Friday, April 06, 2018

to Cecil with love

Cecil Percival Taylor, March 25 1929-April 5 2018 

I first heard Cecil Taylor when I was about 13 and my friend Emery put one of his recordings on the record player. It might have been the most widely known recording of Cecil's, Unit Structures. For some reason I think it was Cecil's solo performance from his time as an artist in residence at Antioch, Indent. This was recorded in 1973, so if it was this recording, it was about 3 years hot off the presses at the time, a remarkable thought. I recall that my first response to Cecil's music was to be frightened by it. Disoriented, mistrustful, thrown off guard, skeptical and threatened. In particular, I took the feeling tone to be anger and frustration. These initial reactions proved both wrong and unnecessary. 


The man's music caused so many different reactions in many people. If you follow the history of critics writing about him, you see that many emphasized how "out there" his music was, some even going so far as to call it "atonal," which hardly any of it actually was (there are some compositions such as Student Studies, some of his solo work from very early, such as Praxis, and a scant few other pieces that are highly chromatic and have constantly shifting tonal centers, maybe approaching atonality). Many critics exalted his "totally spontaneous improvisations," which is a ridiculous myth, as you can clearly hear Cecil's compositions unfold with stunning logic and structure if you just take the time. 

 In truth, there is no one thing you can say about the man's music and have it cover much of any of it. Even when people say "I loved his solo piano recordings," I want to know which period? Because his solo piano style manifested in at least 4 distinct phases. 

I guess one thing you could say was that his music was alive. Is alive. It is soaked in blood, electricity, the peristalsis of a fierce gut, the physicality of a deep tissue massage, the tenderness and vulnerability of gazing at a beloved, the entire night sky of uncountable stars, mud pits, tidal waves, fertility of spring pond peepers, Heraclitean refusal to stand, but formal intricacy refusing to tolerate fat or faltering (to quote AB Spelling) or lies or anything shabby whatsoever. A bundle of swords. A bag of daggers. A thousand dozen roses. Sentiment, but you have to work for it. Muscle skeletal and smooth and cardiac. Groin and balls, brain and spine. So that's one thing you could say. Listen to Cecil's romanticism here 

 Being black and gay or maybe bi and an innovative musician in America from 1929-2018. Go ahead, I dare you. 

He was outed by the execrable Stanley Crouch in the '80s, when being outed was not okay. Not that it's okay now, but it could destroy a person back then. 

Cecil's radical awareness was astonishing. Go back and check out the fierce and fiery, uncompromising panel discussion he commandeered at Bennington in 1964. 

 "That’s what we are and all we can ever be: what we are at the moment. Even if we reflect upon that which we have done in the morning, when we write in the afternoon that’s all we are – what we are at the moment. The sum total of the existence is like what it is up to the point that you die – that’s all. So that if a cat chooses to improvise, which is, you know, a technical mastery of certain materials put in the framework of certain forms. And we are talking about jazz, so we’ll talk about its first form which is the Blues. You cannot tell me – you’ll have to prove it to me – that, when after twenty years of playing, that Charlie Parker didn’t play the Blues as many different ways as was possible within his experience. And if he had sat down to write this it wouldn’t have been any more valid, because, in the final analysis, what we heard was what we heard..[Overton tries to speak, Taylor goes on.] Just a minute, just a minute, what you are negating there is that there is skill in improvisation. What you’re negating is that – wait a minute, wait a minute. Polish, you used the word polish before. When one sits down to compose one…it’s sort of like a spiritual – this is Sunday – a spiritual thing. You know, you sit down and you start writing and you become reflective and your mind works. But whoever told you that in order to play the piano, or in order to do anything, you don’t use your mind?" (an excerpt from that panel discussion) 

 In most interviews with Cecil, you get a sense of his fierce mind and his impatience with narrow mindedness, racism (especially coded or cryptic racism), misconceptions and ignorance. He seems to have repeatedly encountered especially white interviewers who honestly had done no homework whatsoever on him and who had little to no understanding of what he was about. There's a spectacular passage from one interview where Cecil is repeatedly badgered to talk about his "technique," one of the great fetishes of European and American artistic culture, and often a false yardstick that people seem to use to evaluate the worth of an artist. Cecil repeatedly bats the question away until he finally says, paraphrasing a bit because I can't find the exact quotation, "anyone with the time and resources can develop technique." That perspective has long stayed with me, especially coming from a man who obviously dedicated hours and hours and years to perfecting his own technical vocabulary. I can hear the exasperation in his voice. 

 For the most part, the critical perspective on Cecil and his music is laughably inaccurate, often applying hyperbole in the wrong places, misunderstanding the intricacy and subtleties of his work, touting how "difficult" he is but not offering people much of an understanding of how powerful and moving his music is. Calling his "genre" "Free Jazz," which is an awful canard and misnomer, thinking of him as exclusively a rebel when in fact you can hear his reverent homage to a great many of his predecessors, thinking of his personality as "prickly" or "difficult" when in fact he was merely holding strong boundaries for being a black artist in a racist country that totally lacks and sense of black musical history and all of musical history for that matter (although, admittedly, *also* prickly and difficult at times). 

I was blessed to attend several of his performances after about 1981, both solo piano and ensemble. One of my big regrets is just missing the incredible unit he put together in the late '70s, featuring Ronald Shannon Jackson, Ramsey Ameen, Raphé Malik, Jimmy Lyons and Sirone. One of the greatest ensembles in all of American music, and relatively well documented by a couple of excellent New World Records studio sessions, the epic One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye and Live in the Black Forest. Check out the shuffle blues inflections of this remarkable piece 


But I was lucky enough to get to about 10 performances altogether, including Manhattan for two nights of the Cecil Taylor Big Band at Lush Life (or was it Fat Tuesday?). It was surreal, experiencing music of such astonishing power and uncompromising integrity in a nightclub setting with a "two drink minimum." Weird to remember that these concerts were not too long after he had performed on the White House lawn, in the concert organized by the Carter administration. 

The long partnership with Jimmy Lyons itself could be the subject of several essays and appreciations. It's always dangerous picking "a favorite," but one of the great high points for me is the encore to Calling it the Eighth, puckishly called Calling it the Ninth (the recording began on the 8th of Nov and ended on the 9th of Nov, 1981). Lyons and Cecil, perfectly backed by William Parker and Rashid Bakr, laying down some heartache. 


When I heard that he had recorded a series of duets with Max Roach, I was astonished. The recording is a remarkable document of a moment of intersection and continuity in American music. What a dialog! A breakaway breakneck heartbreaking and record breaking monsoon of exuberance. The CD version includes a spectacular drum solo by Roach and some solo piano by Cecil that is not on the vinyl. "Exuberance is beauty," writes Wm. Blake, and it resonates. 


Cecil tried academia a couple times, a path that some of his contemporaries were able to follow to provide some financial and material stability in their lives. He was a professor at the University of Wisconsin for maybe one semester and I think he taught a jazz improvisation or jazz history class, not sure. One thing I do know, because he confirmed it, was that he failed every single student. He was asked to leave. No institution and no musical idiom could contain him. "I must create my own system or be enslaved by another man's," wrote Wm. Blake, and it resonates. 

 Another passage from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by Blake comes to mind: 

"Thus Swedenborg’s writings are a recapitulation of all superficial opinions, and an analysis of the more sublime—but no further. Have now another plain fact. Any man of mechanical talents may, from the writings of Paracelsus or Jacob Behmen, produce ten thousand volumes of equal value with Swedenborg’s, and from those of Dante or Shakespear an infinite number. But when he has done this, let him not say that he knows better than his master, for he only holds a candle in sunshine."    

The secondary side effects of culture that come close to Cecil's sun are just candles by comparison, whether those side effects are opinion, reaction, imitation, analysis, hagiography, dismissal and ridicule, what have you. 

The last time I saw him, in Albuquerque back in maybe 2004, I went with Chris Jonas, who had been in his big bands of the early '90s, the project in which Cecil invested his MacArthur Grant. Chris and I went backstage afterward to say hello. I was floored, frankly. It's very strange, to have a hero for 40 years and then to have a chance to meet that artist. I have met many celebrities and while there is a certain novelty to that, my values don't really run that way. But to be in the presence of an artist with the combined personal and historical significance of Cecil was a weird moment. 

And my musician friend and I were invited back to his hotel room, where we sat on the floor while Cecil held court and talked for a couple hours, his conversational style weaving seemingly disconnected lines in long arcs that always somehow came back to tie together. At one point in this long solo performance, he pointed to me and said "and this person here, this friend of yours Chris, I notice he hasn't had any champagne or anything else this whole time, but he's delightfully generous with his cigarettes, so he's no doubt paying very close attention," and he got a twinkle in his eye and moved on to more commentary on the Robert Caro biography of Lyndon B Johnson and somehow into a riff on Betty Carter, whom he referred to as "The Beast," and Ornette Coleman, "Ornette-y Poo" and Braxton "The Professor." 

I was still smoking at the time-- American Spirit menthol cigarettes, which happened to be Cecil's favorite. I think he smoked about a six of mine. I thanked him for opening up his hotel room to us, thanked him profusely and probably a little too obsequiously for the opportunity to meet him, when we left at 3:30 in the morning. He seemed deeply amused by my reverence and he scrunched his face in an exaggerated expression of dismissal and regally waved his hand and said "well, it was a *party*, after all, wasn't it?" His inflections were often in a long drawl, and it took him a few seconds to say the word "party." 

 These words too, just words. There's much more than words left. Go to his sessionography, dig and dig and dig. Even his spoken word performances, as recorded on Chinampas, not just words. In 43 years of open ears I continue to find new ideas in the air when I listen, even when I listen to recordings I have had almost that entire time. Who among us is capable of comprehending the generosity of such a legacy, such a gift? 

Well, it was a party, after all, wasn't it?

Friday, March 17, 2017

the dead's ending, happy st pat's

"You are a very generous person, Gabriel," she said.

Gabriel, trembling with delight at her sudden kiss and at the quaintness of her phrase, put his hands on her hair and began smoothing it back, scarcely touching it with his fingers. The washing had made it fine and brilliant. His heart was brimming over with happiness. Just when he was wishing for it she had come to him of her own accord. Perhaps her thoughts had been running with his. Perhaps she had felt the impetuous desire that was in him, and then the yielding mood had come upon her. Now that she had fallen to him so easily, he wondered why he had been so diffident.

He stood, holding her head between his hands. Then, slipping one arm swiftly about her body and drawing her towards him, he said softly:

"Gretta, dear, what are you thinking about?"

She did not answer nor yield wholly to his arm. He said again, softly:

"Tell me what it is, Gretta. I think I know what is the matter. Do I know?"

She did not answer at once. Then she said in an outburst of tears:

"O, I am thinking about that song, The Lass of Aughrim."

She broke loose from him and ran to the bed and, throwing her arms across the bed-rail, hid her face. Gabriel stood stockstill for a moment in astonishment and then followed her. As he passed in the way of the cheval-glass he caught sight of himself in full length, his broad, well-filled shirt-front, the face whose expression always puzzled him when he saw it in a mirror, and his glimmering gilt-rimmed eyeglasses. He halted a few paces from her and said:

"What about the song? Why does that make you cry?"

She raised her head from her arms and dried her eyes with the back of her hand like a child. A kinder note than he had intended went into his voice.

"Why, Gretta?" he asked.

"I am thinking about a person long ago who used to sing that song."

"And who was the person long ago?" asked Gabriel, smiling.

"It was a person I used to know in Galway when I was living with my grandmother," she said.

The smile passed away from Gabriel's face. A dull anger began to gather again at the back of his mind and the dull fires of his lust began to glow angrily in his veins.

"Someone you were in love with?" he asked ironically.

"It was a young boy I used to know," she answered, "named Michael Furey. He used to sing that song, The Lass of Aughrim. He was very delicate."

Gabriel was silent. He did not wish her to think that he was interested in this delicate boy.

"I can see him so plainly," she said, after a moment. "Such eyes as he had: big, dark eyes! And such an expression in them -- an expression!"

"O, then, you are in love with him?" said Gabriel.

"I used to go out walking with him," she said, "when I was in Galway."

A thought flew across Gabriel's mind.

"Perhaps that was why you wanted to go to Galway with that Ivors girl?" he said coldly.

She looked at him and asked in surprise:

"What for?"

Her eyes made Gabriel feel awkward. He shrugged his shoulders and said:

"How do I know? To see him, perhaps."

She looked away from him along the shaft of light towards the window in silence.

"He is dead," she said at length. "He died when he was only seventeen. Isn't it a terrible thing to die so young as that?"

"What was he?" asked Gabriel, still ironically.

"He was in the gasworks," she said.

Gabriel felt humiliated by the failure of his irony and by the evocation of this figure from the dead, a boy in the gasworks. While he had been full of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she had been comparing him in her mind with another. A shameful consciousness of his own person assailed him. He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror. Instinctively he turned his back more to the light lest she might see the shame that burned upon his forehead.

He tried to keep up his tone of cold interrogation, but his voice when he spoke was humble and indifferent.

"I suppose you were in love with this Michael Furey, Gretta," he said.

"I was great with him at that time," she said.

Her voice was veiled and sad. Gabriel, feeling now how vain it would be to try to lead her whither he had purposed, caressed one of her hands and said, also sadly:

"And what did he die of so young, Gretta? Consumption, was it?"

"I think he died for me," she answered.

A vague terror seized Gabriel at this answer, as if, at that hour when he had hoped to triumph, some impalpable and vindictive being was coming against him, gathering forces against him in its vague world. But he shook himself free of it with an effort of reason and continued to caress her hand. He did not question her again, for he felt that she would tell him of herself. Her hand was warm and moist: it did not respond to his touch, but he continued to caress it just as he had caressed her first letter to him that spring morning.

"It was in the winter," she said, "about the beginning of the winter when I was going to leave my grandmother's and come up here to the convent. And he was ill at the time in his lodgings in Galway and wouldn't be let out, and his people in Oughterard were written to. He was in decline, they said, or something like that. I never knew rightly."

She paused for a moment and sighed.

"Poor fellow," she said. "He was very fond of me and he was such a gentle boy. We used to go out together, walking, you know, Gabriel, like the way they do in the country. He was going to study singing only for his health. He had a very good voice, poor Michael Furey."

"Well; and then?" asked Gabriel.

"And then when it came to the time for me to leave Galway and come up to the convent he was much worse and I wouldn't be let see him so I wrote him a letter saying I was going up to Dublin and would be back in the summer, and hoping he would be better then."

She paused for a moment to get her voice under control, and then went on:

"Then the night before I left, I was in my grandmother's house in Nuns' Island, packing up, and I heard gravel thrown up against the window. The window was so wet I couldn't see, so I ran downstairs as I was and slipped out the back into the garden and there was the poor fellow at the end of the garden, shivering."

"And did you not tell him to go back?" asked Gabriel.

"I implored of him to go home at once and told him he would get his death in the rain. But he said he did not want to live. I can see his eyes as well as well! He was standing at the end of the wall where there was a tree."

"And did he go home?" asked Gabriel.

"Yes, he went home. And when I was only a week in the convent he died and he was buried in Oughterard, where his people came from. O, the day I heard that, that he was dead!"

She stopped, choking with sobs, and, overcome by emotion, flung herself face downward on the bed, sobbing in the quilt. Gabriel held her hand for a moment longer, irresolutely, and then, shy of intruding on her grief, let it fall gently and walked quietly to the window.

She was fast asleep.

Gabriel, leaning on his elbow, looked for a few moments unresentfully on her tangled hair and half-open mouth, listening to her deep-drawn breath. So she had had that romance in her life: a man had died for her sake. It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life. He watched her while she slept, as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife. His curious eyes rested long upon her face and on her hair: and, as he thought of what she must have been then, in that time of her first girlish beauty, a strange, friendly pity for her entered his soul. He did not like to say even to himself that her face was no longer beautiful, but he knew that it was no longer the face for which Michael Furey had braved death.

Perhaps she had not told him all the story. His eyes moved to the chair over which she had thrown some of her clothes. A petticoat string dangled to the floor. One boot stood upright, its limp upper fallen down: the fellow of it lay upon its side. He wondered at his riot of emotions of an hour before. From what had it proceeded? From his aunt's supper, from his own foolish speech, from the wine and dancing, the merry-making when saying good-night in the hall, the pleasure of the walk along the river in the snow. Poor Aunt Julia! She, too, would soon be a shade with the shade of Patrick Morkan and his horse. He had caught that haggard look upon her face for a moment when she was singing Arrayed for the Bridal. Soon, perhaps, he would be sitting in that same drawing-room, dressed in black, his silk hat on his knees. The blinds would be drawn down and Aunt Kate would be sitting beside him, crying and blowing her nose and telling him how Julia had died. He would cast about in his mind for some words that might console her, and would find only lame and useless ones. Yes, yes: that would happen very soon.

The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover's eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

Generous tears filled Gabriel's eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

ash on an old man's sleeve

Ash on an old man's sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.
Dust in the air suspended
Marks the place where a story ended.
Dust inbreathed was a house-
The walls, the wainscot and the mouse,
The death of hope and despair,
This is the death of air.

There are flood and drouth
Over the eyes and in the mouth,
Dead water and dead sand
Contending for the upper hand.
The parched eviscerate soil
Gapes at the vanity of toil,
Laughs without mirth.
This is the death of earth.

Water and fire succeed
The town, the pasture and the weed.
Water and fire deride
The sacrifice that we denied.
Water and fire shall rot
The marred foundations we forgot,
Of sanctuary and choir.
This is the death of water and fire.

In the uncertain hour before the morning
Near the ending of interminable night
At the recurrent end of the unending
After the dark dove with the flickering tongue
Had passed below the horizon of his homing
While the dead leaves still rattled on like tin
Over the asphalt where no other sound was
Between three districts whence the smoke arose
I met one walking, loitering and hurried
As if blown towards me like the metal leaves
Before the urban dawn wind unresisting.
And as I fixed upon the down-turned face
That pointed scrutiny with which we challenge
The first-met stranger in the waning dusk
I caught the sudden look of some dead master
Whom I had known, forgotten, half recalled
Both one and many; in the brown baked features
The eyes of a familiar compound ghost
Both intimate and unidentifiable.
So I assumed a double part, and cried
And heard another's voice cry: "What! are you here?"
Although we were not. I was still the same,
Knowing myself yet being someone other--
And he a face still forming; yet the words sufficed
To compel the recognition they preceded.
And so, compliant to the common wind,
Too strange to each other for misunderstanding,
In concord at this intersection time
Of meeting nowhere, no before and after,
We trod the pavement in a dead patrol.
I said: "The wonder that I feel is easy,
Yet ease is cause of wonder. Therefore speak:
I may not comprehend, may not remember."
And he: "I am not eager to rehearse
My thoughts and theory which you have forgotten.
These things have served their purpose: let them be.
So with your own, and pray they be forgiven
By others, as I pray you to forgive
Both bad and good. Last season's fruit is eaten
And the fullfed beast shall kick the empty pail.
For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.
But, as the passage now presents no hindrance
To the spirit unappeased and peregrine
Between two worlds become much like each other,
So I find words I never thought to speak
In streets I never thought I should revisit
When I left my body on a distant shore.
Since our concern was speech, and speech impelled us
To purify the dialect of the tribe
And urge the mind to aftersight and foresight,
Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your lifetime's effort.
First, the cold fricton of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
As body and soul begin to fall asunder.
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of things ill done and done to others' harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
Then fools' approval stings, and honour stains.
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
Where you must move in measure, like a dancer."
The day was breaking. In the disfigured street
He left me, with a kind of valediction,
And faded on the blowing of the horn.-- Four Quartets, Little Gidding, Part II, TS Eliot