Parker Burwell Toop credit Jak Kilby


Cecil: addendum

I’m afraid that I took a year off Cecil’s life, saying that he was 88 years old when he died. I’ve ascribed the birth date of 1930 to him as this was the date that several commentators have used - Cook/Morton, for example, in their Jazz Guide. The correspondence to the 88 keys was too good an opportunity to pass up, but having read Richard William’s blog, I now stand corrected.

Everything else stands. History has judged him as one of the true greats, up there with Armstrong, Parker and Ornette.

Cecil Taylor - 88 Unique Years

Cecil has passed.

After his 88 years and immense and unique legacy. I will leave it to the professionals to write the informed eulogies and obituaries, but feel that I need to blog something to acknowledge the huge significance of Cecil Taylor’s death. Having been working on Barry Guy’s biography, which has included a visit to interview him at his home in Switzerland, I haven’t devoted any time to keeping the blog running. However, given Guy’s connections with CT - which include the exhausting recording Nailed (1990), and the fact that Cecil named (nailed?) him as his favourite bassist - it seemed apposite to salute the pianist’s  passing with a few words.

One of Taylor’s most famous quotes was that which compared the piano to ‘88 tuned drums’, and this is surely one of the most appropriate images for his tumultuous and thrilling work on the keyboard (only on the acoustic piano, no experiments with electrics at all, as far as I know). My first encounter with the piano-as-percussion and/or piano-as-maelstrom, was in 1982, when I chanced my hand with Silent Tongues, his solo album from the 1974 Montreux Jazz Festival. It has always remained one of my favourite recordings, and was rapidly followed up the purchase of the live 1962 trio,  known as Nefetiti, the Beautiful One Has Come, which was only released in 1975, and has henceforth figured in most lists of Jazz Top Fifties, being an epochal event both in Taylor’s discography and in group music in general. There really had been nothing like it before in modern jazz, and Jimmy Lyon’s alto work and Sunny Murray’s percussion have jointly received just praise for their contribution to the group sound and for pushing forward the boundaries for their particular instruments. All three members have now gone.

Cecil Taylor was born in 1930, the same year as Derek Bailey, who he also played with, as part of the gargantuan 1988 Berlin concerts, wherein he also improvised along with other British free improv giants, Evan Parker and Tony Oxley, and it is interesting to speculate on the backstage dynamics of that particular mix of spiky personalities and temperaments. Another child of that year was Sonny Rollins, who still  remains with us, and who is probably the last remaining giant from the fifties generation, the grandfathers of the avant garde of the music. It has become an utter cliche to say that a pianist is ‘Taylor-ish’, when one is looking for a lazy way to describe a style which is ultra-fast, dissonant, strongly rhythmic and densely constructed - Dave Burrell,Marilyn Crispell, Irene Schwiezer and Alex von Schlippenbach are examples of pianists who have been compared to the grand master, all of whom are themselves advanced practitioners, but ultimately different in terms of the effect that they have on the listener and the cumulative affect that they produce over time. A Cecil Taylor concert was an immersive experience, involving suspension of time and surrender to the laminar process of his playing. I usually found myself swaying to the flow of the music and even stomping out a beat with my foot, imposing a regularity of meter and motion when all seemed chaos if approached in segments. A ‘Heroclitian’ flux’ as Evan Parker once memorably came up with (not in connection to Cecil, it has to be said).

My final memory of Cecil Taylor is one, or rather a series of them, from hislong-lasting trio with Oxley and William Parker (The Feel Trio), from their residency in 1990 at Ronnie Scott’s Club. This was memorialised in the box set Two T’s For A Lovely T, which was also a sample of the obliquely allusive titles that he gave to his recordings, which deserve a blog to themselves. We managed to get a seat a few feet behind the 88 drums themselves, and my abiding recollection will be the gradually swelling pattern of sweat that started to cover Taylor’s shirt, seemingly correlating to the outpouring from the trio and the incredibly energy and musicality from the great man himself. By the end of the set, his shirt had changed colour, and the audience felt correspondingly drained. There was still another set to come, and it seems incredible to think that this was probably an average Cecil Taylor gig!

Given the lack of a figure of comparative influence in the modern era, we can only celebrate the life and works of one of the few individuals in jazz who were possibly possessed of genius. If that seems absurd, consider how many others have produced a school of playing that no-one has yet even approximated, and think of anyone else that could step into his trainers now that he is gone. I feel privileged to have been able to see him in action on a few occasions.

Dave Holland and Evan Parker - A Rare Conference

I braved the snow and drove to Dalston’s Vortex Club this evening to hear a rare pairing of two of the masters English free improv, double bassist and long-term American resident, Dave Holland, and long-term Vortex’ resident’, saxophone maestro Evan Parker. Then again, having paid forty pounds for a ticket, it would have taken more than a spell of inclement weather to keep me at home away from the action. The hefty entrance fee reflected the fact that this was a fund-raising gig (two sets, of which I attended the second, at 22.00 hrs) for the club, which is, as ever, facing financial strictures. Holland admitted that he had only become aware of the club a couple of years ago, having been living in the States for several decades, but Parker has had a regular residency there for as long as I can remember, and remains the venue’s most high profile supporter.

Vortex habitue Oliver Weindling introduced the set. Usually the garrulous type, Ollie kept it succinct tonight, and I overheard Evan joking to him that he sounded a bit ‘gloomy’. That’s not what I got from his brief speech, but he certainly got across to the capacity audience the fact that the club is facing an awful lot of difficulties. Looking across the wall-mounted set of historic fliers which had advertised the club since August 1992, I was forcefully reminded of it’s vital role across three decades of London improvisation, and how we are in danger of taking this sort of environment for granted. It has probably taken a bit of a hit from the trendier competition from Cafe Oto down the road, who can clearly now afford to pay the more expensive American improvisers like Sun Ra’s Arkestra and Anthony Braxton, but The Vortex’s longitudinal  dedication to UK free musicians remains a cynosure, and I would recommend it above anywhere else for the ineluctable ‘vibe’ that so many ‘jazz’ clubs aim for, but usually fall far short of. I remember the Bass Clef, in a now-unrecognisable Hoxton in the eighties, and the original Jazz Cafe on Newington Green as having similar qualities. For the even older-timers, Dave Holland alluded in his introduction to Ronnie Scott’s Old Place, where he played as a teenager in the sixties, and which was a short-lived incubator of British (and the South African diaspora) free improvisation, providing an alternative, and/or companion gig to The Little Theater Club.

It is surprising to see how few times these two musicians have recorded together in the (almost exactly) fifty year period since Karyobin was produced on the 18th. February 1968 - my counting-on-one-hand calculation came up with only Company’s Fables (with George E.Lewis and Derek Bailey) from 1980, and Ericle of Dolphy (with the Paul Rutherford and Paul Lovens) from 1976/85. In point of fact, these relatively tranquil and reflective records put me in mind of the music that the duo produced tonight - Parker almost sounding to me like Warne Marsh with his legato more in evidence than usual, perhaps in honour of his companion, whose bass playing avoids ‘extended techniques’ and exhibits a profound classicism. The penultimate number, a bass solo, which featured a ‘walking bass’ section, was marked by Holland’s timeless woody sonority, which sounds like no other bass player that I know. He makes it all look absurdly easy, as opposed to bassists like Barry Guy and John Edwards, who do the exact opposite. The final duo was an master class in togetherness, note-perfect as if it had been scored, but with an spontaneous vigour that put me in mind of Holland’s joyous classic Conference of the Birds (the individual track and the album itself). For some reason, the expression ‘West Coast counterpoint’ entered my mind during this piece (in a good way). Given the temperature and weather outside, listening to these two was like taking a warming bath, and the audience seemed quietly invigorated by this very rare opportunity to hear the only members of the Karyobin team who are still with us.

As Evan toasted at the end, “Long Live The Vortex”. And so we all agreed. And long may these two masters live, who tonight celebrated informally a half century of outstanding improvisatory practice.

The Aesthetics of Imperfection

Faux-pretentious, moi?

The above is actually the title of an essay that I have been asked to write for an upcoming Festival on the subject of improvisation, which will be held in Newcastle in the autumn. The commissioner for this piece is Andy Hamilton, the writer best known, to myself at least, as a long-term contributor to Wire magazine, and he has given me a very wide remit with regards to this topic. Thankfully. It’s enabled me to cast my net wide, so I am going to use it as a springboard for a blog.

The notion of ‘perfection’ implies that something is hard to improve on. I have just stopped reading a book that is as far from perfection as I can imagine, but I want to have something to show for my expenditure of seventeen quid or thereabouts. The title of this book should have told me something, but I blithely ignored any reservations that I may have had - it is as follows:

‘‘A Hero for High Times: A Young Reader’s Guide to the Beats, Hippies, Heads, Freaks, Punks, Ravers, New Age Fellow Travellers, Dog-on-a Rope Brew Crew, Crusties of the British Isles’‘.

It’s written by a guy called Ian Marchant, and was given a thumbs-up by Iain Sinclair in The Sunday Times, and is clearly aimed at the younger person, as it says and I dread to think what this notional young person will think of my generation after reading it . It certainly looked promising, as it purports to cover the counter-culture, if I am allowed to call it thus, much of which I have lived through and continue to find fascinating. In point of fact, the subject has been analysed on multiple occasions, and George McKay’s Senseless Acts of Beauty nailed it particularly well as far back as 1996, just a couple of years down the line from Marchant’s work, which is essentially a biography of a chap called Bob Rowberry, who purports to be an emblem of the ‘high times’ promised by the book cover. I gladly gave up before page 50, as what the book actually consists of is Rowberry’s foul-mouthed self-glamourising, spread over 450 pages. I started to lose the will to read at his intricate memories of the hiding in bomb shelters at the age of 2 (born in 1942). Anything to make this guy appear in any way interesting. It reads exactly like a conversation with a pub boor, and the dog-on-a rope Brew Crew allusion is all you really need to know. It isn’t helped by Marchant’s fawning interview style, which potentiates his subject’s broggadocio about how many women he’s shagged, how many guns he’s handled, how many drugs, how many famous people, etc. A counter-culture Zelig, and not in an interesting way.

Honestly, its far, far worse than I can describe in a format like this.

This is a shame, as Marchant clearly knows his stuff,and writes well, but it all becomes insufferably tedious once Rowberry opens his mouth. In all it’s imperfection and bad vibes though, I did find the appendices good fun, as they include a wonderful list of period films and books that really help to rediscover (for us oldies) the world of the 1970s, a period in which I was growing up and reading/viewing very many of the books/movies concerned. It’s a bit like the oft-cited aspect of Islamic art - except that this time the author has put in something of worth in the context of a surrounding piece of dreck, instead of the other way round. One has to get into a war-time spirit when confronted with stuff like this, and make a little go a long way.

Karyobin - 50 Years On

If no-one else is going to do it, then I will.

My last few blogs have been a bit pre-occupied with anniversaries - the 100th year of recorded jazz, the fascination with key years. Tomorrow (Monday the 18th February 20i8) will be the 50th anniversary recording of what is probably seen by historians, such as they are, of English free improvisation, as THE key recording of it’s early history. Rightly or wrongly - this is not really the place to debate whether there are more worthy examples. This is Karyobin (are the imaginary birds said to live in paradise). To give it it’s full title, prompted by Japanese Gagaru court music.

Martin Davidson of Emanem Records managed to get hold of the original masters, which had been eventually purchased from engineer Eddie Kramer by saxophonist Evan Parker, who arranged for their remastering for the CD, Emanem 5046.  (I have reverted to nerd-speak to acknowledge the obsessive nature of the previous ruminations about this recording, the LP version of which has always remained  extremely rare and collectible). The Emanem now replaces the 1993 Chronoscope release, with a sound that is much fairer to the rhythm section, and contains “more detail and a better balance” according to Parker, and I am not about to argue with free improv’s most respected and venerable representative, There are some new session photos taken by Jak Kilby in his early days, with particularly good ones of John Stevens’s kit with its small toms and mini-cymbols and of an intense Derek Bailey (called Dennis on the original sleeve) playing in Stevens’s foreground. It is salutary (given the stupendous size of their eventual output) to consider that this was Evan Parker’s very first (just in front of Brotzmann’s Machine Gun) commercial recording, as it was Bailey’s. The original LP came out on Island Records’ Hexagram subsidiary, apparently with the intention of it becoming a free improv feature, but it ended up as Island’s only dip into the nascent genre, once they saw that Traffic, Free and Fairport Convention were liable to shift many more units. CBS Records briefly took up the torch, with two records each by the Howard Riley Trio and Tony Oxley Groups. After that the music was reliant on the world on independent labels such as Incus and, later on, Emanem Records.

I got my book on the early days of English free improvisation out in 2015, just in time for the nominal 50th anniversary of the music, and I have been slightly disappointed about the lack of other books on the subject, which I thought might also come out in celebration. There were David Toop’s book on improvisation and John Corbett’s small introduction to the subject, but nothing else, as far as I am aware. It would be great to see alternative approached and viewpoints on this most creative of periods in English music.

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Banner and book cover photo credit: Jak Kilby