The Boston Phoenix
September 11 - 18, 1997

[Music Reviews]

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Mountain high

Cecil Taylor still scales the heights

by Ed Hazell

Twenty-one years ago, pianist Cecil Taylor made an album called Dark to Themselves (Enja). Last year, he released an album called Always a Pleasure (FMP). The shift of emphasis -- from darkness to pleasure -- seems emblematic of the music he made last Thursday at the Regattabar. In his first Boston-area visit since 1990, Taylor and his new trio -- with bassist Dominic Duval and drummer Jackson Krall -- were as difficult, confrontational, and uncompromising as any Taylor outfit. But the music was also less dark and menacing, and more purely ecstatic, than in the past.

At 68, Taylor is a founding father of avant-garde jazz. He can still sustain a high-energy level of intensity and invention for longer periods than almost any pianist you can name. Still, at the Regattabar there were signs of age. His gestures were broader and a shade slower. It's as if the blues textures and atonal Monkish riffs of his earliest albums had returned, embedded in the rhythmically freer style of his maturity. The growling bass-clef tone clusters that support or interrupt his abstracted blues are clearly descendants of Horace Silver and Bud Powell. On Thursday night, Taylor also sustained his lyrical moments for longer periods than he has in the past. The influences of Debussy and Ellington have never been more obvious. He also limited his poetry recitals, and the ritualistic chanting and dancing that have often been the prelude to performances in recent years were absent.

But if the pace has slowed a bit, Taylor remains jazz piano's greatest living craftsman. For all the astonishing speed and variety of his lines, he executes every unexpected aside, jolting stop, startling contrast, and wild leap with absolute precision and clarity. Whether he's slamming the keys with his forearm or pecking out a keyboard-spanning phrase, Taylor isn't just flailing at the keys, he's consciously shaping and shading each grandiose passage.

For all his obsessive attention to detail, his sets tend to fall into one of a handful of broad outlines. The first set was a landscape of buttes and mesas. The music started before the club's recorded background music faded, with Taylor pecking out diamond-bright notes, clustering them into three-note phrases that he varied and extended to escalate the tension. Then with a thunderclap chord he was off, scaling to the top of the set's first passage in a series of sustained high-energy plateaus. The pace of his themes and variations accelerated, with new material introduced and discarded at a lightning pace.

Like pianist Art Tatum, Taylor loves to interrupt himself. He'd abandon the logical development of his phrases for high-speed treble fireworks; he'd crash to a sudden halt with cast-iron-heavy bass chords. The pattern repeated itself several times for 50 minutes, the music rising swiftly, maintaining a furious pace, then falling precipitously back. Eventually the peaks rose a bit less high and for shorter periods, until the music was played out. Sometimes the trio revealed breathtaking new vistas as they climbed upward. Sometimes the experience felt more like bobbing in place on a stormy sea.

The second set was a slowly rising arch that held to its upward trajectory from the very first notes. The music built to a peak, fell back slightly, built up to a slightly higher pitch than the previous episode, fell back again, continued to build. There was a sense of constant rising, a purposeful elevation that climaxed with Taylor reading a poem. The set dissipated in some of the loveliest -- it was almost serene -- music of the evening.

Bassist Duval and drummer Krall are contrasting but complementary players who give this Taylor line-up its own personality. Krall's feinting and darting was sometimes more decorative than propulsive. He added texture and color to the ensembles, but his aerated contours also suggested melodies that ultimately make him an equal partner in the music. Even when Krall seemed to go his own way, a perfectly timed cymbal crash or bass-drum punctuation tied him back into the ensemble. Duval, on the other hand, was a busy accompanist. He traveled the full range of the bass, creating lines that tucked themselves neatly into Taylor's or generating contrasting motion that added more depth and variety to the music.

Taylor has always stressed the transcendental and spiritual qualities of his music. Yet he's often seemed as intent on obliterating the physical world -- punishing the keyboard, severely testing his own mental and physical endurance -- as on playing in a state of grace. His music is still the majestic, tragic, exhausting, exhilarating experience it always has been. But on Thursday, after more than 40 years of exorcising demons, he was more content to converse with the angels.

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