Saturday, May 15, 2010

CECIL TAYLOR: Conquistador!

Cecil Taylor - Conquistador!
Just look at that album cover. Cecil Taylor is going to play the piano now, and he's going to play it exactly how he wants and if you don't like it he doesn't care. Conquistador! is a 1967 Blue Note release, which means, for those of you not into jazz, it will kick you in the face.

Personnel: Bill Dixon is on the trumpet, Jimmy Lyons on the alto sax and there are two bassists; Alan Silva (plucking the upper registers and bowing the strings) and Henry Grimes (booming out those bottom notes). The skittering drums are played by Andrew Cyrille.

Play by play, like a sportscaster: Side one is the title track, opening with sprays of piano and a tumble of bass. A horn motif, loose and easy. Cecil Taylor's fingers on those keys are a rolling, fumbling beautiful thing while Lyons plays melodic lines in tension with the out-excursions of the rest of the group, eventually getting more and more sporadic and squonky as the music winds up into that Blue Note mayhem we love so much. Cyrille keeps a galloping pulse, heavy on the cymbals, clattering. Five minutes in and it's Dixon's shot. A mourning start to his solo as the band winds down, getting out of his way. Taylor punctuates the trumpet's soft wail and Cyrille lays out. The bowed bass responds. A hi-hat chops in tentatively, and steam is picked up. Winds in unison, moaning bowed bass, heavy cymbals, and that relentless, jagged piano playing. Cecil Taylor's gnarled piano lines are so strange. Listen to his solo at the nine-minute mark, with those rap-tap-clap drum fills. Stuff like that is why I listen to jazz.

Taylor's got the joyful go-at-it-kid enthusiasm of a toddler who just learned to lift the piano lid… if this toddler is the reincarnation of Thelonious Monk. It's sharp, angular playing, winding around tricky lines, embracing awkwardness and uneasiness. It's tension! It's suspense! It's not telling you where it's going, it's just going to go there and anyone can follow if they want. Most won't. I will. Just try to keep up, kid.

I can imagine these guys playing with clenched teeth and squinted eyes, the face of a good thrashing metalhead. Thirteen minutes in and that horn melody teases us before drumrolls and squealing bow that follow Taylor's rolling keys all over the place. I love the way Grimes percolates under everything like it's no big deal. Just doing his thing, popping those low notes under all this musical tantrum. And when we finally get to the bass duet we're ready, but it's short, wound so tight the rest of the band has to jump on it to hold it down. And then you have to turn over the record. I guess these guys are playing to the LP format. Too far over fifteen minutes and the grooves are narrower and sound quality drops. More importantly, those narrower grooves mean it's not as loud, and this music needs to be LOUD.

Side two is called "With (Exit)" and it starts so pretty. And it's a gangly, duckling pretty and it won't ever be a swan, but who needs swans? And who told me free jazz is all experiment and no emotion? Someone who never heard this, obviously.

Lyons steals the show on side two, seriously. You might even forget that it's not his name on the cover. He hits just the right balance between discernible melody and spiraling soundsheets.

The second side is a lot like the first, but a little better. On the 2003 reissue, an alternate take of "With (Exit)" is provided, just to show they never played it the same way twice. Mingus would say they couldn't play it twice. But why would they want to? When I'm not listening to this album I can't recall a single note, but that just means it surprises me every time.

In high school my favorite English teacher told me she liked NPR, except when they played that "experimental jazz." One of my artist friends thinks it's all intellectual nonsense, structurally worthless. My girlfriend has remarked that this kind of thing sounds totally random. It's your loss, people.

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