Thursday, December 26, 2013

Cecil Taylor: 3 Phasis

It was a beautiful thing to read articles and Web pages and see photos of the great Cecil Taylor receive the Kyoto Prize in Japan in early November and heartening to know he was performing, still active at the age of 84.  The phenomenal pianist, so sadly underappreciated and little recognized for so many years, has gradually received increasing attention for his staggering technique, imagination, and innovation.  So, it was nice to see him receive the kinds of accolades he so well deserves while he was in Japan.  Hopefully, he'll be getting some further measure of this in America before it's too late.

This is because we are losing a lot of great jazz musicians quickly--just a few days ago, Yusef Lateef, who was a major figure in incorporating other sounds from musics around the world into his conception of jazz, passed on.  As mentioned here, the remarkable drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson died not long ago.  In fact, this Taylor album, 3 Phasis, features the talents of Jackson along with trumpeter Raphé Malik, violist Ramsey Ameen, bassist Sirone, and Taylor's longtime sidekick, alto sax player Jimmy Lyons.

In the informative and perceptive notes by Gary Giddins, it was pointed out that the record was "the last of the four evening sessions in April 1978" that included the Cecil Taylor Unit album and that the performance was not titled, but referred to as "the suite."  It was also the final of six takes recorded in a marathon session that stretched into overtime late into the morning hours.  That final effort was so striking that the producer, Sam Perkins, exclaimed that "this was the best yet by far."  Moreover, as the band hit its stride, some forty minutes into the take, Perkins added that, "we've got a record now!" but soon worried about what would happen if the band didn't stop and editing was needed "because I'd hate to cut it."

If anything, Cecil Taylor is always aware, so as the clock got near an hour, he moved into a finale that brought the stunning session to a powerful conclusion.  As excitement reigned in the studio after the last notes died down, the cool-as-ever leader simply remarked, "Well, you know we knew it was good, too."

Giddings included a quote from Duke Ellington about the orchestra as "an accumulation of personalities, tonal devices" and noted that Taylor's band music with its variety of instruments provides just that, an opportunity for a vast array of tonalities.  This is certainly the case with Ameen's violin, Malik's trumpet, Lyons's alto and Cecil providing both free-ranging solo work, but also striking and notable accompaniment, both to other soloists and in group work.  Sirone and Jackson make for a supple and supportive rhythm section.

For those who argue that Taylor is so strong a (tonal) personality, that he can overwhelm the other players on a recording or in a live setting, this is definitely not the case here.  This is a great ensemble work, where the trumpet rises above the din during those dense passages where everyone plays in a carefully calibrated (and, to this listener, beautiful) maelstrom, with the alto and piano punctuating frequently through the sound.

As Giddings carefully notes with reference to times, Taylor proves to be a master at feeding ideas to the other instrumentalists through his use of apt figures.  And, despite his reputation, Taylor comes up with some beautifully melodic figures (this blogger heard his gorgeous short piece "After All" just the other day from 1975's fantastic Silent Tongues, to be covered here someday) and one comes, as Giddins observes, at near 33 minutes, though there are some other moments of delicacy, such as at around 11 minutes that can quickly move into flurries of rapidly played runs interspersed with mournful bowing of the violin.

In a piece this long, running over 57 minutes, and with such a rich variety of instrumental tonalities, there are little nuggets and treasures scattered throughout.  Giddins refers to it as "a masterwork, a testament to the perfectionism and unpredictability that go hand in hand in Taylor's music."  This is definitely the case with 3 Phasis as it is so often with the music of a man who has made some of the most impressive and uncompromising music in any genre over nearly sixty years. 

Cecil Taylor: 3 Phasis (New World Records, 1979)

1.  11:10
2.  9:17
3.  11:52
4.  11:55
5.  13:06

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