Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Cecil Taylor at the Blue Note

"Apraxia, apraxia, apraxia!"

It's been eons since I've gone to the Blue Note, and for various reasons I'd never caught one of my musical heroes, Cecil Taylor, perform live, so his trio's double set there last night drew me across the river (and drew quite a few other CT fans as well, as the long line, pictured at right shows). I hit the 10:30 pm set, and was delighted to run into Mendi and Keith Obadike as I stood on line. Soon enough we were able to enter, and friend and collaborator Christopher Stackhouse, his girlfriend Kelly K., and a friend of theirs, Lute, joined us.
Line outside Blue Note

Taylor's current trio consists of himself on piano, shells/shakere (is that what it's called?), and vocals; Jackson Krall on drums; and Albey Balgochian on bass and other instruments. The set was supposed to be a work entitled "Tales of Matie," which wasn't explained at all in the Blue Note's note(s), though I thought it might refer to two of CT's early works: the 1959 "Matie's Trophies" (which was also known as "Motystrophe" and "Blues" on some issues), when he was still adapting jazz standards, and which appeared on various versions of that year's Love for Sale album/CD, and the 1966 "Tales (8 Whisps)," which appears on the Blue Note Unit Structures album/CD ("Steps," "Enter Evening" and "Unit Structures" are also on this CD). But more likely it was a new lyrical field or garden CT was throwing down, selecting motive and melodic seeds from earlier works and combining them with new lines to create a new whole. Though I was listening in enjoyment and not interpretively, I heard both musical and poetic fragments from pieces I knew well, like a citation from the opening of "Chinampas"--"Angle of ascent...."

Taylor, as Reggie H. and others have described, entered dramatically, this time in his striped socks after his bassist and drummer had opened the set as a duo, Balgochian doing some interesting moanful bow-work with the lowest portion and register of his bass strings. Then he extracted a handwritten score/graph/chart, which I assume, in my gross musical ignorance, contained the melodic kernel he was going to develop and improvise off of, as well as some harmonic guides and cues, some text and the gods know what else (scribbles? quotes?), CT proceeded to recite an opening poem that riffed off "Chinampas 1," which I listened to again today. Then he and the trio launched into this long and furious set. Afterwards I told Mendi and Keith that it reminded me of a player piano that had caught the Spirit (and spirits) and was revved up by multiple motors. Keith put it more succinctly: "A player piano speaking tongues." Krall, who appears on CT sessions from around 1996 forward, seemed to flow well with CT, sometimes pacing, other times mirroring, other times chasing CT's polymetric races along the keyboard, but Balgochian sometimes seemed out of sync as if he couldn't catch up or missed some of his cues (sometimes his expression betrayed this) or just wasn't up for it, though he gave it a valiant effort. He did know enough to stop on a dime, like Krall, when CT (maybe giving a visual cue) ended the pieces.

CT followed the first piece with a slower, more meditative piece, that began like many of his works, in a minor key, and concentrated a bit on melodic development before shifting into heavy, but less furious improvisation than the first piece. A couple pieces later (I think I may be off here) he began with a long poem, from which I quoted at the opening of this entry. Christopher said that when CT read at the Poetry Project, he delivered an hour of this stuff. From what I could tell, it was mixing astronomy, genetic theory, physics, cognitive science and psychology, and the Yoruba cosmology, along with some of CT's trademark onomatopoieisms and sonic/percussive stylings. Mendi mentioned to me afterwards that she caught bits of it but they slipped back onto the onward flow--actually she said something different and much more interesting but I cannot remember it exactly, so forgive me--and I sort of felt the same thing, though I did pen down some of what I heard, though I too couldn't get more than snatches, which was perfectly fine. I do remember that Mendi said she was thinking about how the poetry interacted and fitted with the music, which I was thinking about too, and I saw them paralleling each other formally, if that makes sense, and to draw it out, I see the whole of the long poem and the whole of the piece alongside those moments/melodies/words/phrases we were catching as the relation of a global weather system to the local--you have a sense of the larger patterns as you grasp them, but then you focus on the local, with the two not canceling each other out. (I've been thinking more about the ntu principle(s), among other aesthetic foundations, in relation to Black art of late, and this seems to fit.)
Taylor ascending staircase
I can't even say how long the entire set went, since time fell away during the first piece/movement. CT sped it up, and that was that. I liked the slower, more meditate pieces and passages, and the poetry, most of all, though echoing Keith, to see CT work that keyboard is marvelous, revelatory. Approaching 80, he has not let up one inch from his revolutionary practice, nor has he lost, from what I could tell, his energy or skills. Though cameras (first flash, then flash or no flash!) were forbidden during the set, I turned mine on as soon as it was over to try and catch him, and with what resulted was the photo at left, more a luminogram (is that even a word), which I sort of think of as an appropriate image of the conjurer of "the sun god" who was weaving a mention of the mental inability to control one's motor skills ("apraxia...") with various thermodynamic formula(tion)s and the invocation of Obatalá::

HARCOU harcouti
to accept the amp--
lified power of perception
the angle
of vertied strokes
in there-
fore a calf's head
held in --
embrace -
mentalizing the treatment
a practical den
of the epicitic nature
red dawn expanding
one thousand four hundred forty seven
before JC
before JC
apraxia a-
praxia apraxia
the Egyptian letter U
which precedes the Egyptian
letter E or U or E

Taylor behind door
After the set, I went upstairs, where the Blue Note gift shop and museum are located and where musicians chill and tried to get a photo of CT, but all I was able to capture was him glimpsing from the barely opened door (see photo at right, that's his blurry face and hand), as someone from the Blue Note brought him a drink and a glass. He did smile back at me, though, making direct eye contact as I whipped my camera away, before shutting the door soundly. All in all it was a cool evening, and I did enjoy the few hours hearing him recount in notes and words his radiant new floating garden.

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