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

FMP CD 108

Steve Lake


Over, but not gone in the air

In September 1990, at the Bechstein Hall in Berlin, FMP hosted a mini-festival under the Germanic-sounding rubric of "Total Taylor Total", this being a continuation of the focus on the great pianist's work that had begun with the Workshop Freie Music of 1986 – a taste of which can be obtained from the album "Olu Iwa" (recorded by Jost Gebers but released by Soul Note) –, reached a sudden apotheosis with the "Cecil Taylor in Berlin '88" concert series and the meanwhile universally-applauded 11-CD box, and was more modestly extended with the "Third Step" Total Music Meeting of 1989 (largely a forum for the "Feel Trio" of Taylor/William Parker/Tony Oxley).The idea behind the "Total Taylor" project – the name of which immediately raises questions (the same kind of questions as "The Complete Braxton"or "The Major Works of John Coltrane") – was that it would "attempt to present the most most diverse aspects of Taylor's creativity within three concerts."

The performance by the improvisors' quartet heard on this disc, which brings Cecil Taylor together with Evan Parker, Barry Guy and Tony Oxley, outstanding virtuosi of British free music's "first generation", was the middle event. It was framed by an evening of solo music and poetry, already documented on the intriguing "Double Holy House" album and by an evening with a workshop ensemble (incorporating the three Englanders and which scholars will one day deem important since it also cemented the association between the pianist and Finnish soprano saxophonist Harri Sjostrom, arguably Taylor's most important – and certainly most persistent/consistent – musical connection of the 1990s).

"First" and "Last" are the track titles on the tersely-titled "Nailed". No traces this time of the rhetorical flourishes that brought forth "One Too Many, Salty, Swift And Not Goodbye" or "It Is In The Brewing Luminous" or "Air Above Mountains (Buildings Within)". Well, this was indeed the first and the last time this quartet played together. The odds are stacked – primarily for non-musical reasons – against a repeat performance. As for "Nailed", it has a thousand shades of meaning, not all of them polite. Best to assume it alludes to the rigorous manner with which the protagonists ensure that there are no loose ends flapping, nor hatches unbattened, anywhere in the vicinity of the mighty winds generated by this music. The players surely nail it. Let's hope Cecil does not consider himself nailed to the singular cross of British improvisation here, caught up in its great schisms and grudges. Strong music stirs up strong feelings – it's a fact of life – even in England, where talk of feelings is all but taboo. Taylor's band this night included players between whom there was little love lost. If this was a great moment, musically, it was also the end of something. Certain long-standing hostilities were suspended in Berlin out of respect for the bandleader, and a little glowering and smouldering can be intuited between the speeding phrases, perhaps. Yet all four musicians play with characteristic invention – indeed, on "Last" they seem to soar beyond the parameters of the possible.

"To play with Cecil Taylor," Tony Oxley told Germany's Neue Zeitschrift für Musik a few years back, "you need the stamina of an athlete and the imagination of a god." As for the first part, the drummer went on, once specific preparatory details – the proper attention to breath, for instance – were taken care of, the performance could achieve a momentum of its own, provided you were secure in your technique.

Preparation, however, implies requisites beyond physical or technical condition. There's also the matter of being more or less united in a musical goal. In liner notes for the earlier FMP album "The Tree of Life" Joseph Chonto, Taylor's erstwhile "manager" (the inverted commas are his), talked about the "Europeanization" of Cecil Taylor's music from the mid-80s onwards, citing the rising quotient of non-American players in his groups. This too-convenient analysis takes no account of the extent to which so many players in Europe have been strongly influenced – for decades – by the musical directions Cecil Taylor has set in motion.

Would Barry Guy, for instance, have launched the London Jazz Composers Orchestra if he'd never heard the magnificent sound of Cecil Taylor's piano flooding every crevice of Michael Mantler's composition "Communications #11" in 1968? The dialectic of "form" and "freedom" expounded in this early instance of Taylor's stamp on a European's music was a major inspiration.

Tony Oxley was mulling over how he would play with Cecil Taylor long before the hint of an opportunity arose. Most of Taylor's drummers were too conventional in the choice of materials, Oxley used to argue in the early 1970s. To help channel Cecil's streams-of-sound, something other than the snares, ride-cymbals and chirruping hi-hats of bebop was called for. Other surfaces, other textures. Skin, wood, plastic, metals. Metals above all. Oxley's development into "an improvising Varese or Partch" (Chonto) is certainly related to some deep thinking about the demands and the potential of Taylor's idiom.

With Evan Parker, the matter of influence is even more cut-and-dried. As a 19-year-old botany student on holiday in New York, he experienced a performance by Taylor's trio with Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray in Greenwich Village one night in 1962 and was, as he put it, "marked for life". The sound and intensity of Taylor's music pursued him as the first wave of British free improvisers began circling the wagons at the Little Theatre Club. The improvisation subsequently coming out of London was distinguished from other European "free jazz" expressions by its fastidious attention to detail. It was far removed, for instance, from the impasto of Brotzmann's art with its fat smears and smudges or the more cartoon-like Dutch music of the day with its bold outlines The emphasis on deep listening, even in music of high-velocity, that marked English improvisation of the 60s was encouraged by the example of Taylor and Jimmy Lyons, musicians who had taken the concept of improvising together into a new dimension (so much so that many "jazz" listeners still haven't caught up with what they achieved). There were many other influences at work simultaneously, of course, but Taylor's "Cafe Montmartre" sessions were amongst the most carefully-studied discs of the day. The volcanic aspects of Taylor and Lyons's marathon blows were immediately overwhelming but the precision of the work was no less astonishing. (Hiroshi Satoh, supplying scalpel-and-tongs photo for the Taylor Unit's Japanese "Akisakila" album, must also have understood...)

In 1970, Evan Parker joined the Alexander von Schlippenbach Trio. The original model for that band? The very same Taylor/Lyons/Murray group. Schlippenbach's band found its own voice early on and has continued to refine its sound, a darker, terser sound somehow. More caustic, perhaps, less celebratory, more reluctant to loosen its grip on the here and now. But the influence is paramount, surely, and it is hardly a coincidence that today - these notes are being written halfway through 1999 - Alex's trio and Cecil's quintet have a common -and uncommon - percussionist in Paul Lovens. There's an inevitability to this development.

Evan Parker shares with Cecil Taylor a preference for groups of fixed personnel rather than "ad hoc" ensembles. For Taylor, it sometimes seems, the group is virtually a family ersatz. That description couldn't hold for this tension-laden quartet in Berlin but its coming together wasn't a random event either. By this point Tony Oxley had been Taylor's drummer for two years (since the "In Berlin '88" sessions) and was roughly halfway through his tenure with the pianist, and you could say that Evan Parker had been preparing subsconsciously for the gig for the best part of three decades, preparation including concerts and recordings with Taylor and Tristan Honsinger (see "The Hearth") and with Taylor's European Orchestra (see "Alms/Tiergarten (Spree)") in 1988.

Barry Guy and Taylor hadn't worked together previously prior to the workshop rehearsals in Berlin, but the pianist was impressed, uttering the now famous statement, "If I played bass I'd play the way you play." For an improvisor, an encomium equivalent to a knighthood. As well as ferocious drive and energy, and unbounded stamina and commitment, Cecil Taylor and Barry Guy, astounding architectural improvisors - note their wonderful dialogue at the beginning of "Last" - each happen to have an interest in the work of Iannis Xenakis, the Greek composer whose music is bracingly elemental, primordial and as modern as tomorrow. Xenakis, the composer who has said, "The aim is to make the sound itself live. We change the timbre, change the dynamics. In this way the inner life of the sound is not only in the general line of the composition, of the thought, but is also within the tiniest details." From different philosophical standpoints, great musicians often move toward congruent conclusions.

The three British players, of course, have a great deal of history together. Guy and Parker first worked alongside each other in the Spontaneous Music Ensemble in 1967. The saxophonist and the bassist were both members of Tony Oxley's group at the beginning of the 1970s. Oxley and Guy helped turn Howard Riley's trio into one of the most challenging British groups in the era, as recordings such as "Synopsis" and "Flight" attest. Evan Parker 's been a member of Guy's London Jazz Composers Orchestra from day one, and the bassist continues to play in both Parker's trio with Paul Lytton and in his Electro-Acoustic Ensemble. Oxley and Guy's work together in the 1990s has included concerts and recordings with composer Bill Dixon - who, half a lifetime ago, played trumpet for Cecil Taylor on "Conquistador".

As with Xenakis, there are aspects of Taylor's art that elude recordings. Or to put it another way, it seems especially arbitrary to evaluate their work by way of mere albums. Yet even in recognising that both are much bigger than records we have to be grateful for what remains. The sheer physical presence of the sound, the power that resides in duration, the quasi-hypnotic element, the ritualistic or theatrical element - much of this resists the microphones. But there is a trade-off, and the recordings allow us to return to details too intricate to register in the split-second of their unfolding. A Taylor concert can be a sustained adrenalin rush, as viscerally thrilling as a boat ride over rapids and through boiling whitewater; the listener can feel hurled, hair akimbo, from one end of the course to the other. Recordings allow us to retrace the voyage - and to absorb the breathtaking scenery as well.

Although it is, by now, a given that a Taylor peformance will give short shrift to silence and that stray balladesque moments will not outstay their welcome, history has shown that there any many ways to play with this master musician, who is anyway too enlightened a leader to dictate terms. The goal, over the last decade and a half, seems to be an interpenetration of intensities, a kind of joyfully reckless counterpoint of velocities, sound-masses, ideas and personalities. "You can't separate the music from the people," as Taylor said to A.B. Spellman long ago, and he seems to enjoy assembling a colourful cast around him. In his current group, for instance, (unrecorded at the time of writing, but meriting its own 11-CD set, why not) Teppo Hauta-Aho worries a few good bass notes with gravity, while Harri Sjostrom's soprano flies, hawklike, high above the titanium bridges constructed by Tristan Honsinger's cello and crossed, in turn, by the restless drums and cymbals of Paul Lovens. Under Taylor's generous leadership, and over time, they're reformulating the language of the music and each of them sounds changed by the context.

The ad hoc - or semi-ad hoc - quartet heard on "Nailed" has to find its common language instanter, having but one shot to get it right. The fearless way in which the musicians hurl themselves into the river of sound is astonishing even if, by now, we expect nothing less of these players. This time there's not even the formality of the ritual scene-setting Taylor sometimes encourages, no chants (or charts), no tentative exploration of atmosphere. The musicians make that leap of faith together, immediately, and are carried by the swirling current. There is far too much dazzling detail to itemize.

Post Jimmy Lyons, saxophone players have particularly daunting responsibilities in Cecil Taylor's music. Where the late altoist would absorb the pianist's rapid-fire questions, interjections, and asides and respond with beautifully-formed phrases in an idiom like the ultimate extension of Charlie Parker, the other Parker straddles the end of "jazz" and what-came-after. Evan Parker is playing here with with an acute awareness of Lyons's achievement, and has the hearing to work, from moment to moment, inside the great tradition of Taylor-Lyons and to put his own stamp on the material. The heart of "Last", with its giddy interlocking lines and polyrhythms achieving an extraordinary momentum as circular-breathing powered soprano encounters the peerless technique of full-flood Cecil Taylor, embellished and embossed by Guy and Oxley, must count as one of the most magical episodes on an FMP disc. Impossible to say who is scribbling on the polished sides of whose vortex.

Over, but not gone in the air. Be glad the tape machines were rolling this night at the Bechstein Hall.

zurück / back