The Month In Jazz – February 2022
When Cecil Taylor began his career, in the mid-1950s, he recorded mostly in the studio, like everyone else. Between 1956 and 1961 he made a half dozen albums, and several more recordings from that era appeared later. But after 1966, the year he made Unit Structures and Conquistador! for Blue Note, studio recordings became a smaller and smaller percentage of his output. Ultimately, he made fewer than 20 studio albums, but scores of live recordings, particularly in the 1980s, his most productive decade.
In some ways that’s a shame, because even though his music could feel like a tidal wave washing over you, drowning you in sound, it was in fact incredibly precise, and benefited from really crisp recording. An album like 1981’s solo piano session Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! lets you get inside his music in an unbelievably intimate way, and 1978’s 3 Phasis is an epic work for sextet (trumpet, alto sax, violin, piano, bass, and drums) that has the majesty of classical, and the power and intricate interactions of progressive rock. His final studio recording, 1999’s Momentum Space, was a trio performance with saxophonist Dewey Redman and drummer Elvin Jones that gave each man an equal amount of room to run, creatively speaking, and was all the more brilliant for not just being the Cecil Taylor Show. All of these were recorded in great studios on fantastic instruments, and that makes a huge difference.
On the other hand, while some of his live recordings sounded great — The Willisau Concert comes immediately to mind, as does One Too Many Salty Swift And Not Goodbye — others did not. The legendary 1962 performances at Sweden’s Café Montmartre, released as Nefertiti, The Beautiful One Has Come, were made on an out-of-tune piano and recorded with primitive equipment. The 2 Ts For A Lovely T box, documenting a week’s worth of shows with bassist William Parker and drummer Tony Oxley across ten CDs, was sourced from cassettes.
Of course, if you really wanted to feel the power of his music, in person was the way to go. I got to see him five times between 1997 and 2016, and each show was different. The first was at the Village Vanguard. I sat against the small, triangular room’s back wall and watched him tear shit up with bassist Dominic Duval and drummer Jackson Krall for an hour straight. I had no idea what I was hearing; I wasn’t ready for something so monolithic and unrelenting. I staggered away afterward, and it took five years for me to be ready to try again.
In 2002, I went back. He played Avery Fisher Hall, starting out solo, and bringing Duval and Krall onstage halfway through. I had my first breakthrough with his music that night, during the solo section. He played a thunderous, explosive free passage that sounded like the most unfettered improvisation… then repeated it, note for note. My jaw dropped.
That same year, I saw him at the Knitting Factory on Leonard Street, leading an orchestra that was more than two dozen musicians strong, including rows of horns, multiple bassists and percussionists, and several female vocalists. That was a tidal wave of sound; almost too much, in fact — I never really felt like it came together. In 2004 or 2005, I saw another trio performance, with the late Henry Grimes on bass and drummer Pheeroan akLaff, which felt somehow low-stakes, like maybe I was finally used to his music and could sort of take it or leave it. That didn’t seem like the correct reaction to art that had once been so overwhelming, so I didn’t attend another Taylor performance until 2016, at the Whitney Museum, which turned out to be his final public appearance.
That night, he was joined by soprano saxophonist Harri Sjöström, cellist Okkyung Lee, drummer Jackson Krall, and Tony Oxley on electronics. And while about 40 minutes of the 85-minute performance were as thunderous as he could be, with Taylor at the piano and the others alternately struggling to keep up or be heard, or commenting on what he was doing with little sign that he was even acknowledging their presence, around halfway through he stepped away from the keyboard and began a long performance of what was first a poem and then a sort of philosophical lecture on gender, race, art, and human culture throughout history. Eventually, he returned to the keyboard and began accompanying his disquisition. It was a performance unlike any other I’d even heard about him giving, and considered in retrospect, it feels like a capstone to his entire 60-year career.
A lot of Taylor’s live recordings make me wish I had been in the audience on the night. In particular, the solo recordings Air Above Mountains (Buildings Within) and The Willisau Concert must have been amazing to witness, as must the furious sextet concert captured on One Too Many Salty Swift And Not Goodbye. This month, an astonishing archival Taylor recording was released, with the unwieldy title of The Complete, Legendary, Live Return Concert At The Town Hall, NYC, November 4, 1973. Despite its length, and all those commas, it does tell you exactly what it is. Taylor had been absent from his native New York (he was born in Corona, Queens) for about five years, teaching at the University of Wisconsin (read a student’s account here) and Yellow Springs College in Antioch, Ohio. When he came back, he assembled a band that featured alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, with whom he’d been playing since 1962; bassist Sirone; and drummer Andrew Cyrille, and booked a show at Town Hall on 43rd Street.
The concert was recorded — very well — by an engineer named Fred Seibert, and its two encores (a solo piece and a quartet piece) were released as an LP, Spring Of Two Blue-J’s, on Taylor’s own Unit Core label. But the bulk of the performance stayed in the vault, because it consisted of a single, unbroken 88-minute work, “Autumn/Parade,” and there was simply no way to split it up for vinyl. It can’t even really be split easily for release on CD, which is why this release is digital-only.
It’s amazing stuff. Taylor dives right in, playing one of his trademark percussive melodies, and the band takes that simple cue and runs with it for an hour and a half, never letting their individual or collective energy flag for a second. Lyons is the only member of the quartet that’s not playing the entire time. He starts and stops, taking what could be called “solos” in the traditional sense. He was always a bebop player who adapted to free jazz, so this makes sense; he grabs onto a phrase or an idea and chews on it till he’s gotten everything out of it that he can, then retreats for a little while.
What’s interesting to note is how Taylor stills himself — just a little — when the saxophonist is going off. He doesn’t deliver the air-strike sweeps across the keyboard, instead playing chords and small melodic cells, almost like an accompanist. There’s a part about a third of the way into the piece where piano and saxophone are engaged in something almost like a traditional jazz call-and-response, and it says a lot about the relationship between the two men, which was already a decade old at that point. Taylor viewed Lyons as his primary creative collaborator, and when the saxophonist died in 1986 it prompted a wholesale reassessment of his music. Everything post-Jimmy was different.
Cyrille sounds fantastic throughout, precise and thoughtful as always, and Sirone gets some crucial spotlight time, too. This is a concert I absolutely wish I was present for, but that’s adult me talking; I would have been two years old at the time and would probably not have made much of it. Like I said, it’s not available physically, but you can get it on Bandcamp. Highest possible recommendation.
You probably don’t think of the harp as an instrument connected to socially engaged music; it seems designed to instill a sense of bliss and peace, to withdraw from the chaotic world outside into shimmering pastel clouds. But Brandee Younger has released a two-track digital single called “Unrest” that seems to reflect the energy of the times and her turbulent feelings about them. “Unrest I” is a solo harp piece that feels meditative and calming, while “Unrest II” brings in bassist Rashaan Carter and drummer Allan Mednard for a high-energy workout where it almost feels like she’s trying to keep a lid on the explosive rhythm section. Listen to both tracks; they complement each other beautifully.
Saxophonist Isaiah Collier and his band the Chosen Few (pianist Mike King, bassist Jeremiah Hunt, and drummer Michael Shekwoaga Ode) released a really good album, Cosmic Transitions, last year. (I wrote about it here.) Now, in honor of Black History Month, they’re back with a digital single, recorded at the Cosmic Transitions session on September 23, 2020. September 23 was John Coltrane’s birthday, by the way, and that fact should give you a big clue as to what this track sounds like. It’s a version of “Lift Every Voice And Sing,” a song often referred to as the Black National Anthem, and they play it in full church mode. Collier is on soprano, and the band rolls in behind him like the tide during a nearly three-minute introduction, before settling into a deep spiritual groove for the ten minutes that follow. Hunt pounds out a simple, almost metronomic figure and King nails the chords in place as Ode thunders across the kit like a series of avalanches, raising the energy level higher and higher. Collier treats the melody like an incantation, spiraling up and out as the spirit takes him.
Keyboardist Samora Pinderhughes, a longtime collaborator with Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah among others, will be releasing his debut as a leader, GRIEF, in April. It’s part of a larger multimedia thing he’s calling The Healing Project, which deals with “loss, structural violence and possibilities for healing and liberation.” First, there will be a show at the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco from March 25 to June 19 which will include music from GRIEF, visual art by Pinderhughes, films and art by others. The centerpiece will be the Sound Room, which will present interviews Pinderhughes conducted, set to original music.
There will also be a digital archive of the exhibition, a kind of AR/VR version of the show that people can check out on their phones or experience in a more in-depth way if they have VR goggles, I guess. And finally, there will be the album, which features Immanuel Wilkins on alto sax, Lucas Pino on tenor sax, Pinderhughes on piano and vocals, Brad Allen Williams on guitar, Boom Bishop on electric bass, Clovis Nicolas on upright bass, Marcus Gilmore on drums, the Argus String Quartet, and vocalists Nio Levon and Jehbreal Jackson. Pinderhughes has released a video for “Masculinity” from GRIEF, which features Wilkins and is a deeply felt meditation on the roles men are asked/forced to play in American society. Watch:
And now, new albums!
Luke Stewart's Silt Trio - "Roots"
Bassist Luke Stewart — of Irreversible Entanglements, trumpeter Jaimie Branch’s trio, saxophonist James Brandon Lewis’s band, and many, many, many other projects — had a residency at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn in February 2021. For part of it, he brought in saxophonist Brian Settles from his hometown of Washington, DC, and drummer Chad Taylor, and together they formed Silt Trio, an aggregation making its debut here. The music ranges from free/abstract soundscapes to hard-bouncing groove workouts like this one. Settles’ long tones and patient phrases ride the focused but still somehow hyperactive-feeling rhythm Stewart and Taylor are setting up. The drummer’s kit rings and thwacks sharply, and the bassist booms with great depth and resonance; not quite above but somehow in between them, the saxophonist’s lines rise to one spiritual crescendo after another, with an intensity like Pharoah Sanders just before he totally lets it rip. It’s a beautiful three-way meditation. (From The Bottom, out now via Cuneiform.)
Tyler Mitchell & Marshall Allen - “Marshall The Deputy”
The thing about Sun Ra was, he didn’t like his musicians playing with other people. Once you were in the Arkestra, you were in. Which means that some genuinely great players, tenor saxophonist John Gilmore in particular, weren’t heard as widely as they could have been, because Sun Ra’s music was always a cult thing. Alto saxophonist Marshall Allen has been one of the most loyal Ra disciples since the 1950s. I interviewed him in 2019 and he told me, “He just broke down my whole ego and everything else. He’d be talking about going to the moon and all this stuff … talking about the Bible and ancient Egypt, and I said, ‘Damn, I better get up on this and see what he’s talking about.’ And that was what hooked me. He’d say we were playing music for the 21st century, and I said, ‘That’s about 57 years from now. What about in the meantime?’ I just stuck anyway.” He’s the current leader of the Arkestra, at 97, but on this album, he’s playing in a much smaller group — three saxes, bass, drums, and percussion — led by bassist Tyler Mitchell, a former Arkestra member himself. And this really allows him to show off his talent as a free jazz player. “Marshall The Deputy” kicks off with bass and drums, creating an almost Latin rhythm before the three horns come shrieking in and Allen takes a fierce, bebop-in-outer-space solo that recalls the late Jimmy Lyons, with extra psychedelic overtones. (From Dancing Shadows, out now via Mahakala Music.)
Ethan Iverson - “She Won’t Forget Me”
Pianist Ethan Iverson, formerly of the Bad Plus, is a very good writer, which is why it’s often less interesting to me to hear him play standards — which, as a serious student of jazz history, he dearly loves to do — or interpret rock tunes, as he did with TBP (but has stopped doing as a solo artist). His tunes have strong melodies and sustained moods that draw the casual listener in, and they provide room for creative soloing but each one functions as a song, not just a jungle gym of chords for skilled instrumentalists to clamber around on. He kind of reminds me of 1970s Keith Jarrett, as heard on albums like Treasure Island and Fort Yawuh, in that way. On this album, his debut for Blue Note, he’s joined by bassist Larry Grenadier, a longtime member of Brad Mehldau’s trio, and drummer Jack DeJohnette, who played in Jarrett’s Standards Trio for decades. “She Won’t Forget Me” is a shuffling tune with a heavy left hand figure and patient, deceptively simple melodic extrapolations; DeJohnette lays down a beat that could easily anchor a Steely Dan song, and Grenadier tucks himself in between them, never drawing attention to himself but offering crucial support. (From Every Note Is True, out now via Blue Note.)
Michael Bisio & Matthew Shipp - “Flow”
Michael Bisio has been the bassist in pianist Matthew Shipp’s trio since about 2010. They’ve made two previous duo recordings over the course of that dozen-year creative relationship: Floating Ice in 2012, and Live In Seattle in 2016. This one was recorded in April 2021, at engineer Jim Clouse’s Park West Studios in Brooklyn. Clouse hasn’t gone out of his way to build himself a Rudy Van Gelder-sized reputation, but he records a fucking ton of music, particularly within the avant-garde scene — Ivo Perelman uses his studio all the time, as does Shipp, as does William Parker, as does Whit Dickey… he gives the music tremendous clarity, but also muscle and heft. He wants it to whomp you around, and when you’ve got players like these two, it does. Bisio doesn’t settle back and keep the pulse; he knows that Shipp has a strong enough internal rhythm that he can go off on his own little journeys, expanding the music rather than merely supporting it. “Flow,” the album’s opening track, has so much relentless forward energy you can half convince yourself there’s a drummer there, even though there isn’t. (From Flow Of Everything, out now via Fundacja Słuchaj.)
Peter Brötzmann/Milford Graves/William Parker - “Side C”
I went to the infamously grimy New York punk/alt-rock club CBGB a bunch of times, and saw some great acts — Keiji Haino in duo with John Zorn, the Rollins Band, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, Sick Of It All — but never spent much time at the artier CBGB 313 Gallery next door. They had avant-garde jazz shows there for quite a while, though, and that’s where this incredible recording was made, on March 29, 2002. Brötzmann, Parker, and Graves had performed together only twice before, and the previous encounter had been fourteen years earlier. As absolute masters of their chosen art form, though, they picked up as if no time had passed at all. Both saxophonist and drummer are in thunderous form on the four side-long jams that make up this double LP (thankfully also available digitally, for the turntable-less among us), with Parker keeping a steady pulse in the middle, but what’s really nice on “Side C” is when things settle down somewhat and Brötzmann takes a surprisingly tender solo around the nine-minute mark, which eventually gives way to a Parker/Graves duo that’ll make your heart swell in your chest. (From Historic Music Past Tense Future, out now via Black Editions Archive.)
(D)IVO Saxophone Quartet - “Part Two”
Relentlessly prolific tenor saxophonist Ivo Perelman has put together a tremendous one-off group for this album. The (D)IVO Saxophone Quartet includes Tony Malaby on soprano, Tim Berne on alto, and James Carter on baritone, and they work through seven improvised pieces in just under an hour. “Part Two,” at just over ten minutes, is one of the longer tracks, and it demonstrates the individual players’ range as well as their ability to listen to each other and follow the thread of a new idea whenever or wherever it may emerge. There are lots of fascinating moments, but one of my favorites comes toward the end, when Perelman and Malaby are harmonizing at the top of their respective horns’ range as Carter plays a valve-popping bass line and Berne sings along. There are also some really nice chamber-music moments between Perelman and Berne, soloing simultaneously in a way that just based on harmony somehow winds up sounding planned and quite beautiful. (From (D)IVO, out now via Mahakala Music.)
Avishai Cohen - “Naked Truth (Pt. 2)”
There are two Avishai Cohens, a trumpeter and a bassist. The trumpeter’s new album is an eight-part suite, plus a coda titled “Departure,” all performed by a quartet featuring pianist Yonathan Avishai, bassist Barak Mori, and drummer Ziv Ravitz. This group has been coming together slowly over the course of his four previous albums for ECM; Yonathan Avishai was there on 2016’s Into The Silence, but the rest of the band were New York dudes: saxophonist Bill McHenry, bassist Eric Revis, and drummer Nasheet Waits. On 2017’s Cross My Palm With Silver, Avishai and Mori were in place, but Waits was still on drums. Cohen’s 2019 release, Playing the Room, was a trumpet-piano duo album, and in 2020 he formed a two-guitar, two-drums jazz-rock band, Big Vicious, which had Ravitz as one of the drummers. “Naked Truth (Pt. 2)” is a slowly unfolding mood piece built around a repetitive figure from the pianist. It takes almost a minute for Cohen to come in with a half-whispered countermelody; Ravitz is brushing his cymbals, and Mori is dropping in small, booming phrases in the back. Eventually the trumpeter begins to evolve a solo that recalls the anguished introspection of Miles Davis circa Sketches Of Spain. The whole thing is achingly beautiful — and yes, surprisingly naked-sounding. (From Naked Truth, out now via ECM.)
Marta Sanchez - “SAAM (Spanish American Art Museum)”
Spanish pianist and composer Marta Sanchez has released three albums with a relatively steady pool of collaborators — bassist Rick Rosato, drummer Daniel Dor, and various saxophonists including Jerome Sabbagh, Chris Cheek, and Roman Filiu. On this one, though, she’s working with an almost entirely new lineup; only Filiu returns, joined by alto saxophonist Alex LoRe, bassist Rashaan Carter, and drummer Allan Mednard. The music still sounds like her previous work, full of tightly interlocking melodies and rhythms that spin and click like gears in a watch. In some ways, it reminds me of the work of Henry Threadgill; like him, she seems to be writing specifically for these players, showcasing their voices. If you told me that every note of the title piece, which begins with an assertive, almost militaristic fanfare, was scored, up to and including Filiu’s tenor solo and the handoff to LoRe’s alto, which almost sounds like a clarinet, I would believe it, because the way the horns play against and above the rhythm section, and the way the bass and drums hammer and throb, seems too deliberate and focused to have emerged spontaneously. But however we got here, the final product is fantastic. (From SAAM (Spanish American Art Museum), out now via Whirlwind Recordings.)
Azar Lawrence - “Revelation”
Saxophonist Azar Lawrence has had a pretty fascinating career. He was in McCoy Tyner’s band in the early ’70s, but took a night off from that gig to audition for Miles Davis’s funk-metal septet. That audition took place onstage at Carnegie Hall, so Lawrence can be heard on Dark Magus. (He stayed with Tyner.) He made a trio of funky spiritual jazz albums under his own name in the mid ’70s; 1974’s Bridge Into The New Age has been particularly influential among young players in London, and was recently reissued. He worked with Earth, Wind & Fire in the early ’80s, co-writing the songs “Spread Your Love” and “Freedom Of Choice” for them on the Powerlight album. This album presents all the various sides of his work; it opens with a funky track with an almost Santana-ish guitar solo, and later, there are some gentle female vocals singing New Age spiritual soul lyrics. The album ends with “Revelation,” an eight-minute track featuring pianist Nduduzo Makhathini (check out this video of Lawrence playing Tyner’s “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit” with Makhathini’s band in 2018) and harpist Destiny Muhammad that’s like a perfect combination of Lawrence’s style and Makhathini’s, plus the sliding electric bass of Sekou Bunch and the forceful drumming of Tony Austin. (From New Sky, out now via Trazar.)
Binker & Moses - “After The Machine Settles”
The sax/drums duo Binker & Moses haven’t made a studio album in five years. Of course, their previous release, the double disc Journey To The Mountain Of Forever, was the kind of monumental statement it takes a while to recover from. Still, it’s really good to have them back. Last time, they roped in a slew of guest players, including saxophonist Evan Parker, trumpeter Byron Wallen, harpist Tori Handlsey, tabla player Sarathy Korwar, and second drummer Yussef Dayes, turning the second disc of Journey… into a spiritual jazz odyssey. This time, they’ve gone epic again, but in a different way. They recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios, with Hugh Padgham producing. But don’t worry, the drums aren’t huge and gated like the early ’80s Genesis albums Padgham’s known for. He just gives them a layer of polish and masterful deployment of reverb and atmosphere, making it sound like the music is being beamed in from the far side of the universe. And this time, the only guest is Max Luthert, providing live tape loops and electronic effects, which spin and whirl around the two men, occasionally seeming like a dub bassline spontaneously generated from the very air, as they wail and thunder. (From Feeding The Machine, out now via Gearbox.)