until the last possible moment.

Such details could be itemized at considerable length and might illumine some of the musics density and dynamics but would not explain away the sustained brilliance of the work as a whole. Nor would a musical analysis of Taylor's compositional method (were I competent to make one.) Big chords and anthem-like melodies free-floating over boiling group improvisation, almost straight-ahead big band surge, brief explorations of the timbres associated with chamber music ... one could find analogous episodes in the large scale works of a dozen jazz-rooted composers. The difference is one of intention.

This music's refusal to settle for less than transcendence testifies to Taylor's extraordinary power as catalyst, inspirer and goad. His faith in the ability of the players to go far beyond the notes imparts a responsibility that can't easily be set aside. Taylor's spartan watchword has long been Greatness Through Perseverance, an unrelenting challenge to himself. It's a challenge each of the Big Band players must try to match. Each must endeavour to give as much as Taylor gives for this music to work. Seventeen life histories are bound up in it, a richness of experience convoyed to fullest expression by enlightened leadership.

Cecil Taylor's verdict?

"Wonderful! Wonderful!"

It is, it is.

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