CECIL TAYLOR AND ANTHONY BRAXTON — FOUR DAYS IN ITALY
By Anthony Whiteford
In August 2007 Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton played a series of concerts in the Italian cities of Bologna, Modena, and Reggio Emilia. Anthony Whiteford made the journey to see them play, and, in the process of doing so, went on something of a personal odyssey, in which he was led to reflect on what their music meant to him before, and means to him now.
CECIL TAYLOR – BOLOGNA
(Wednesday 10th October – Foyer Rossini del Teatro Comunale di Bologna)
A number of Italian critics participated in a discussion of Taylor’s music, presided over by Giordano Montecchi. The critics were: Franco Fayenz, Marcello Lorrai, Francesco Martinelli, Franco Minganti, and Giorgio Rimondi.
There is a grand piano in the room and sitting in front of it are four middle-aged men, one of whom is talking into a microphone placed on one of the tables at which they’re sitting. There’s a big poster board beside them saying something about Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton so I’m reasonably assured I’m in the right room. It is 5.20 and this gig was scheduled to start at five. Five hours ago I was drinking a coffee beside the leaning tower of pisa, prior to realising I’d got the time of this gig wrong and began my frantic, anxious journey across Italy, taking in the duomo in Florence during a 30minute gap between trains and paying for a taxi from Bologna station to the Teatro Communale for a date with Cecil Taylor, which I’m a bit vague about. I think I’m gonna get CT doing his vocal sound/poetry and dancing thing. But now I’m sitting here with the minutes slipping by and these Italian guys are passing the mic along the table and each one is delivering lengthy monologues with words like ‘shaman shamanic count basie jazz’ helping me to continue to believe I’m in the right room whilst becoming increasingly concerned that this event wasn’t gonna feature CT at all. At one point after a proliferation of worried glances and nods a guy in the wings left and returned with a cd deck and we got to hear Ct delivering some mumbled jumbled stream of words very badly recorded.
And then, finally, unbelievably, at 6.20 Ct walks through the door at the back of the room and shuffles past the grand piano without giving it so much as a glance and without issuing a single word of apology, he sits down and gets some odd scraps of paper out of a cardboard folder, whilst one of the academics introduces him. He then proceeds to read from one of the pieces of paper having shuffled through them looking unconfident and bewildered. The guys keep fiddling with the mic, which CT seems oblivious of and he reads, haltingly, hesitantly and very badly. He stumbles over words and abandons them halfway through, then reads them again accentuating the elongated interrupted sounds of his original misreading, as if following that old improviser’s maxim, ‘if you make a mistake, repeat it like you meant to do it.’ He pauses halfway through sentences at seemingly random points and he’s moved off mic seemingly regardless. Words were lost, then whole sentences would boom out as he came back on mic. Much of what he read seemed to be culled wholesale from the warning leaflets that are issued with anti-psychotic drugs, with whole passages describing the side effects of various drugs. And then he’d cut to passages that seemed to be culled from psychiatry text books. Even when he switched to a new piece of paper, the material remained the same.
When he’d entered the room I’d been angry at him for being so late and appearing to have no concern for us, or our lives or experiences. But I also saw this very frail, dishevelled little old man, whose hair and physical substance seemed to be wasting away. And now as he lumbered through this incoherent list of words I again feel some compassion for him and wonder if this is his attempt to ‘come out’ as mentally ill. I’m also feeling very attached to my adoration of CT, his music, and the way he’s lived out and embodiment of what I always believed the artist should be; militant, unconcerned with public opinion, uncompromising, abrasive, aloof, concerned only with his art and fuck everything else. And I want to hold onto this veneration.
CT continues to deliver his rambling words and at one point there are one or two other themes introduced; something like, time and space or sonic soundwaves and eternity. As he speaks he picks up on one or two words like ‘existence’ and does word play with them. All these exercises don’t seem to be thought out or worked through and as I consider my journey from Bristol at 4 am and think of how long we’ve been sitting here in this room I feel more and more disrespected and shat upon. He’s so clearly putting nothing into this presentation. At one point one of the Italian guys asks him a very long and involved question about CT’s music, sound and shamanism, which CT basically ignores telling us instead all his old stories; how ‘mother’ made him read Schopenhauer and practise piano six days a week. ‘On Sundays I was free to do as I wished.’ He talks about his father too and then tells a lot of stories about hearing various artists such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne and Art Blakey. He often remarks that the men were ‘not nice to know at all’ and seems to find this detrimental to their character. At one point he talks about hearing Billie Holiday for the first time and how it changed his life, how he couldn’t believe the beauty he was witnessing. And tears come to my eyes as think ‘yeah that happened to me, when I heard your goddam music. You saved me. You let me know there was someone on this planet who seemed to have stuff inside him akin to what I was feeling inside me and you showed me it can be transformed into the most astonishing beauty. And I don’t understand what you and I are doing here in this room now, cos this is not it !’
And I feel this great sadness as I fear that CT is slipping away into dementia or something, or I fear that my story of CT is my own fiction. And I think ‘CT means the world to you, but he doesn’t give a shit about you or your love for him.’
The stories he’s telling go on and on. They’re not great stories, they’re old and I’ve heard them before, and he’s not the greatest of story tellers. I keep looking at the piano and thinking it’s mad that he’s sitting here doing this, whilst the piano is sitting there idle.
Anyway he keeps going for about an hour and a quarter so it’s now 7.30 and gone. Excuse me Mr Taylor but has it occurred to you we’ve now been in this room for 2 and a half hours? He finally rounds it all off with a story about how he used to be so angry and wasted his life thinking he didn’t need anyone, but he’s recently learned that to love and to be loved is vital and he’s sorry it’s taken him this long to realise. And I’m touched. I feel glad and I feel sad for him, but I feel no love or connection between CT and us in the room and I feel scared that something I’ve held onto as precious for so long is being lost here.
Finally we escape, it ends, with some kind of further shuffling about and I’ve now gotta find my way to the hostel on the edge of town. I clutch my bags tight through the streets full of drinking beggars with their dogs. I finally find a bus stop that I think might get me to the hostel and I spot 2 Japanese tourists looking dangerously naïve, brandishing, cameras, and baggage and waving their mobile phones about whilst 3 or 4 street urchins in hoodies move in on them. I stride between the hoodies and the tourists. I’m taller than any of them and as the tourists finally see the threat closing in on them and start to put away their mobile phones and walk down the street fast, I stay alongside them, making slightly insane throat sounds till the chancers looking ever more concernedly at me, slip away across the busy road.
Goddammit, here I am in the evil city for day one of the Cecil Taylor four day gig. All I gotta go do now is find the friggin’ hostel and sleep and get my head back together.
CECIL TAYLOR/TONY OXLEY DUO – MODENA
(Thursday 11th October – Teatro Comunale di Modena)
I didn’t make extensive notes at the time so this is an impressionistic picture drawn from memory. Of all four gigs in the series this was the most straightforward and ‘successful.’ I did write some notes the following day which I’ll include here-
Ct and Oxley man what an odd couple they are. I think maybe they’re re too good together. Oxley is such a total complement, he maybe, takes the edge off the music. Mind you what’s lost in the lack of tension is replaced by the total sound mesh of the music. I think that Oxley sits in behind ct almost exclusively and it would be easy to assume that he’s providing the backing rhythm whilst ct sets about his usual rushing cascading thumping music, but I think Oxley is actually providing the most perfect perpetual influence on ct in that it’s very alive polytythmic energetic driving drumming. It’s a bed of living intricate rythms and sounds and it’s totally alert to any twists and turns ct may make.
The gig begins with ct doing his word thing again. A lot of it’s the same words as yesterday. But tonight, he sticks exclusively to the poems and with the added theatrical dimension of him standing and moving about stage I find myself less preoccupied with the quality of the material. And I’m comforted [and frustrated] by the sight of the piano and drums all set up and ready to go [hopefully].I also continue to hope that this section wont go on too long as every minute away from the piano seems such a waste of time. On top of this there’s the added dread that the vocal slot might be followed by a goddam pro-forma Oxley drum solo, but mercifully this don’t happen. Ct stays on stage following his solo slot and Oxley comes wandering out and sits at his kit, whilst ct gets onto the piano at last. And ct’s got his bits of paper with some kind of music or summat written on them, which seems to be the norm these days. I’m not sure he used to ever use any kind of pre-planned written notes. He’s also taken to opening with some very light and almost pretty melodic statements, that are even maybe tender? And this is where he starts tonight. And Oxley’s in there with him tapping away as is his wont. This is where they fit very well, these two, their improvisations are very much chips from the block of their body of work. You can’t often say, ah yes this one was like that and that one was like this. And tonight in modena, in this exceedingly lavish opera house full of red velvet and gold leaf, they soon get warmed up and tuck into that thing they do.
It stays rather light and almost pretty. Ct doesn’t go straight into his heavy heavy clusters and runs; he’s doing all these delicate little figures with lovely little twists at the end. Oxley for his part, don’t respond to ct in a pointillist moment by moment way, he does his thing, but he is right in there with ct and he’ll turn on a sixpence if ct moves in certain directions. They’re weaving this very tight knit mesh of sound. And ct seems happy and relaxed, like he has every faith that Oxley is gonna stay with him, but confident too that Oxley is behind him, or at the most alongside him and never ahead of him driving him on.
Yet there’s something about the relentless ever-shifting polyrhythmic layers that Oxley provides that is driving, or at least cushioning ct all along the way. I imagine there’s some kind of chemistry at play here, cos I don’t think Oxley is gonna be phased by ct, but on the other hand I think Oxley isn’t into the world of egos and those kind of clashes, so he doesn’t clash with ct but he also doesn’t annoy him by being intimidated either. Oxley often takes long admiring looks at ct and smiles broadly and warmly. I don’t spot ct respond visually to any of this, but he’s roaming around the piano, full of a certain energy and drive that is about dynamics within the music and not about anger or other emotions.
At some point during the gig ct gets into that crashing rumbling thumping thing he does and this seems to be prompted by the ongoing build up of musical energy Oxley is creating with him. But, but but………..something is missing from ct’s music now, for me anyway. And I find my attention drifting in a way that I’d not expect with ct’s music. Even on disc, I find myself riveted to ct’s music mostly, specially [and I’m loathe to say this] the old stuff that seems so emotionally charged and intense. So here in the opera house, I’m not on the edge of my seat by any means, and my attention even wanders, so there are whole periods of time when I’m elsewhere in my mind and then I remind myself to come back and listen.
They play for about 45mins I think. And then ct stands up abruptly, as he does, and walks off, with Oxley, following on his heels resembling somewhat an obedient hound dog.
The audience explodes, in a way the music didn’t, and they keep on clapping and whistling determined to wring an encore out of the musicians, all of us I guess, very keen to get more than this before we leave. I’m thinking we may as well keep trying though I know we’re totally dependent on ct’s mood and all the roaring from the stalls wont sway this. Then a guy wanders on stage and says we can keep on clapping if we like, but this is actually only the interval.
It occurs to me somewhere within the four days of ct gigs that, whereas ct’s music has become terribly predictable for many years now, [for most of his career, some would say] what is utterly variable is the presentation. Tonight he’s gonna do 2 sets, and deliver a standard show it seems. Or maybe he’ll come back on and torment us with some more poetry, or maybe he’ll just send Oxley on to do a solo, or maybe they’ll just do 5 minutes of some nice ellingtonian tinkling [more and more of which I seem to be hearing in the music these days???] and ct will get up and leave.
They take a long interval, at least half an hour I think and come back and play a full on forty five minutes or so of a second set in the same mode as the first. There are some natural stops and starts where ct seems to take up a new refrain or theme, having rustled through the bits of paper on the piano music stand and then they cook away with their individual rhythmic tapestry. Again my attention wanders some times. Oxley uses his electronic device which echoes back what they’re doing on some kind of delay. And again he looks so happy with ct and with the music. I think what’s happened here, is that ct has become a European improviser. I think this began in the late eighties when he found all these European improvisers who could meet him musically and even technically, they could hear him and they cold follow him. But they didn’t necessarily share his story, his social raison d’etre, or his anger, but they utterly understood the music and it presented no problem to them whatsoever. And I imagine this must have been so so nice for ct to come home to. But now I wonder, if he’s lost summat by stepping out of the American jazz fold so utterly. But on the other hand, for chrissakes, he’s found some peace here I guess, and a man can’t stay in pain all his life, least of all to satisfy the spectators of the atrocity exhibition [one of whom might be if I’m not careful.]
I wander the pleasant streets of modena back to my hostel and I reflect back on the pleasantly sophisticated music I’ve been with this evening. Modena is a quiet town so 11 at night feels late and there’s a pleasant and safe, sleepy feel to the streets, which I’m very much enjoying after the brutal urban landscape of bologna. When I return to the hostel a very drunk young guy comes out of the lift and says something to me in a language I don’t understand. I tell him I don’t comprehend. And he looks at me and thinks, ‘no, of course you don’t, it’s obvious just looking at you.’ And he seems to accept this situation as a natural reality. I think to myself ‘jeez don’t let that be my room mate.’ And it turns out he is my room mate. He’s up all night, with his light on and he comes and goes. At some point he’s rapping with our other room mate. I cannot imagine what he’s finding out there in modena to fuel his excursions out. I’m glad of my earplugs and my eye mask. At about seven I pull my mask up and see his light’s still on and he’s not in bed. This morning I’m not getting up till 10 and then I’ve got nowhere to be and nothing to do all day; an idea that fills me with bliss. We are all getting older.
CECIL TAYLOR AND ANTHONY BRAXTON – BOLOGNA
Joined by [unadvertised] WILLIAM PARKER
(Friday 12th October – Teatro Communale di Bologna)
The first thing I spot, like a blot on the landscape, is william parker’s bass on stage, between the piano and the saxophone mics. Cecil Taylor, presumably due to some psychological complexity around playing with Braxton has changed the line up. So I’m not gonna get the duo I’ve been dreaming about for months.
I take my seat, right at the very front looking way up to the spot where Braxton and Cecil Taylor are gonna be.
I can’t remember how the gig starts. There must have been a short poetry/word slot by ct. I think he announced they’d each be doing a solo. William Parker did his somewhat undistinguished bass solo routine and then Braxton came on with his alto and took his position at the mic ct had used earlier. Braxton played a fairly distinct, melodic phrase then embroidered and deconstructed it. At some point he started singing a melody that went up quite high whilst also playing the alto, creating a very intense mood like he was trying to squeeze as much of himself down the horn as possible. This solo piece seemed to stop and start and I possibly had 3 distinctive parts to it. There was a mixture of this high intensity with vocals down the horn, mixed with an oddly melodic, quite jazzy thing down fairly low on the horn. And then he was gone.
Ct did a solo, I cant remember it nor where it was placed in this first set.
After the interval they return and ct’s over with ab talking into ab’s ear. It looks to me like ct is issuing fairly explicit instructions whilst ab appears keen to show that he’s paying attention. My fantasy is that ab just wants ct to be gone back to his piano so they can get away from this verbal interaction and get into the music.
When they finally start up the music it feels like ct is leading. It’s certainly his music as opposed to Braxton’s and I recall overhearing some associates of Oxley sitting behind me at the london gig, joking about how ct had said he would not be playing any of braxton’s goddam charts. And here in bologna, the same as in london, it sound like ct is refusing to meet ab in the music. Whenever ab starts to warm up and take off ct cools right off, or even abruptly stops. If ab picks up on something ct is doing, ct changes it. Ct pointedly smiles and nods at certain things parker plays, as if he’s one of those horrid schoolteachers who lets the kids know how shit they are by praising the chosen pet student whilst they look on excluded.
Braxton, meanwhile seem at all comfortable, he’s doing his jazzy sort of thing like on his ‘standards’ work. He’s following ct and I imagine he’s trying to be good to placate ct. And although ct looks so delighted with parker’s playing, I’m deeply unmoved. He seems to be doing what he does. I can imagine him doing this stuff in his sleep.
I’m feeling frustrated. I’ve been checking ab’s ghost trance music of late and what I’m getting here feels……what….unsurprising? stale? dated? All of these I guess, but the main problem for me is I feel I’m not getting goddam Braxton. And then ab reaches down for his sopranino and there’s a glorious moment [a very short moment] where ab brings something startling to the music, doing his staccato sharp blaps of sound, cutting into the music. But after the very first distinctive squawk ct stands up, collects his sheet music and leaves the stage. Braxton has his eyes closed and for a bit longer he plays with Parker still with these brilliant chirps of sound, until Parker notices that ct has gone and he promptly puts down his bass and walks off, leaving ab up there with his eyes closed, oblivious to the fact that his fellow musicians have abandoned him in mid flight, poised with his sopranino mouthpiece in his mouth, alone on stage with in front of thousands of dumbstruck people. Eventually he opens his eyes and registers, with a look of shock firing across his face, that the others are gone, shrugs his shoulders, puts his horn down and walks off stage.
The audience remain still and silent for a while and then we erupt into slow handclaps, whistles and jeering and we keep this up for a long while. Some people even take to banging on the woodwork at the front of the stage or up in the circles and we keep going for a good ten minutes. The lights go up and unformed guards [police?] line the inside of the stalls looking menacing. For a while I hold onto some hope that Braxton will re-emerge and treat us to some more solo music, which I’m thinking, I’d find preferable to the trio. Or maybe Parker and Braxton will play. I entertain no notion of ct returning. I also start to feel sick of ct’s behaviour and that I really don’t wanna see him again. Gradually, though I continue to protest, I become more and more resigned to the belief that no one’s coming back; that’s it, after all this journeying, the second and last Bologna gig is over with. And I’m sickeningly aware that tomorrow’s quartet gig maybe won’t happen. Which will mean I’ve come all this way for a couple of 15 minute solos this evening, an excruciating audience with ct, raconteur and an evening of Taylor and Oxley duo, the only gig that simply started on time, delivered 2 sets and closed according to plan.
Out in the foyer I find one of the promoters dosing himself liberally with rescue remedy. I ask if tomorrow’s gig will go ahead. ‘Yes the gig will go ahead, believe me.’ I express my doubt, but he insists, ‘It will go ahead, it has to.’ He says ‘today has been very difficult. Every 2 hours he changes and says “no, the gig will not go ahead.” Then 2 hours later “it will go ahead.” All day like this right up to the start of concert.’ We talk a bit more. I say I’m worried about ct, he seems unwell, unbalanced. The guy seems to concur, he says ‘he’s always been difficult but now he is impossible.’
I leave feeling angry and sad and bewildered. I’m angry at the effort I’ve expended getting to this gig only to be short-changed. I’m sad at the obvious turmoil that ct seems to be living within. And I’m bewildered because a lifetime of admiration for a man whose music has saved my life and my sanity is now wilting, bringing with it fundamental conflicts about what I demand of ‘the artist’ seeming to conflict with my demand for ‘customer satisfaction.’
And now I gotta get past all the drunks and beggars with their vicious looking dogs and get on the bus to the horrible hostel on the edge of town.
CECIL TAYLOR ‘HISTORICAL QUARTET’ – REGGIO EMILIA
(Saturday 13th October – Reggio Emilia, Italy)
(i) I have listened once more to the recording of the quartet gig. I was not completely captivated by it. I have to say I’ve reached the conclusion that this coupling of ct and ab doesn’t work. Ct is too set in his modus operandi to allow ab’s music to influence what he does and ab is too willing to mould himself to the demands of ct and therefore doesn’t bring the element of himself that might have made the project interesting. The sparse and angular interjections that ab brought to the music very briefly during the trio gig were not present at all in this quartet gig. My guess is that ct insisted that ab take solos or sit out, which would describe what he did during the quartet gig.
The Quartet. Live in Reggio Emilia.
(ii) I’ve listened to it yet again. I don’t know how to approach this music anymore. Too much has gone on between me and ct this week. I realise now, as well, that I’ve become very immersed in ab’s ghost trance music and I find it more satisfying than most other music there is. So I’m dissatisfied with this music cos I wanted ab to meld some of his gtm sensibilities into the mix. But he can’t cos if he tries ct will walk off. So I’ve tried to approach it like it’s a ct quartet with ab on saxophone, which is what it is actually. And ab doesn’t play the best saxophone I’ve ever heard play with ct, cos clearly ct ain’t letting him do his thing.
So he plays like a jazz saxophonist, he puts in a handful of blistering solos over a period of 40minutes of full on free jazz in ct style. But it don’t work cos ab’s so cramped and it looks like it’s impossible for ab to get too close to ct musically cos every time he gets close to harmonising with ct, then ct moves off away from him. And also the ct parker oxley unit is very tight. Oxley and Parker are sticking very tight to ct throughout, like those kids in the playground who stick close to the bully so they don’t get mashed. And ab sounds out on a limb, trying too hard.
Now it occurs to me, how come this gig don’t work, cos with ct’s music the unit’s supposed to be tight and meshed. Even though the horn players generally take what can pretty much be described as solos ct and the drums or bass are always in there tightly meshed. But here in Reggio there is no mesh. So the most satisfying and successful stretches are those brief moments when it’s trio playing and ab is laying out, which by the end of the gig he’s doing a lot of. For about the last ten minutes of the main 33 minute set he stands there with his eyes shut and his saxophone clutched tight to his chest, like he so often does in his music and to me he always looks like he’s following the music so intently and he’s got his antennae out for what’s coming next from his horn, but at Reggio Opera House, he keeps holding the horn close to his chest and his eyes tight closed and I’m imagining he’s waiting for this all to be over and done with.
When the quartet come back on for an encore he does a little melodic, lyrical solo and then, again stands, silent holding onto his saxophone till it ends.
There we are, that’s all I can do. Ct played like ct always does, as did Parker, whose bass playing at these kind of free jazz gigs seems pedestrian to me these days, if not perfunctory and bored. Oxley did his thing too. He was loud I thought and he stuck close to ct and provided some of the most dynamic aspects of the music with his constant clanging and banging.
That’s all I can say about this now. I’ve not listened to any ct music since I got home. I’m afraid of what I’ll feel if I do. Last year I went out and bought up loads of old ct stuff, that I’d lost along the years and I thrilled to it all over again, and thought to myself how lucky those of my generation were to have lived through times such as the AACM and One Too Many Salty Swift and Ornette Coleman and harmolodics and all that last half of the 20th century heroic journey stuff. And now I guess I gotta move on and for that I have Anthony Braxton’s music, still relevant, still moving and thrilling us all and distilled into music that exists as sound and is relevant and powerful as sound, even though the social moment/movement that fed us through 68/69 and into the 70s is no longer with us as it was, and seems to exist not at all in the music. There is still Braxton continuing his heroic journey, so maybe it’s worth sticking around.
I don’t guess he’ll be playing with Cecil Taylor again in a while. And I don’t know what me and Cecil are gonna do from here on in either. I wonder if he isn’t lost. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve just lost him?
(iii) Today I re-listened to the first half of this concert again; ct and oxley in duet, ct doing his poetry/word thing again, made more tolerable by having the rhythmic backing and accenting of oxley’s drumming, but still badly delivered and the same material as the last 2 gigs. This if followed by William Parker walking onto stage playing shakuhachai followed by a de rigeur bass solo that I cannot describe in any detail.
Then on comes braxton. He plays very sweet sopranino, then breaks off to whistle and hum the melody. He also recites letters and numbers in the same rhythm/melody then breaks into a very high and shrill melody played with such intensity that it keeps threatening to split on him. At times the playing is highly melodic and emotive, reminds me of Joseph Jarman way back when he did his lovely old solo stuff. Maybe the experience of playing with ct has caused ab to return in his mind to those halcyon days of comradeship, unity and solidarity that he shared with the aacm. Then he breaks off and sings numbers in a soft voice. He follows this back on sopranino with some very fast high flighty playing with lots of accompanying growling, stops for some more humming then picks up the alto and begins popping the pads before returning to the high screaling sounds accompanied by growls. Then he goes down to the lower register and plays a melody reminiscent of his Bologna solo yesterday. He finishes with growling and fluttering half-formed rhythmic statements and leaves the stage.
Cecil Taylor takes a solo, which is extremely beautiful and slow paced, delicate and sweet. I take this to be a retort to Braxton’s energetic and impassioned solo. And here I am again, back with ct remembering the immense elegiac beauty of the man’s music. He holds us captivated, he weaves a web of filigree piano, taking simple motifs and stretching them out, perfectly executing his tender and minute runs. And he fills 15 minutes with this concentrated beauty and I remember what it is between ct and me. The outraged anger is gone from the music, though the man himself is still prickly as hell obviously. And there’s still beauty here. A unique voice still singing.