Monday, February 21, 2005

Zeus at the Piano

Still smarting from the news about HST's demise (see below), at first I wasn't going to write about the amazing Cecil Taylor Big Band performance at Iridium on Friday. But there's something about both Thompson and Taylor's willingness to go beyond the rules of polite discourse that unites them. Neither was willing to simply color within the lines.

The first thing to say about Taylor's band is that they were completely gonzo. It's a much smaller ensemble than the one he brought to Iridium last year (12 people instead of 25) and concentrates less on nuance, flow, and compositional finesse. Instead, this band showcases crazed energy, chaotic noise, speaking in tongues, and electro-shock horn riffs. With a few lovely passages thrown in for relief, of course.

At one critical juncture, the band started shouting their parts vocally. One-by-one the musicians put down their instruments until everyone was singing and yelling the riffs they had previously been playing. At first, you didn't notice but then the voices began to swell throughout the room. Cecil began scatting and banging *inside* the piano with mallets. Suddently the audience found themselves in the middle of a bizarre prayer meeting where the minister is creating gamelan-like noises at the piano and intoning ritualistic lines about "labeled skulls."

That's when people started heading for the exits. Before long, the club was almost as third empty. And these were people who were (presumably) Taylor fans and paid serious money to see the man. The Big Band's joyous noise was so unhinged - so unexpected and so beyond the ordinary conventions of concert music - that I believe it actually embarassed some of Cecil's fans. They would applaud Cecil for breaking the rules of traditional jazz, but they were shocked when he was willing to violate their own ideas of good taste. But Cecil was happy to risk looking ridiculous (which he ultimately didn't) to push his music higher and create new sensations in the listener. It was a reminder of how many of today's supposedly avant garde and transgressive artists are really just playing by a different-but-still-circumsribed set of rules.

Speaking of truly transgressive troublmaking types, Amiri Baraka was in the house for the show. The author of "The Dutchman" and the essentail free jazz tome "Black Music" was seen congratulating the musicians afterwards, aglow with a mischievous look on his face.


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