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Celebrating Cecil Taylor at the Painted Bride Art Center

Victor L. Schermer By
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Still the New Thing
The Painted Bride Art Center
Philadelphia, PA
March 8, 2014

This concert was the first in a series entitled "Still the New Thing" honoring three icons of avant-garde jazz: Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and Sun Ra. Cecil Taylor turns 85 years old in March. To acknowledge the occasion, saxophonist, band leader, and composer/arranger Bobby Zankel brought with him to the Painted Bride four other legendary musicians who worked extensively with Taylor or were profoundly influenced by him: pianist Dave Burrell, double-bassists Henry Grimes (who also performed on violin) and William Parker, and drummer Andrew Cyrille.

In a series of extended improvised compositions, these outstanding musicians demonstrated superb technical mastery and imaginative capacity reflecting Cecil Taylor's revolutionary extensions of the jazz idiom into new territories of rhythm, structure, harmony, and form. A standing-room-only crowd was entranced and at times stunned with the power and beauty of music that defied categorization yet was totally absorbing, resonating with the minds and hearts of an audience who, judging from their rapt attention and standing ovation, opened themselves to a novel and enriching musical experience.

Cecil Taylor is one of the most innovative musicians in jazz history, and his impact is felt in all quarters. He maintained a strong Afro-American emphasis while opening improvisation to a much broader range than the traditional melodic and harmonic basis. Ben Ratliff of the New York Times described Taylor's playing as "more than partly improvised, percussive, rhapsodic, alert, full of his ringing keyboard sound, body language and poetry recitation, and totally invested in the present...He seems to think of his music as a kinetic act, a ritual of place and ancestry, something that lives in bodies but less so in notation and documents." Ratliff added (and Taylor-inspired musicians have also contended) that Taylor encouraged originality: "You honor Cecil Taylor by being yourself."

In this concert, the group went their own way using an agenda that Taylor himself increasingly employed. Instead of an agreed-upon "tune" or chord progression as the basis of improvisation, one of the musicians played an extended series of spontaneously created motifs, and then the others joined in. The meter, shifting tonal centers, and intervallic structures provided coordinating elements. As the piece evolved, it was as if the group established a sacred musical space in which each could pursue his own ideas while always connecting with the ensemble playing, in a process that suggested a tribal trance or ritual. Such coordination without a familiar organizing structure is extremely difficult to achieve, and in this case it succeeded admirably, but not because the musicians often play together (they rarely, if ever, do so these days—forty years ago Zankel, Parker, and Cyrille performed with Taylor at a legendary Carnegie Hall event), but because each for several decades has taken improvisation to whole new levels, and can hear and respond to a wide range of expressive possibilities. As Zankel told this reviewer, "There are no titles or 'set list' for what we played. We just started each piece with whatever came to mind." It was awe inspiring- -and a credit to Cecil Taylor's and these men's artistic courage— to hear seven extended pieces evolve into rich, complex, and expressive musical structures of great magnitude and beauty in jazz's "here and now" context.

Zankel, on alto saxophone, began with an extended solo that echoed John Coltrane's preacher-like exhortations and Rudresh Mahanthappa's multi-ethnic excursions, building in intensity until pianist Burrell and bassist Parker provided contrapuntal motifs, finally joined by bassist Grimes and drummer Cyrille, acting as sidemen and gradually emphasizing their own ideas. Each musician offered his own idioms. Burrell used Taylor's percussive emphasis in a unique way that at times reflected Thelonious Monk's angular rhythms and chord clusters and at other times invoked elements of serial composition and motifs from modernist composers. Parker alternated between pizzicato and arco (bowed) playing, generating a pulsating, at times frenetic and unstoppable movement. Cyrille combined familiar hard bop style with complex polyrhythms and Latin and African elements, setting off the music with creative use of deeply established jazz traditions. Grimes ran up and down the strings of the double-bass with chromaticism that contrasted with Zankel's quick phrases and Lester Young-ish leaps. Later, Grimes surprised everyone when, like Ornette Coleman, he picked up a standard violin, adding a gypsy-like aspect to the concatenation of styles.

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