Monday, April 4, 2016

Max Roach and Cecil Taylor: Historic Concerts

Lee Jeske's liner notes to this album are titled "Percussive Pianist Meets Melodic Drummer" and it's certainly a notable way to decribe this amazing 2-disc recording from the McMillin Theatre at Columbia University in New York from December 1979 and released on the Italian label Soul Note.

After a strange, halting introduction from an unknown announcer, Max Roach comes right out and shows why he wasn't just a powerful, fast and precise drummer, but one who used all of the resources of his kit to play in unfailingly complex rhythms and, yes, strong melodic strains.  In the nearly 5-minute intro, though, he was really just warming up.

For nearly the same amount of time, just under 5 minutes, Cecil Taylor turned in a solo performance that came out highly melodic and relaxed, as if he intended to show the audience that it wasn't all about the key pounding, astounding fast runs, and complex chords for him.  It is absent of the pounding, manic playing that is so intoxicating for fans--it anticipates, perhaps, the idea that playing with Roach would be a different experience for him and the listener.  This performance, too, sounds like a warm up.

The forty-minute duet that follows is encapsulated by Roach's view that he and Taylor "co-existed" during the concert, finding, in an entirely improvised performance, where they could come to a meeting of the minds (and hands and feet).  What the drummer excelled at, especially, is his uncanny way of working within Taylor's iconoclastic style, playing with and not against the pianist's uncompromising way of performing, which may have been at its peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

A particularly interesting element in Roach's playing comes at about the 30 minute mark when he plays for a couple minutes on a snare tuned to make a strange high-pitched sound, almost like you might hear in some forms of Chinese drumming.  A few minutes later, a "sliding" type of cymbal work distinguishes Roach's way of accompanying Taylor.

The second duet, just a couple of minutes shorter than the first, finds Roach playing a variety of percusion instruments beyond his standard kit as Taylor works on a more melodic, richer sounding, and not quite as rapid a manner.  Here, Roach's use of a wide array of sounds isn't just a novelty, it's another way of working with Taylor's orchestral and percussive approach.  Things are relatively mellow and low-key until about eight minutes in when the playing gets incredibly dense and intense.

After some intense playing for some 25 minutes, Taylor turns things over to Roach for another solo and the drummer goes initially for melodic approaches initially, than to the display of virtuosity and percussive pyrotechnics.  It's a brief interlude and Taylor reenters somewhat quietly and more muted--well, for him--and Roach responds accordingly, executing some excellent rolls and fills along the way.  But, as the piece nears its end, the two go off in the stratosphere again, with thrilling effects.  The crowd's enthusiastic response shows the appreciation they felt for the amazing performance.

No greater contrast, probably, can be found in the way Roach works with Taylor than comparing this concert with the intriguing, but strange, 1977 show Taylor did with Mary Lou Williams and her highly orthodox rhythm section, including drummer Mickey Roker, who later said that the music was confusing, not fun, and that he simply tried to forget even playing that show.

Roach, though, took the challenge of playing with Taylor and made it work, which is just one of any number of reasons why he was one of the great drummers of all time.  He did what Roker wouldn't or couldn't do--found ways to play within and without Taylor's immense power, speed and dazzling technique.  Roach is, in a word, spectacular precisely because he knew what to do to "co-exist."

The last 17 minutes of disc 2 is comprised of a radio show, featuring interviews with the two masters, interspersed with excerpts from the concert.  There is much of interest in these segments as the two discuss how the concern came to be, their admiration for each other, the lack of a need to rehearse for the show because of their mutual understanding, and their place in modern jazz.

Roach, in particular, has some notable things to say about playing with Taylor, noting that it was work, a combination of ego and love, an intense experience that radiates to the audience as they see how the players react to each others.

These interviews are a nice way to end one of the great duet recordings of experimental and explorative music.

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