Don’t be surprised if a few minutes into master pianist Cecil Taylor’s Melancholy you double-check the recording date. For 1990, this three-part work for an 11-piece ensemble is remarkably straightforward. Within the first 10 minutes, a point in many recent Taylor performances where he is just settling in at the piano, Taylor has led this well-versed aggregation (versed, not rehearsed, because Taylor doesn’t rehearse in a conventional manner) through several crisply rendered ensembles and collective extrapolations. Yet the deliberate pace is soon jettisoned. Taylor’s compositional approach entails an intrinsic torque that stretches the canvas as the paint is being applied; after this deliberate opening, it is fascinating to hear the initial materials-mostly jabbing motives that recall Taylor’s classic ’60s recordings-morph with each pull of the structure and each additional element contributed by the ensemble. Then at strategic points, Taylor introduces compelling contrasts, like the interlude of mournful glissandi and portentous crescendos and diminuendos mid-way through the second movement, to push the music into new areas. In the end, the overall shape of the piece could not be predicted on the basis of the opening, but Taylor’s blueprint allowed for each new aspect of the piece to have a clear relationship to the beginning without overt linkage.
The success of Taylor’s music ultimately rests with the musicians; in that regard, it is noteworthy that many of his cohorts-trumpeter Tobias Netta; trombonists Jorg Huke and Thomas Wiedermann; saxophonists Wolfgang Fuchs, Harri Sjostrom, Volker Schlott and Thomas Klemm-have little to no name recognition in North America. They are as fundamental to the piece as saxophonist Evan Parker, bassist Berry Guy and drummer Tony Oxley. After several recordings teaming Oxley and William Parker, it is particularly intriguing to hear Guy play with Taylor. Like Taylor and Parker, Guy has the ability to produce more sound than presumed to be physically possible. Guy’s compatibility with Taylor is palpable, particularly in the roiling trio sections with Taylor and Oxley. Add Melancholy to the list of Cecil Taylor’s essential recordings.