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Cecil Taylor/Bill Dixon/Tony Oxley: Cecil Taylor Bill Dixon Tony Oxley

Now in his 70s, pianist Cecil Taylor has more strength and stamina than many musicians half his age. But recent recordings like The Willisau Concert (Intakt) suggest that Taylor has slowed by a nanosecond or two, his legendary raw voltage being replaced by what is by historical standards a mellower revelry. There are distinctive new fingering patterns at the core of this shift, which arguably require a more strenuous discipline than Taylor’s crashing clusters of the ’70s. These tendencies are very much in evidence in his high-profile encounter with trumpeter Bill Dixon and drummer Tony Oxley at the 2002 Victoriaville festival, issued by the festival’s label with impressive speed. Many of the seeds of Taylor’s current work were sown with Oxley and bassist William Parker in the Feel Trio of the late ’80s and early ’90s, a pivotal unit finally given its due with the 10-CD 2 Ts for a Lovely T. Heard in tandem with Verve’s reissue of Taylor’s seminal ’57 Newport set, these recordings reveal how Taylor’s music continues to evolve almost a half-century later.

Aspects of the three tunes Taylor recorded at Newport with soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, bassist Buell Neidlinger and drummer Denis Charles (whose first name was misspelled as Dennis for decades) now seem almost quaint. Flashes of Taylor’s affinity for Ellington are tucked among the jolting crossover riffs and thick chromatic passages. In the opening in-the-pocket ensemble, he lovingly jostles Strayhorn’s “Johnny Come Lately,” underscoring Lacy’s blues-drenched lilt. Now that his piano lexicon is familiar, if not assimilated, it is also easier to hear the wistful lyricism of original compositions like “Tune 2.” Certainly, Taylor’s innovations are overshadowing-“Nona’s Blues” is a prime early example of what Neidlinger termed “compression and release,” the exhilarating intensification and restatement of tempo. Still, much of what continues to drive Taylor’s music is here in embryonic form; revisiting it now confirms that jazz was a nurturing womb for Taylor’s music.

Just as Taylor’s first conceptual leaps in the ’50s were documented within the context of his working quartet, the advent of the elements now in the foreground of Taylor’s music were first articulated with the Feel Trio. In each set of the ’90 London club stand preserved on 2 Ts for a Lovely T, the trio achieves a gyroscopic fluidity crucial to Taylor’s arch concept of unfolding form. Both Parker and Oxley innately follow the advice Taylor gave Sunny Murray 40 years ago: just keep playing. To a remarkable degree, Parker does so by relatively conventional means: lines built with equally valued notes, vamps, antiphonal figures. Oxley is the polar opposite, but with roughly the same results as Parker: both provide Taylor the means to be his most mercurial. Yet the three remain mutually supported as a result.

For each performance, Taylor introduces a wealth of new materials, emphasizing a collection of pitch relationships and rhythm cells that set this music apart from his ’80s work. Still, Taylor tends to quickly hit a seemingly unsustainable level of intensity and speed for staggering lengths of time, attacking the materials from all angles, pulling them apart and putting them back together in new proportions. The other absorbing aspect of 2 Ts for a Lovely T is to hear Taylor suddenly dive deep into his singular lexicon, plunging into jabbing bluesy runs that would not be out of place on his Candid releases, or the type of explosive clusters that made his Shandar albums such compelling listening. Amazingly, these things occur sometimes with the speed of a sonar ping, and they last no longer than it takes Taylor to take a reading and accelerate in a new direction. Subsequently, the workings of Taylor’s music become more familiar with each disc, but not at the expense of its power to thrill or even unsettle the listener.

The Victoriaville concert with Dixon and Oxley finds Taylor in a rare deferential mood, allowing the trumpeter to set the tone with his patented spectral cries and whispers. Also a regular Dixon collaborator, Oxley proves to be the perfect ballast, giving minimal provocation to Taylor while providing Dixon a solid backdrop for the shadow play of his trumpet’s electronic treatments.

Subsequently, the movement of the program is glacial compared to Taylor’s usual pace. Additionally, the fireworks are minimal and wan. Instead, there is an almost supplicant grace to the music that is largely attributable to Taylor’s delicate embellishments and ruminative commentary. Rarely has this awe-inspiring artist been so obviously in awe of the moment as Taylor is here. Consequently, there is a quiet intensity that would understandably be lost live, given the concert’s hockey rink venue and V.S.O.P. build-up. It is present on disc, however, and it is as thought-provoking as Taylor’s most seismic statements.

Originally Published