21st-Century History

Three Classic Avant-Garde Schools Come Together Not a Moment Too Soon

If this were an LP, you would flip it for the suite within the suite, Taylor's triptych: "Life As," "It," "Is." The first section, for solo piano, is a marvel of concision and control. He begins impassively with two tones over 15 seconds, then probes melody without conventional form or resolution—melody that exists more in the alternations of single pitches and chords and of bass and treble than in linear design, but melody all the same. The opening gambit and the sudden dynamic buildup of crisp chords and utopian tremolos are reminiscent of Liszt's Sonata in B Minor, but without the gothic melodrama. Thoughts of Liszt disappear as chord flurries curl up at the edges with blue notes and distinctive motifs abound, patterned with eighth-note rests, before the symmetrical wind-down, which includes a great climactic vortex before returning to silence with one long sustained note.

Contrastingly, "It" opens with bounding dancelike figures—Taylor in a chipper mood and Jones following his every step with polyrhythmic chatter on snares and cymbal. This is a freer and more kinetic number; about two-thirds through Taylor tickles the keys until the piano rocks with laughter, then sighs as the drums take it out. Redman returns for the balladic opening of the oddly structured 21-minute pièce de résistance, "Is." The surprising reference to "Lonely Woman" is made especially notable by the response: the spreading ripples of the cymbal, the swirling keyboard arpeggio that cradles the melody. Other memory-chords are struck as well: Redman's long yearning notes, recalling Coltrane in his "Alabama" period, or the brittler Archie Shepp sonority he invokes in a later passage; Jones chasing a mercurial Taylor with the Blakey-like press rolls he employed to keep Coltrane on track while "Chasin' the Trane." In this context, they become waves for the piano to surf. The intensifying trio consummates the euphoric madness of '60s free jazz, and even after Redman drops out, Taylor's simultaneous bass lines and flashing chords create the illusion of a trio—Elvin and two Cecils.

After a midway recap, Redman disappears from the piece and is conspicuously absent from the closing recapitulation. Maybe he shied away from reentering because of the intensity of the duet that ensues, with Taylor rocking and riffing and slowing down for contemplative respites. Elvin, too, takes a break during the most fanciful of those meditations, complete with supersonic harplike glissando, until Taylor brings him back with a two-note call and they fade off, two septuagenarians who remain constitutionally incapable of making background music. Redman returns for a 40-second sign-off of split-tones and a holler. What else is there to add except amen? Don't wait until 2030 to join the congregation.

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