Thursday night, I went to hear Cecil Taylor’s Trio with Henry Grimes and Pheeroan akLaff. Oh my.
I walked into the club exhausted. Possessed by a fit of productiveness the night before, I had stayed up till 5am working on details for a spring tour. I had a lunchtime gig with Jason Kao Hwang’s Edge at Brooklyn College as part of a lecture/concert series. (That group is really developing under Jason’s excellent leadership and compositions; it’s one of my most favorite sideman projects right now, it’s feeling like a real band). Then I had to do some teaching, then a lovely dinner with some of my wife’s family. So by the time I got to the Iridium, I was beat. Within five minutes of the music starting, I was burned clean; the kind of renewal that lasts for days, leaving me able to better enjoy listening to any kind of music, and helping me find new energy to get through life.
The music was spectacular, the rare kind of show that leaves me recommitted to the continued possibilities of creative music. It was a particular inspiration to be reminded that you can feel as elevated in the audience as you can on stage, something that is too easy to forget when you’re usually on the bandstand, or listening in the crowd with over-critical, analytical musician ears.
Cecil’s piano mastery is, of course, otherworldly, superhuman, all the adjectives that have unsuccessfully tried to capture his genius for the last fifty years, so I won’t even try. I will say, that for all his thrilling power, and it was certainly on display this evening, it’s often his delicacy that kills me. There was a moment towards the end of the night where it seemed as if he was caressing the sound out of the piano; these high register clusters that could only emerge from his touch.
It was beautiful to see Henry Grimes performing with Cecil again, after close to 40 years. I’ve actually always most enjoyed Cecil’s work with either two bassists (like Unit Structures or Conquistador) or no bassist (the classic Jimmy Lyons/Andrew Cyrille trio stuff, or any of the brilliant solo recordings). Having two bassists seems to provide this complex, low moving mass for Cecil to launch off of; having no bassist gives free reign to Cecil’s harmonic imagination and allows the space to hear the amazing things he does with his left hand. Last night, Grimes seemed like he was trying to fill the roles of two bassists single-handedly. He switched between moving notes with a fat bottomed sound and intense, high overtone bowing, almost as if he was covering both his and Alan Silva’s part from Unit Structures. He was slightly hampered by the sound system, which didn’t seem able to deal with that kind of timbral and dynamic range; occasionally the bass was either overamplified or indistinct. But his approach and musicianship gelled the performance, cushioning Cecil and Pheeroan’s wilder flights and pulling the trio together as a whole.
Pheeroan akLaff is one of my favorite drummers in the world. (He’s also a good friend, and he actually introduced my wife and me to our extraordinarily cool landlady several years ago when we settled in Brooklyn. Without our little oasis of an apartment in Red Hook, New York City would have driven me crazy a while ago, so for that I’m indebted to him. But that has nothing to do with why I love his drumming.) He is ideal for Cecil, with his organic creativity, compositional focus, and explosive power. He is the rare drummer that can play totally free and totally funky at the same time. I’ve listened to or played with him dozens of times over the years, and have many of his recordings, and most of those times he’s left me breathless, but this was probably the best I’ve ever heard him. I was sitting in the corner by the drums, with his lovely wife and brother, and we were all smiling so much that my face hurt by the end of the set.
Cecil’s compositions were similar to what he’s been working with for the past several years, with modular harmonic motives with open rhythms and multiple variations. In a strange way, the way Cecil is using his compositions reminds me of how Anthony Braxton uses Ghost Trance Music these days. The two maestros employ totally different musical strategies, hierarchies, structures, and concepts, but both have developed almost infinite bodies of unique and immediately identifiable material that serve to focus the musicians at the beginning of the performance, launch improvisational journeys, and bridge moment to moment and section to section.
In my experience playing with Cecil’s large ensembles, the group is most successful when it has internalized Cecil’s compositions enough to intuitively follow where he’s going and feed off his ideas. The big band consciously tries to act as the orchestrated version of Cecil’s ten fingers (the low horns on the left hand, the altos and trumpets on the right), while still retaining the individual autonomy to engage the music and push it forwards. This trio performed similarly; you could hear Henry and Pheeroan match Cecil’s harmonic modules with specific ideas and timbres. Pheeroan might stick to the toms as Cecil worked out an idea, then switch to the cymbals as Cecil moved on to puzzle out another pattern in a different register or harmony. Yet the sidemen constantly threw surprises into the mix, (including some ferocious akLaff open grooves), delighting Cecil into playful and intense musical jousting. Sometimes I feel like Cecil performs with the orchestra because it takes about 15 musicians combined to match his energy. My only fear now is that he might not reconvene the big group because he’s getting so much fire from these two masters! (But if the trio music stays this good, I’ll get over it.)
The last few times I’ve had a chance to talk with him, Cecil has been in a generous mood, telling stories of the first time he heard Art Tatum, or Ellington, or Monk, or Horace Silver, and offering words of encouragement and support. I think you can hear this mood in his music; he’s obviously having so much fun. I can only hope to have a fraction of that joyful energy in 45 years.
I’m supposed to interview him sometime this fall with my friend, dancer and performance studies scholar Danielle Goldman, and talk with him about the relationship in his work between dance and music and improvisation for a journal that Danielle is editing, which should be a very interesting discussion, stay posted. And Hank Shteamer also posted a review of the same concert on his blog, Dark Forces Swing. Insightful, with a drummer’s bias (but that’s cool with me.)
Comment from Hank Shteamer (October 29th, 2006):
thx for reading; it is appreciated. loved your post as well. it was great to get an insider’s perspective on how Cecil works with his sidemen. for one thing, i’m really fascinated by the idea of composing vs. improvising in a body of work like Cecil’s. i think there’s a definite distinction between the kind of composition you hear on, say, “Unit Structures,” “Conquistador” or “Dark to Themselves”–where the ensembles play various obvious written passages–and the music he does now, where there are clear themes and motifs, but no “heads” as such. you know what i mean? like anything Cecil plays these days could in theory be called a composition b/c he has such clearly defined motifs that he works with, but it’s still an improvisation in that it’s open ended. not sure exactly what i’m getting at, but i’m curious how all this works in something like the big band (i’ve actually never heard the group). how much music are the players given? how clear are the instructions? anyway, that would make a really awesome blog post if you’re up to it! anyway, nice to speak with you about all this.
(THB response, November 2nd, 2006)
Sorry to be so slow getting back to you on this, I had a crazy week before leaving on this UK tour. At some point I might try to do a longer post on my impressions of Cecil’s orchestra methods, especially perhaps if he reconvenes the band in the near future. In the meantime, a brief answer to your question. While I certainly agree that “anything Cecil plays these days could in theory be called a composition b/c he has such clearly defined motifs that he works with, but it’s still an improvisation in that it’s open ended”, I think he actually applies specific composed materials more than you might imagine; while some of those motifs might sound either reminiscent of previous music or freely improvised in his particular style, usually they are uniquely composed specifically for that performance situation. In the orchestra rehearsals, for example, he’ll play through a classic bit of “Cecil” sounding material that you might think is improvised, but then actually dictate to the ensemble all the notes he just played! It is telling that he dictates the material rather than use conventional notation. That preserves an openess and rhythmic freedom, and leaves it open how and when that material will be implemented into the performance. However, the basic harmonic structure of that material is actually fixed. I also think the intensity of that kind of rehearsal process, as we all struggle together to keep up with him and catch his notes and learn the music, actually serves to bond the ensemble, as if we’d been living on the road in a Pullman porter touring the country for 6 months or something (the way a big band should!).
For one last thought, I’ll quote from an email I sent to the writer Ken Weiss last year, when he asked me about working in this ensemble. “I think it is telling about this orchestra that I’ve heard Cecil talk about the Ellington band more than once during the rehearsal process. In many ways, though the material of course is very different, I feel there are resonances between Cecil’s commitment to this project and his love of Duke. The music has a balance between individual and sectional and ensemble that is consistent to (and an extension of) Duke’s model, while, of course, being wholely rooted in Cecil’s musical language. In the trumpet section, for example (Stephen Haynes, Amir El Saffar, Tobias Netta, and myself), we have four very distinct soloists, but I feel we’ve developed a familial bond as a section, and sometime deal with Cecil’s materials in a manner which feels almost psychic in the spontaneous realization and evolution of the lines.”
Anyway, I hope that is somewhat helpful, and somehow connects to my comments on the trio gig. Best, -THB