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Cecil Taylor Ensemble - The Light of Corona

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Artist: Cecil Taylor Ensemble

Album: The Light of Corona

Label: FMP

Review date: Apr. 3, 2003

Septuagenerian’s Stew

Few septuagenarians can rival the stamina and artistic longevity of Cecil Taylor. The pianist's recording career spans nearly five decades and through it all he's managed to uphold a remarkable level of iconoclastic resolve. >From the angular rhythmic obstacle courses on Jazz Advance, released by the tiny Transition label in 1955, through his eponymous 2002 summit meeting with Bill Dixon and Tony Oxley available on Victo, Taylor's remained true to his own maverick course in creative improvised music. Along the way he's garnered his fair share of both esteem and disdain. His music summarily strips away the pickets beneath fence sitters and forces listeners to form strong opinions. Casual ambivalence just isn't an option.

The Light of Corona turns back the clock to 1996, when Taylor was riding out the tail end of his Sixties. Staged during the Total Music Meeting, an annual fixture of Berlin's improvised music culture, the sprawling performance captures the maestro in the company of an octet of American and European players. In line with Taylor's other large-scale projects for the FMP label, this one features a cast of both regular collaborators and fresh faces. Tristan Honsinger's cello and a five-piece horn section augment the pianist's then current quartet of soprano saxophonist Harri Sjöstrom, bassist Dominic Duval and drummer Jackson Krall.

From the start, the set suffers from the shortcomings of the compact disc format. Separated from the visual sphere and limited solely to the aural remnants, the performance loses important facets of its character. These constraints play out most noticeably in the first ten minutes. Rubbed strings and chirruping reed pops segue into a caucus of muttering voices. Taylor starts reciting, his words nearly unintelligible in the cavernous acoustics of the recital hall. Duval and Honsinger trade acerbic skittering lines, and the cellist, also prone to strained dada poetics, joins the pianist in a game of esoteric syllable trading. Eliott Levin's whistling flute punctuates the exchanges, surrounded by a whorled ribbon of reeds. Finally Taylor's piano rumbles forward with a phalanx of pedal-weighted notes. Density and velocity increase incrementally as dampened piano strings vie with vigorously bowed ones. Another protracted interlude of poetry passes before the players finally commence in emanicpating the energy under the sprawling composition's surface.

Building from a stuttering rhythm, advanced by Honsinger's barbed bowing and the tight cascading clusters from of composer's keys, the ensemble balances dissonance with driving momentum. Soloists are sporadic and Taylor devotes the majority of the middle canvas to florid splashes of ensemble texture and tincture, relayed at high speed. As a brass section of two, Chris Matthay on trumpet and Jeff Hoyer on trombone belie their modest number with booming eructative blasts. Suddenly the horns subside and the Taylor is left alone with scribbling strings of Honsinger and Duval. Krall joins the action and whittles out a pattern of fractured beats against the unruly arco fireworks. From the reed section Levin stretches out fluttering legato shapes on tenor, situating them between the contrasting streams of Chris Jonas and Sjöstrom on squabbling sopranos. Individual instruments occasionally pierce the opacity of the sonic thicket: Matthay's crying trumpet, Levin's caterwauling tenor, Hoyer's droning trombone. After another eye of the storm opens around Taylor's ululating vocals and dark puncturing piano chords, the ensemble rejoins its leader, orbiting around a vaguely calibrated tonal center and gaining and shedding speed in cyclic waves. Soon a chorus of chattering, near nonsensical voices signals the composition's impending close. Competing with sparsely deployed instruments the vocals supply an enigmatic and vaguely dissatisfying dénouement to the piece.

At roughly half the length of the its predecessor, the disc's second piece evolves on the persuasive clout of Taylor's solitary keys. Parsing out blocks of notes charged with melodic vitality and punctuating the industry with plunging strokes, Taylor sounds so galvanizing that the ensemble waiting in the wings is hardly missed. Five minutes in, Duval's throbbing figures appear in swollen counterpoint to the pianist's more fastidious runs. Next to arrive are Sjöstrom's squealing soprano and Krall's palpitating brushes, though the bulk of the space is given over to Taylor supported mainly by strings. Honsinger in particular outdoes himself, scaring up dizzying harmonic streaks that conjure the acrid scent of smoldering rosin in the mind's nostrils. An unexpected passage of relative calm offers spotlight for the cellist's brilliance as he sculpts a swaying jig atop the teetering piano-driven structures. The measured way in which the instruments join the interplay juxtaposes beautifully with the seemingly more ad hoc assemblages on display during the earlier piece. Matthay fires off a few terse brassy notes and the voices return, engaging in a madcap free association of wordplay laced by Levin's cursory flute. Then it's applause, audience wolf whistles and silence.

This concert illustrates both the grandeur and predicament inherent to Taylor's art. The pianist has rarely, if ever, compromised his music. It's why sideman gigs are nearly as rare as hen's teeth in his oeuvre. Audiences usually witness exactly what he intends and this disc is no different. It mandates long attention spans and willing suspensions of listener conceit. Judged in the context of Taylor's complete discography, its less consistent and cohesive than other entries. Even so, the pleasures attainable through careful and patient attention are abundant and enduring. Taylor, now nearing the median of his seventies, remains stubbornly Puckish after all these years.

By Derek Taylor

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