It suddenly seems as if everybody’s playing vintage Ornette Coleman: Jazz at Lincoln Center’s oddly reproachful tribute earlier this year; Wynton Marsalis and Roswell Rudd’s polyphonic spree at Merkin Hall last month; a forthcoming CD by the SF JAZZ Collective, an octet directed by Joshua Redman, incongruously featuring not just piano but a second chording instrument in Bobby Hutcherson’s vibes. This doesn’t even count hard-boppers who figure that just because Ornette didn’t run the changes on those catchy tunes he recorded for Contemporary and Atlantic doesn’t mean they can’t.
It’s tough to imagine a similar rush to mainstream Cecil Taylor’s early music, despite the shards of it one hears in such younger pianists as Matthew Shipp, Vijay Iyer, Angelica Sanchez, and Satoko Fujii. The harmonic density of Taylor’s compositions from the 1960s, beginning with “Pots,” “Bulbs,” and “Mixed” from Into the Hot, precludes the sort of casual jamming Coleman is routinely subjected to. But what of relatively conventional earlier pieces like “Air,” “Louise,” and “Excursions on a Wobbly Rail”? As a pianist, Taylor once seemed better positioned than Coleman to succeed Ellington and Monk; the problem now is nobody still thinks of him as a composer in quite the same way they were, himself least of all. At a certain point, he rejected composition altogether, discarding the well-wrought urn for the music of what happens. Though we know from his former sidemen that much in a typical Taylor performance is planned out (a point reiterated in the liner notes of three new CDs), his notational system is graphic and nonlinear, a guideline rather than a narrative. For Taylor, composition is a chain of events occurring in performance, a coalition of the willing that risks making the listener odd man out.
Don’t get me wrong. I once sat two feet away from the piano during a Taylor concert, and when his sweat hit me, I felt anointed. As far as I’m concerned, any discussion of Cecil Taylor begins with an acknowledgment of his greatness—his awesome virtuosity (arguably superior to Tatum’s) and his rightful place in the jazz continuum (far from what Martin Williams once dismissed as “improvised Bartók,” Taylor’s style comes right out of those slamming arpeggios with which Ellington answered the horns on “Ko-ko” in 1940). But to be honest about it, whenever I find myself wondering which of his recordings to recommend to the wary, I realize I might as well name my own favorites, because I’ve become a little wary myself. The answer is usually the early ones, with exceptions for Spring of Two Blue J’s (1973), Cecil Taylor and 3 Phasis on New World in the late ’70s, and Garden (1981).
That said, each of Taylor’s three 2004 releases contains extended passages as fresh and involving as anything he’s done. Recorded in 2000, The Owner of the River Bank (the title apparently from a Yoruban invocation) is an hour-long work in seven parts, teaming Taylor with the Italian Instabile Orchestra. The large ensemble often seems uncertain of what Taylor wants from it, but this is hardly a drawback—the air of suspense caused by this deliberation renders the inevitable crescendos and accelerandos all the more cathartic. With Taylor’s piano off in the distance and fleeting simultaneous improvisations taking the place of protracted solos (the trombonists are especially powerful, occasionally recalling Stockhausen’s pieces for Vinko Globokar), the overall effect is one of both strangeness and familiarity—you’d know instantly this was Taylor, but it’s not exactly what we’ve come to expect from him.
Algonquin, recorded in concert at the Library of Congress in 1999, features a 30-minute duet between Taylor and Mat Maneri, plus what amounts to a long encore on basically the same thematic material, with each man taking an unaccompanied turn in between. Maneri, whose tone on violin is romantic and somber, does a commendable job of following Taylor’s molecular movements, invariably finding a place for himself in them. Yet the track I keep returning to is Taylor’s solo—a near ballad whose fitful lyricism makes me wish that he’d occasionally interpret Ellington, just as The Owner of the River Bank makes me wish he led a standing big band.
The most consistently rewarding of this year’s Taylors is Incarnation, his latest for FMP. As on many of his numerous collaborations with European free improvisers for the German label, the story of this 1999 concert recording is the supporting cast, which is a dilly. For starters, Taylor is reunited with Andrew Cyrille, still the drummer who best understands how much propulsion he needs and when. On “Focus,” the punishing opener, they pick up right where they left off. Once he gets his bearings, Franky Douglas, a Curaçao guitarist based in Amsterdam, uses his whammy bar for spaceship landings that are more Sun Ra than Cecil Taylor, also daring a hint of funk now and then. But the one who pushes the gathering into overdrive is German cellist Tristan Honsinger, who goes after Taylor from the opening bar. Honsinger’s bowing introduces an element of parody not previously heard in Taylor’s ensembles; it’s as if he’s mocking the idea of European propriety, humming silly little songs to himself and waiting for the others to join in. Toward the end of the closer, “Cartouche,” they do: Honsinger initiates a madcap march, and even Taylor falls in. Add Incarnation to my list of exceptions, though the wary are cautioned to proceed at their own risk.