It’s been said to me a number of times that this music isn’t for everybody – it’s a special thing and far from “average tastes.” Even among jazz aficionados, contemporary improvisation isn’t the usual cup of tea, though with that being said there is certainly enough of a market to carry Mosaic Records reissues of material by Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill, or for artists like guitarist Mary Halvorson and reedman Ken Vandermark to seemingly get a decent slice of the available pie. Part of what I’ve always dealt with as an individual – not just as a critic/writer, but as a human being – has been in nudging the “difficult” towards territory that makes it understandable or palatable. It’s wired into my psychology – rather than rebel because of being labeled a “weird kid,” I always tried to show other people that I wasn’t that weird and weirdness if it exists is quite a compelling virtue. Challenging art and music, maligned or marginalized by the greater culture, I always felt could be just as accepted or explained – it simply required context and connections. There’s a socializing bent to understanding art, hinging on confronting it on its own terms, and accepting what it has to offer, also perhaps the ideal way of approaching unfamiliar social situations, and similarly it seems to be the healthiest engagement for art.
I was reminded of these precepts as I found myself working on a review of the latest Cecil Taylor project, Ailanthus/Altissima (Triple Point Records, 2010), for Signal To Noise Magazine. Though Taylor’s music has long been thought of as extraordinarily difficult, often violent and overpowering from the get-go, now he’s something of an institution. While not nearly as beholden to the bop/post-bop tradition as someone like Ornette Coleman, Taylor’s music has been around long enough to be accepted – enthusiastically by some, grudgingly by others. It’s generally understood that in the post-Jimmy Lyons era, and really from the late 1970s onward, Taylor’s music was increasingly abstract and its concept owed much to the European avant-garde, ditching references to Tristano, Evans, Silver and Powell that were clear up through the 1960s. His perceived “European-ness” was really brought home in 1988, when he spent a period of time in Berlin performing and recording with the preeminent musicians of the European free improvisation circle(s) for FMP. Relationships such as the one with British drummer Tony Oxley (with whom Taylor first played 22 years ago) have lasted and been rather strong over the past two decades, so it seems like he’s been kind of adopted by the EFI musicians and their supporters.
Of course, jazzmen usually did better in Europe than America anyway, and Taylor is no exception – he first began his relationship with the Continent in 1962, in a Copenhagen residency that spawned two LPs and a litany of followers. As in American free-jazz, Taylor was extremely important to and influential on European free musicians from the get go. Furthermore, though his post-1986 recordings are cited as the ones in which poetry, dance, and untraditional piano sonorities (i.e., tropes of European experimental and art music) began to come to the fore, he recorded a piece for voice, movement and piano strings called “Amplitude” in 1966 (captured on unofficial European tour recordings from Stuttgart and Paris).
But, to me, Ailanthus/Altissima holds within it passages and markers of tradition – bluesiness, delicacy, and swing that point to the “Glass Enclosures” of his earlier work. Certainly a weighty and intricate set, and his first recording with Oxley in a number of years, I was struck by the feeling that this music wasn’t made to pummel one into submission via piano and percussion, which could have been a first impulse. Therefore, my tack in the review was to present the recording in line with a continuum of piano music and, while Taylor perhaps doesn’t need the padding of bebop as a reference point now, too much has been made about his distance from it rather than the inescapable connections. One can’t take the Miles and Tony Fruscella out of Bill Dixon (one of Taylor’s close aesthetic-cultural associates, though their work differs significantly), so doing the same with Horace Silver and Lennie Tristano with respect to Taylor incompletes the picture. This is all a little ironic, since the place of tradition in modern jazz and the mainstream/contemporary repertoire is something that I as a critic have had issues with. Perhaps one of the greatest struggles is, despite the presence of its own tradition since 1958, the fact that the music still isn’t seen by many as both having and being part of a larger continuum, and the tension that exists between validating that and questioning the over-reliance on tradition within the music’s mainstream. Can we give Taylor and Dixon theirs while at the same time dialing back the interest in icy clones of Bill Evans and Lee Morgan? As usual, I don’t propose an answer here, but this is just one of a number of things circulating in my typing-mind.