Historic Quartet: Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton at Royal Festival Hall, London
Although music stands were positioned next to each band member, there was no evidence of the musicians availing themselves of a score, as all the proceedings seemed created in the moment, the four-way conversation ebbing and flowing over the course of a continuous 36-minute piece. Taylor regarded Braxton intently, as the lead switched between them, with Braxton's alto taking a guttural turn in response to a passage of crashing pianistics, or to Taylor's shimmering lines echoing a long wavering line by Braxton. Mutual respect was evidenced by how the MO of each of the two protagonists was loosened to accommodate the other in a collective discourse that cohered better than we had any right to expect. The rhythm pairing played a full part in sculpting the performance too. Oxley melded a procession of percussive textures into a stumbling rhythm, sparked by Parker's pulsing bass, adding the forward momentum.
Braxton played almost non-stop, switching between alto, soprano and sopranino saxophones and running the gamut from his trademark high-velocity intervallic leaping runs, leavened by lyrical cries, to vocalised growling and wavering squeaks. Occasionally he would stand with eyes closed, rocking gently and nodding his head as he listened before selecting the most appropriate horn for his re-entry. Hard-blowing passages were contrasted with sparser sections of surprising tenderness, with Parker's arco work especially noteworthy. Oxley's electronic washes sometimes added a ghostly fifth voice in the quieter pastoral interludes. However, the energy levels rose towards the end, with Braxton's sopranino wail piercing the blow -out crescendo, Taylor jabbing at hyper speed above a wall of sound from Oxley, until a series of insistent stabs from the pianist signalled the conclusion and elicited an eruption of applause from an ecstatic Royal Festival Hall.
Braxton and Taylor embraced, and then all four joined in a bow before leaving the stage. The historic first-time meeting had more than lived up to its billing, and my suspicion that it would not get off the ground had proved unfounded. If there was any shortcoming, it was the brevity of the full quartet's segment. However, even that small disappointment was tempered by the magisterial duet between Taylor and Oxley, which was an evening's entertainment by itself. The show was recorded by BBC Radio 3, and so may yet see the light of day as an official release. Are you listening Mr Feigin?