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Cecil Taylor Big Band
New York NY, 23 March 2004

March 23, 2004 marked the third time I heard Cecil Taylor in concert. It was a relatively unusual setting for the great pianist—a big band—the opposite end of the spectrum from the duo settings I had witnessed before. The first of those, in June 2000, I was plopped on the lawn at Columbia University to hear Taylor grapple with Max Roach. They were very precise, agile counterparts that day, and built and dispersed their baroque structures out over the summer lawn. The second event was at the Blue Note in New York in November 2001—a duo with Elvin Jones. The language was different: Jones played with mallets the entire night and, instead of engaging the pianist as Roach did, supported and cushioned his every move. His cymbals made subtle variations of flattering light and the growling drums were like earth rolling under the restless music: The drummer would not be engaged, only compliment. I had been expecting the fireworks of the previous duo, and so it was uneasy listening for the first third of the concert, but I sunk in after not too long and heard some extraordinary orchestral music from the duo. Both experiences were memorable.

This time the setting was another ritzy—or, as they're known to regular NY music types—'tourist' club in NYC: The Iridium. Not the most conducive setting for transcendent experience: The guy at the door is offhandedly rude, the waitresses, who have to move around the place like they're combing it in formation, look thoroughly bummed, and a Coke's five bucks. Not that there isn't an improvement over the club's previous space at Lincoln Center (which had some sight-line challenges) but still, it's not the greatest place to hear music. To be fair, most of the clubs that get the big names are similar—even the revered ones. There were about 100 people in the club for the set.

The group filed out of the back room, a fifteen-piece: Four trumpets, five woodwinds, two trombones, and a tuba along with bass and drums. Taylor emerged wearing gray sweatpants and a pink and white tie-dye sweatshirt, and paced around the piano, signaling the first washes of color from the horns: A Gil Evans sound, broad and tall, like Sketches of Spain. As the horns shuttled between different hues, according to their charts, Taylor crept along the piano case, occasionally giving a firm caress up the keyboard or hammering a crystalline high note. Then standing, listening, at the piano's side, he reached into the guts of the thing and pulled out ancient sounds with sticks and a tambourine, and a rattle of some sort, and deep, low, rumbling sounds, and began to chant. Satisfied that the mood had been set, he sat at the keyboard ten or fifteen minutes in.

The pastoral quality of the opening voicings would not return for an hour and a quarter, shortly before the end of the set. What happened in between made for some startled faces in the audience—some growing numb as the evening progressed, some getting sour. Some folks rocked back and forth within a tightly controlled spectrum of joyful avant-garde body-jerking—as much physical reaction as one could imagine being comfortable with at the Iridium. And some seemed disdainfully braced for the duration. The music felt like a stormy sea, with many great (and prolonged) crescendos, and some restless calm between. Lord knows what was marked on the charts, but it certainly wasn't 'quietly and with restraint'. The cacophony was built of cells—perhaps some melodic information—but nothing seemed to be coordinated between the powerful sections. Certainly the stage arrangement didn't leave much possibility for direction from the maestro—he was effectively out of sight of the horns, with lines to Jackson Krall at the drums and Dominic Duval at the bass. It was as if Taylor set up an experiment and left it to the horns to find their roles—which they did, rather remarkably, under the circumstances. The trumpets, in particular, came up with a bunch of marvelous riffs throughout, and made the most of their attachments in various impromptu variations.

As for Taylor, he rode the waves like a dolphin, splashing clusters of sound into the most minute spaces between trumpet, drum and trombone blat—certainly he owned every micro-division of the beat detectible to well trained ears, and also the subtler divisions that register to everyone but him as magic. Despite this—and the pianist's powers were at a high pitch in the early passages—the great solo of the evening belonged to trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum. It emerged out of a nettle of brass in the early going—the trumpeter was seen to be wrestling with something fierce that his colleagues seemed to be missing. The trumpet was mainlined to the pianist's right hand, and, it seems, figured out its logic for a moment, and, in that moment, launched into full discourse with the master, filling in the spaces HE was leaving. Cecil seemed at first unaware of the challenge, perhaps being used to such challenges falling away, but when Bynum persisted, the master engaged fully and practically began to glow. And it was no short flash—though I didn't look at my watch, I'd say it was a good quarter hour before all the stray wisps of lightning were sucked back up into the storm. Bynum, who had been rocking back and forth violently, looked a little spent afterwards. And no one, not even Cecil, found the way back up to the peak again for that set.

As often happens in concerts of this sort, after a while the bluster gets very tiring. Unfortunately, the piano was under-mic'd. The bass, though, was way over-pumped in the house, and would occasionally hit a sympathetic frequency with the room that would obliterate whatever else was going on. The bass sax was also over-represented in the mix. All the low-end, plus the build-to-a-fever-pitch-while-soloist-goes-bonkers-calm-down-repeat cycle that usually happens with a big under-directed ensemble, made the evening ultimately somewhat taxing. But it is always a rare pleasure to hear Cecil Taylor conjure in person, wherever it is. And I don't know if Bynum plays that way on a regular basis—I'd imagine that he doesn't, as most folks don't. But if he plays a fraction as well as he played that night, it would be worthwhile to hear him again. It was a gift of a solo.