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Cecil Taylor Quartet - Incarnation

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Artist: Cecil Taylor Quartet

Album: Incarnation

Label: FMP

Review date: Mar. 17, 2004

As with any niche community, free jazz musicians have a habit of running in the same collaborative circles. For example, even with his proliferation of projects, William Parker still pretty much sticks to the same orbit of close colleagues. The same holds largely true for Cecil Taylor, Parker’s previous employer. Taylor’s work for the FMP label now logs in at twenty-odd titles. While it’s an exquisitely diverse body of work, several names still crop up fairly regularly. There’s also the familiar context of the Total Music Meeting, from which the majority of material for the discs is drawn.

Incarnation signals a welcome break. Chief among the catalysts is Curacan guitarist Franky Douglas, a new name to me, but one I’ll be keeping an eye on from now forward. Douglas injects ideas and elements previously foreign to much of Taylor’s performances. Mutant rock, funk and Afro-pop riffs intersperse with gonzo pedal and whammy bar effects and he effectively jostles the band out of any semblance of a safety zone.

The November 1999 date is also noteworthy as a long-overdue reunion between Taylor and Andrew Cyrille. The drummer’s part in Taylor’s pair of late ’60s albums for Blue Note, Unit Structures and Conquistador, was a crucial agent in the reshaping of the role of rhythm in creative improvised music. Cyrille’s affection for percussion devices peripheral to his standard kit further varies the sound floor here. Cellist and regular Taylor confrere Tristan Honsinger completes the quartet and even gets in on the rampant divorcing from antecedents, laying down a jagged pizzicato groove in the opening minutes of the half-hour long “Focus.” Taylor’s own listening habits have long-included healthy amounts of classic soul and funk, so it’s actually not all that surprising that echoes of these styles have finally found more audible purchase in his own music.

Broken into three pieces, the concert, like nearly all of Taylor’s FMP albums, is an endurance test, but one well worth the mental sweat and concentration required of the listener. Thanks to Taylor’s willingness to ease up on structural strictures, much of the music has a freewheeling feel. “Carnation,” the middle piece, starts off deceptively sedate, but Taylor’s restless fingers and the biting, danse macabre tones of Honsinger’s barbed bow swiftly carry the music into wilder regions. Douglas hangs back much of the time and Cyrille resorts to steady malleted pulse leaving the other two to go head-to-head in a pugilistic dance of cascading notes and craggy arco sketches. The four players revisit pockets of calm throughout the remainder of the piece, but an undercurrent of delicious tension sustains as a natural by-product of their communion

The disc closes with the twenty-five minute “Cartouche.” Cyrille’s cavernous tympani create a barrage of stentorian beats spaced by inky silence. Taylor’s freely associative vocals soon appear amidst mercurial piano chords than dash across the length of his keyboard. Action expands to include the others with Douglas’ sci-fi style of riffing doling out scattershots of odd globular notes as his partners affect equally agitated bursts of activity on their own instruments. During the closing minutes, Honsinger’s frenzied bowing in league with Cyrille’s kulintang-flavored percussion is nearly show-stealing in its sustained intensity.

Aged a handful of years, this is still vital and topical evidence of Taylor’s musical supremacy and as such, easily recommended. The advantage of new and venerable colleagues and an open-ended approach make it even more enjoyable. Taylor’s place as prime pianistic provocateur remains secure.

By Derek Taylor

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