As much of a clich' as it may sound, the debate will always rage on some semblance of a definition of "jazz" versus "improvised music." It is never a debate that one really wants to get into, semiotically or aesthetically, but with each new improvised recording, the listener and historian both must consider not only whether it is of value, but where it fits on the artistic continuum. But where does one draw the line between free jazz and free music? As a form of music that pushes tonal boundaries, for expressive and structural necessity, free jazz still harbors an intense blues feeling, that all-encapsulating sonority that imbues the music of Ayler, Frank Wright, Don Cherry, Cecil Taylor, and Sunny Murray. The blues feeling is not something one can point to (as in twelve bars), but rather a wavering between several emotions at once, which is why Bart'k can embody "the blues" as much as any field holler, and why Cecil Taylor is as much "Hellhound on My Trail" as he is "Miraculous Mandarin."
An ever-increasing architectural complexity is fostered by Taylor's music, a continuous feed of structural cells that repeat and build upon one another, often seemingly straying rather far from the original cell but remaining tied to it through "feeling," an indescribable weight that lies behind his compositional philosophy of unit structures. What separates Taylor from similar structuralists like Alexander von Schlippenbach, Irene Schweizer and Matthew Shipp is that R&B essence, a funk that pervades his left hand with every skyscraper the right hand builds.
So, it is rather ironic that Algonquin , a partnership with electric violinist Mat Maneri (son of microtonal jazz theorist and composer Joe Maneri) both exists and works as well as it does. For the irony is that as much as the blues is based on a wavering, multilayered feeling, it is equally direct; yet the Maneris have come to a music that is as much circumlocution as Taylor's is oration. After all, jazz is often microtonal, but the Maneris have concentrated on avoiding tonal centers like the plague, bending notes and dancing around any solid statement in their improvisations (in itself a grand aesthetic statement).
This ambiguity certainly rings true in Mat Maneri's interplay with Taylor throughout this session; compared to the work of Tristan Honsinger or Ramsey Ameen, Maneri appears to make scant use of Taylor's structures and only touches on the sonic directions that Cecil points to. Where James P. Johnson rolls and intense runs fill space, Maneri lightly bends notes in ethereal filigree, a feisty complement to Cecil's opus. Yet Maneri's insistence on avoidance causes Taylor to hesitate at times, keeping the pianist more on his toes than one might expectexactly the sort of good-natured aesthetic sparring that one hopes for in a duo.
It is somewhat difficult to say whether this session is a complete success, especially in the annals of Cecil Taylor duet recordings, but Algonquin certainly stands out as one of the most curious Taylor pairings. After all, the indescribable knottiness of a blues has been made ambiguous, more knotty, and thereby more bluesy by its own subversion.