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The link between the late Cecil Taylor and the members of the Winged Serpents collective is one driven by admiration and inspiration, from a distance, rather than through collaboration. Taylor, in fact, had only shared billing twice in his half-century of recording. The Mary Lou Williams duet Embraced (Pablo, 1977) and Max Roach's 1979 recording of Historic Concerts (Soul Note, 1984) constitute the entire library of his communal projects and date back at least a generation before any of the Winged Serpents careers. Six Encomiums for Cecil Taylor takes on the enormous task of paying homage to an artist whose work was as complicated as his nature.
Winged Serpents is not a group per se but six of the leading progressive pianists in jazz music. The collective's name is taken from the title of Taylor's 1984 Soul Note release with his Orchestra of Two Continents. Each of the Winged Serpents pianists performs a solo improvisation dedicated to, and inspired by Taylor. In their order of appearance on we have Craig Taborn, Sylvie Courvoisier, Brian Marsella, Kris Davis, Aruán Ortiz, and Anthony Coleman. Marsella and Coleman are not the best-known members of the collective but both have ties to John Zorn's Tzadik label and Zorn is the Producer here as well.
Taborn opens with "Genuflect," an exercise in balancing mass and subtlety, and it is immediately evocative of the late pianist but with some poetic license. Courvoisier's "Quauhnahuac" renders incongruous imagery through her exacting prepared-piano techniques. "Minor Magus," from Marsella, shares some of Taylor's intangible and spontaneous animation while Davis' "Grass and Trees on the Other Side of the Tracks" combines scuttling drive with the pathos thaton rare and brief occasionswould surface in Taylor's solo work. Aruán Ortiz' stunning "Unveiling Urban Pointillism" is thirteen-plus minutes of intriguing music that doesn't simply touch on Taylor's visceral and subtle qualities, but takes those characteristics to a new level. Coleman's "April 5th, 2018" signifies the date of Taylor's death and is the only scored composition on the album. It is both somber at celebratory and a fitting closing to the collection.
From the late 1950s through his final recordings in the 2000s, accessibility was not a concern of Taylor's. On Six Encomiums... the musicians wisely temper the wild abandon and frenzied abstraction that were Taylor trademarks. Those moments are certainly present but not to the extent that they dominate the performances. One of the very interesting aspects of this album is that it feels like Taylor music, slowed down just enough to be able to appreciate nuances that were easily lost in his dense original work. At various points in the past performances of each of these pianists, comparisons to Taylor have been part of the analysis though it is highly unlikely that there will ever be a direct heir. The musicians of Winged Serpents wisely do not attempt to emulate Taylor to any extreme level and thus have given us an excellent tribute and some outstanding original music in its own right.
Genuflect; Quauhnahuac; Minor Magus; Grass and Trees on the Other Side of the Tracks; Unveiling Urban Pointillism; April 5th, 2018.
Craig Taborn, Sylvie Courvoisier, Brian Marsella, Kris Davis, Aruán Ortiz, Anthony Coleman: piano.