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


Joseph Chonto


This concert was Cecil Taylor's "thank you" to Berlin. He had been living close to six months in the city on a DAAD fellowship, immensely enjoying the hospitality of the people and the vacation from New York's destructive influences. (He once related to me how he had just left Abraxas, his favourite Berlin disco, in the late morning when a woman ran up behind him with a 10 mark note in her hand. "Excuse me, but this fell out of your pocket", she explained. Cecil asked me, "Now how often do you think that happens in New York? Over there, they'll pull out a gun and ask for more." Because of FMP's responsiveness and support, Taylor had a rare opportunity of having concerts and recordings produced virtually whenever he was ready. Indeed, Taylor's six month 1990 residency in Berlin was (along with his six-week stay in the summer of 1988 which produced the 11-CD FMP box set) one of his most prolific periods. In fact, a good case could be made that it was FMP and the enthusiastic Berlin audiences which re-awoke the jazz world to Cecil Taylor. Between the summer of 1988 and the release date of the box set in late 1989,I was Taylor's "manager" (inasmuch as someone could be said to "manage" Cecil Taylor). At that time, Taylor's career was treading water, at best. He hadn't played in Chicago, Boston or Washington D.C., for over eight years. The only recordings being issued were live concerts on a small independent British label that were musically all right, but by no means great, lacking as they did a sense of momentum and artistic progression. As the owner of this respected label specializing in "avant-garde" jazz told me, "I'm not really interested in recording Cecil Taylor. There's so many records of him out there already and unless he's doing something really new, l don't see the need to put out just another Cecil Taylor record." After the FMP box set was issued, however, the jazz world could no longer take Taylor for granted and his stock in the jazz world skyrocketed. There was more and better-paying work and eventually a MacArthur Foundation Genius Award.

Taylor's 1990 Berlin residency saw the realization of several long-held artistic ambitions: the Corona string project, the overdubbed solo Double Holy House poetry/piano/percussion recording, continued work with the "Feel" trio with William Parker and Tony Oxley, and an "interesting" dance/- poetry/music concert which featured the rather girths me William Parker doing a sort of bunny-hop and percussionist Masashi Harada slithering across the stage floor on his belly. But perhaps the most notable effect of Taylor's Berlin residency, however, was the gradual "Europeanization" of his music. This concert recording in particular gives sample evidence of that. It is still clear that Ellington and Monk remain among Taylor's fundamental sources. However, it is also clear that since 1988 Taylor's sound has changed. The shift to a more "European" sound first became evident in his choice of Tony Oxley as his drummer for the Feel trio. In the late eighties and early nineties, Oxley was Taylor's first choice for the drum chair. He might still well be, and perhaps the only reasons they are no longer working together is more due to a personal misunderstanding rather than a musical issue (as often happens among the musicians Taylor works with and probably the main reason he has never been able to develop a musical "unit" (as he calls his groups) with a stable personnel).

Bringing Oxley to the United States to work Feel trio gigs in Washington, D.C. and New York sent shock waves through the jazz community, as Taylor well knew it would. About two weeks before the gig in New York. Taylor and I went to Sweet Basil to discuss some business. The group playing that night was a quintet of one-time avant-garde players who had mellowed their sound to a kind of "hip progressivism", meaning, the kind of music jazz neophytes and most critics would call "hip", yet it wasn't anything that would risk offending the delicate aesthetic sensibilities of the weekend jazz listener and tourists so they would stay in the club and eat and drink and make money for the club and so that the club would want to book again the band that drew the crowds of eating and drinking while simultaneously listening to music jazz listeners. The drummer of this group approached Taylor during a break and asked him if it was true that in a couple weeks he'd be bringing in "some white English guy" to play drums for him. Taylor said, yes, it was true. The drummer asked, "Cecil, why? This is our music, man, we should keep it in the family. There are a lot of brothers in town who'd love to make that gig with you. And besides, the drums, man, a white guy on drums..." Needless to say, Taylor was not more influenced by the "white musicians dilute/pollute the purity of our music" argument than Miles Davis, Charles Mingus or Archie Shepp were. Jazz by its nature is a multi-cultural music. True, the greatest contributors have been and are African Americans. But to say that jazz is purely and exclusively an African American music and that white or European musicians have not had, do not, cannot and will not have anything unique to contribute is simply denying reality and smacks somewhat of, shall we say, "cultural insecurity?" Full credit should always be given to whom it is due and this has been - and remains - tragically not the case, especially for African American jazz musicians. But I don't think Jim Crow racism or a cultural bunker mentality is the answer.

But getting back to the point - Taylor wanted Oxley specifically because there is simply only one Tony Oxley and that was the sound Taylor had been searching for in a drummer for a long time. Taylor had even once confided to me that Oxley's playing excited him like no drummer since Sunny Murray - and perhaps even more so. Another reason for Taylor's insistence on Oxley (and later other Europeans) is that he wanted to send a message to the American musicians: they were selling out. In the Europeans, Taylor found musicians who were still absolutely committed to playing "free" and going all the way with it - tourists, dilettantes and club owners be damned. It was (and remains) Taylor's feeling that too many once-adventurous musicians had become comfortable with their niche and were not only no longer committed to expanding and exploring the music, but were toning it down, making it safer, more approachable, predictable, boring and dead on arrival.

Taylor's choice of Oxley indicates much about Taylor's musical thinking and direction since 1988. Oxley's musical orientation is fundamentally more European classical than African American. (I remember one party in my loft in late 1988 when Oxley wanted to listen to Glenn Gould playing Beethoven piano sonatas, and after that, some Webern, perhaps. After a while, Taylor requested some James Brown or Marvin Gaye. Soon after the sounds of Soul Brother No. 1 started reverberating off the walls, Oxley asked me, "How can Cecil listen to this? He plays on such an incredibly high level, but this music - it's so simple - I can't understand it. How can he like this?" Though he is capable of playing hard bop with a certain skill fullness, Oxley's more straight-ahead playing will never be confused with that of Billy Higgins, Billy Hart, Ben Riley, Roy Haynes, Art Taylor, Pete LaRoca or Tony Williams, not to mention Elvin Jones or Art Blakey. But even so - and even though he can't get what James Brown is about - it doesn't really matter when he sits behind his drums to play with Taylor or any other modern musician. Because Oxley's great ear and imagination for composition and sound make him the closest thing to an improvising Edgar Varese or Harry Partch, what with his incredibly complex, subtle and, in their way, soulful percussive statements. Add his forceful, bust-through-the-wall rhythm and you've got one of the most creative percussionists of any time, albeit not quite of the same tradition that Rashied Ali, Ed Blackwell, Sunny Murray, or Andrew Cyrille came from. However, it was not only Taylor's preference for Tony Oxley which made his music take on more of a European character. Since being introduced to them, Taylor has nearly always included in his units Tristan Honsinger on cello (an instrument rarely found in jazz) and soprano saxist Harri Sjöström. In fact, since William Parker stopped working with Taylor in 1993, Honsinger and Sjöström have been Taylor's two musical mainstays.

But perhaps the biggest change is the way Taylor approaches the piano. He sounds somewhat different, and this is nowhere more evident than in this CD. There's a softness, a romantic side that is more pronounced than ever. Taylor's rhythmic sense has also always been much more rooted in European classical music than African American. Taylor's playing has almost always had a strongly on-the-beat, declamatory "Sturm und Drang" phrasing, as opposed to the buoyant swing of Ornette Coleman or the hyper-drive flight of John Coltrane. One musician once told me that the way Taylor became who he is, is that "...he started out wanting to be the next Bud Powell. But he couldn't play with Powell's rhythm. So he had to create a new musical language that is pure Cecil Taylor. And that is his genius". Though it's speculation, it seems like a logical analysis to me. For Cecil Taylor is nothing if not a great adaptor and synthesizer of styles and traditions. As he once said, "I am of American Indian, African and English heritage and I follow all these paths. I avoid the trap of easy definition". Indeed, more and more Taylor is becoming the bridge between improvising musicians coming from both African American and European classical traditions. A few days ago I listened to a concert in which Taylor led a large ensemble of white American and European musicians. There was very little real soloing, the focus being on the collective rather than the individual. A modern, more democratic improvising orchestra. From what I heard, it also seemed that the musical vocabularies of these musicians were much more informed by the musics of Schönberg, Webern, Stockhausen and the musics of Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Braxton, which were informed by those composers, rather than the musics of Hal "Cornbread" Singer, Gene Ammons, Lockjaw Davis or Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. Whether or not the music from this ensemble will stand the test of time as well as Taylor's other work remains to be seen, of course.

But getting back to the music in this CD, I'm convinced this CD will stand as one of the cornerstones of Taylor's recorded œuvre. Though there's no paucity of solo piano recordings by him, this one is particularly outstanding in that it shows a side of Taylor rarely glimpsed heretofore, and never so eloquently beautiful. Whatever peripheral discussions or controversies surround this music or Taylor's current artistic direction, or whether one hears it as partially European or not at all or to what extent, perhaps doesn't really matter because the music is what the music is. And in this case, I for one, think the music is extraordinarily beautiful and needs no further description or discussion.

(So why did we even bother with these notes, Jost?)

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