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John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet at the Earshot Jazz Festival

Cecil Taylor at Lincoln Center

“The piano should imitate an orchestra,” said Jelly Roll Morton, and pianist Duke Ellington went a step further when he made an orchestra his instrument. The next step was to make an orchestra into a big piano, which is what Cecil Taylor did-he gathered 12 musicians who, each in his way, create like Taylor: they join composed and improvised elements as he does, and they improvise together in his way. Or so it seemed the week after Taylor’s 75th birthday, when his fiery ensemble shook the walls of Iridium, Broadway’s imaginatively booked jazz cellar.

As with most of Taylor’s work, this was hot jazz-brash, hard-hitting, dense, full of vital activity. This band has performed together off and on for three years and it has a number of precedents, including the university student big bands that Taylor began forming around 1970. And those big bands expanded on the original ideas of the small groups the pianist had begun to develop as long ago as the 1950s. His big bands have always sounded like nothing else in jazz except, in a way, the 1970s concert albums by the British/South African band Brotherhood Of Breath, led by pianist Chris McGregor.

At Iridium Taylor provided his band with a number of composed themes for each set-“suites,” one musician called the band’s sets. A theme would appear early in a set, typically at the beginning. Subsequent themes would emerge in order as Taylor cued them from the piano or as sections of the band chose to introduce them; most of the time Taylor Ho Bynum seemed to lead the trumpet section and altoist Bobby Zankel seemed to lead five of the six saxophones. Some themes were foreground material, others provided background for improvisation.

And what improvising it was. The greatest portion of each set was fast, wild collective improvisation. Individuals would rise out of the hubbub to play scrappy solos, accompanied by piano, bass (Dominic Duval), drums (Jackson Krall), tuba (Bill Lowe), and sometimes bass sax (J.D. Parran). After awhile another horn would seize on a motive from the soloist’s lines to initiate his own commentary; other horns would join in and the solo would conclude, or disappear, in more collective wailing. Most of the time, tempos were as fast as possible (what else, in Taylor’s music?) and, time and again, emerging slow tempos from some players were vanquished by the speed of the many. Taylor’s concept of rhythm has never been exactly free. Rather, he seems always to feel tempo as he plays, and the way he moves from slow to super-fast tempos as a soloist fits this band, too. Late in each set, a three-note motive (the opening notes of Concierto de Aranjuez) would initiate a slow section to conclude the performances, a calm amid the storms.

Collective improvisation can be exhilarating, of course. But these were 90-minute-plus sets of personal voices subsuming into lengthy, super-fast freak-outs, and that’s a long time to sustain an adrenaline rush. There were other reasons why this band was a pleasure to hear. The band’s textures were ever-changing. The mechanics of how this complex music worked, the relationships between composition and improvisation, between improvisers and rhythm section, were fascinating. Taylor’s concept of solo improvisation has usually involved mounting grand structures, sonatas upon sonatas, that begin with subtle motives. Since this band is a big piano, it’s natural that his horn players would also create thematic improvisations and even comment on each other’s improvisations, rising to a tumult of musical commentary.

As befits such aggressive music, trombonists Jeff Hoyer and Steve Swell were a pair of Roswell Rudd-like extroverts. Sabir Mateen formed tenor sax solos in an apocalyptic, post-Coltrane style while the other tenor player, Elliot Levin, was an eclectic who offered passages of several different styles in the course of his busy free-for-alls. The trumpet soloists sounded rather restrained by contrast. A welcome element of lyricism appeared in each set with Cecil Taylor’s own piano solos. In this setting, instead of his familiar high-energy density, he created flowing, richly harmonized lines. His solos were never long, and commentary by Lowe’s tuba usually distracted the listener. In one particularly comic event, Lowe’s ebullient blatting vanquished Taylor’s rhapsodic musings.

I heard four sets by Taylor’s band in three nights. Inevitably, so much collective improvisation, however stimulating to the musicians, exhausts the listener. Yet I felt that the second set on Thursday night fulfilled much of the promise of this challenging music. It began with muted trumpets leading the band in melody; a striking trumpet section trilling theme was heard atop a band freak-out, and the conclusion was an extended slow melodic section, colored by both darkness and hope-imagine Shostakovich revised by Ellington. This time, as in Taylor’s best large-scale solo piano works, composition met improvisation to yield a mostly fulfilling large form; the babble (or Babel) really did almost succeed in becoming his many-voiced piano: an extraordinary way for Cecil Taylor to celebrate his 75th birthday.

Originally Published