Thursday, August 31, 2023

LP Reissue Review: Cecil Taylor - Unit Structures

Where are you Bud? a lone rain falling thru doors empty of room - Jazz Naked Fire Gesture. Dancing protoplasm. Absorbs.

Cecil Taylor
Unit Structures

It can take several deep listens to really grasp a Cecil Taylor album. Gary Giddins once said something to the effect that if you listen to a Cecil performance with half an ear, you'll be lost. You need the whole ear, and the other one as well. 

One year during college, my birthday present from a close friend included a cassette dub with Cecil's other Blue Note album Conquistador on one side and Live at the Cafe Montmartre (half of what would be released as Nefertiti The Beautiful One Has Come) on the other. I immersed myself in the tape, listening repeatedly as I walked to and from campus. Eventually things started to make sense, like the recurring themes in Conquistador's title track, or noticeable the section during the second (!) piano solo in "D Trad That's What" from the other side, when Cecil and drummer Sunny Murray seem to land in 4/4 briefly, and Cecil channels Mal Waldron, if not a bit of Monk. I became a Cecil Taylor convert, not always grasping what he intended, but always eager to dive in and get closer to understanding. 

That homemade tape landed in my hands right as the CD reissue boom was taking off, and a few years later, I finally picked up Unit Structures, the other Cecil album on Blue Note. It actually preceded Conquistador's release by two years, though they were recorded within five months of each other in 1966. Unlike the later album's two sidelong tracks, Unit Structures features four dense tracks. Many Blue Note albums had liner notes by jazz luminaries ranging from Nat Hentoff to A. B. Spellman but Cecil penned "Sound Structure of Subculture Becoming Major Breath/ Naked Fire Gesture," an epic with the density of James Joyce on the back cover. (The italicized lines here are excerpted from that tome, lack of punctuation observed.) As a result, Unit Structures proves to be an even more challenging excursion with little in the way of a roadmap.

Rhythm-sound energy found in the amplitude of each time unit.

The 1987 CD's addition of an alternate take of "Enter Evening" right after the master (the standard spot for alternates on jazz reissues at the time) convoluted the flow of the original album. Even though it came at the end of side one, it was still a bit of a distraction, trying to both figure out the structure and compare the performance to the one that preceded it. 

Blue Note's Classic Vinyl Series has just reissued Unit Structures in its original vinyl form, utilizing the original analog tapes. (The mastering was done by Kevin Gray.) This isn't a Tone Poet Series reissue, so there's no gatefold cover with newly discovered candid shots of Cecil Taylor playing while Rudy Van Gelder and Alfred Lion look puzzled, or shots of Jimmy Lyons and Ken McIntyre studying lead sheets. Things are much as they were in 1966. 

When music people write about Cecil Taylor, they can almost be divided into two categories: the ones who write in very general terms or ones who go for a more metaphorical, abstract direction, talking about the music in non-musical terms, borrowing more from science than theory books. The exception might have come in a pull-out from a 1990 Village Voice piece that I held onto for years, in which several writers (beginning with Giddins) tried to explore the Taylor approach from different angles. I would re-read the thing every year, occasionally understanding more but usually wishing that I could get my hands on the albums to which they all referred. (Upon writing this thing, I need to see if I still have that crop of articles.) 

Alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons has become a devoted bandmate of Taylor by the time of Unit Structures, having played with him since 1961. Andrew Cyrille (drums) was also on his way to becoming one of the longstanding members of the Unit, playing with him from 1964 through 1975. Eddie Gale Stevens, Jr. plays trumpet on a few songs and Ken McIntyre completes the front line playing alto saxophone, oboe and bass clarinet. Holding up the rear are two bassists, Henry Grimes and Alan Silva. 

Time seen not as beats to be measured after academy's podium angle. The classic order, stone churches with pillars poised, dagger ripping skies, castratti robed in fever pitch, stuff the stale sacrament, bloodless meat, for the fastidious eye...

When playing this current reissue the first time, I tried reading the liner notes in hopes that it might reveal some insight into the music between its almost beat-like execution. Alas, it did not. Cecil seemed to really love the word "anacrusis," referring to it several times in the text. (When he recorded an album of spoken word pieces in the 1987 [Chinampas], the word that Webster defines as "a note or sequence of notes which precedes the first downbeat in a bar, " or a pick-up, factors into the first track on the album.) 

Unlike Conquistador, which seemed to have some more clearly define compositional lines, or at least passages where everyone lines up together, Unit Structures flows more freely. Everyone leaps into "Steps" at their own pace, Cyrille offering a rather thunderous bang (which seems to get some more weight, thanks to the new mastering) while everyone does calisthenics around the maestro's piano. Gale doesn't appear on this track and McIntyre plays alto, delivering a more frantic solo than the more measured though equally detailed Lyons, who takes the second solo. The piece might feel loose, but when Taylor joins Cyrille at the end of a press roll in the middle of the piece, coming down right on the pulse with him, it's obvious that the group is following a structure.

"Enter Evening (Soft Line Structures)" brings Gale into the picture, with a mute, that blends with McIntyre's oboe for a thin, reedy but intriguing sound. The two basses contribute have more presence, Silva manically bowing while Grimes plucks away. The entire performance feels unprecedented and new - more new classical than jazz of any sort - but if you zero in on Cecil's playing, his execution has moments that resemble lines of Art Tatum with random accelerations adding a twist to them.

The nearly 18-minute side two opener "Unit Structure/As Of A Now/Section" is where energy and forward motion really coalesce. Ironically, the horns (McIntyre now on bass clarinet) and drums begin the piece in a sinister mood, dark chords and rolls, only to have the mood broken by a flighty arpeggio from the piano. 

The horns sit out on "Tales (8 Wisps)." Most of the time, the basses seem to step back as well, though Silva's bow appears early in the relatively short piece. It's largely a conversation between Cecil and Cyrille. Some of the pianist's lines sound familiar; stuttered ideas that would also feed into solo performances on albums like Silent Tongues

In more recent interviews with Cyrille, he has shed some light on what he was playing with the Unit, incorporating more straightforward drumming techniques into the music. Without digging up the exact quote, suffice to say it shed light on the idea that Taylor's work didn't simply come out of nowhere. There were elements that preceded it. Lyons did play with a tone that was a direct lineage from Charlie Parker. If Bird had lived another 15 years, who knows - he might have sounded like Lyons.

Years after hearing this and Conquistador, I wrote a review of Intents and Purposes, a reissue of Bill Dixon's 1967 album on RCA. Dixon had played on Conquistador and hearing his album suddenly made me realize that Cecil's work at the time might not have existed in a vacuum. There were other "free jazz" players besides him who were pushing towards something that could not be summed up easily with words like that.  

Nearly 60 years later, it still sounds fresh and open to deep, repeated listens. And it's still hard to describe this music. This new remastered edition is the perfect opportunity to either reexamine this monolithic session or investigate it for the first time. 

As gesture Jazz became: Billie's right art bent at breast moving as light touch. Last moments, late father no use to sit and sigh the pastors have left us gone home to die.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

CD/LP Review: Tyshawn Sorey Trio - Continuing

Tyshawn Sorey Trio

Tyshawn Sorey makes listeners appreciate space - the wide open areas that can occur in music. He assures you that quick movement is not always necessary and sometimes having a lot of room in which to operate can be beneficial. By taking advantage of that type of thinking, the mind can appreciate subtle additions to the music. A slow, walking bass line feels like the basis for a strong narrative; a one-note bass line transforms into an infectious vamp, especially with a ride cymbal going behind it. 

All of these elements happen throughout the four-track album by Sorey (drums) with Aaron Diehl (piano) and Matt Brewer (bass). Like last year's Mesmerism and The Off-Off Broadway Guide to Synergism, Continuing features the trio playing compositions aligned with classic jazz, a departure for
the drummer/composer who has carved out a reputation as a distinctly modern player who veers towards free music. But Sorey's mind is vast and when he swings, he won't take his subject matter lightly, as this new release proves.

The deft use of space and simplicity is nothing new in jazz. One musician that used it was the late pianist Ahmad Jamal, who Sorey first heard on the advice of pianist Harold Mabern, with whom the young drummer studied at William Patterson University. Works by both pianists appear on Continuing indicating the weight of their impact on Sorey's thinking. 

Jamal's "Seleritus" lasts 15 minutes, moving casually along over a simple vamp but the results are hypnotic Brewer takes an extended bass solo that almost feels free as it soars over the solid groove beneath it, rich in details. The song reaches a crescendo that never gets heavy and when the song finally fades, the trio sounds like they could continue on.

Mabern's "In What Direction Are You Headed?" originally recorded with Lee Morgan on his final studio album, gets a little funkier and perhaps a bit repetitive. But Sorey's fills add extra color to the landscape along with Diehl's high register flourishes, with both making sure the groove doesn't run out of steam.

"Angel Eyes" is a cry-in-your-hooch tune that I always thought Nick Cave could cover. It appeared on Frank Sinatra's Only The Lonely album but my personal favorite version was done by the Four Freshman on their first ...Five Trombones concept record. The Freshman harmonies never sounded as dark blue as they did on that one, aided by the horns. The Matt Dennis tune should always be sung slowly but the Sorey Trio takes it down even further, to a snail's pace. Diehl leaves wide chasms between the phrases, connected by Brewer's stark upper register quarter notes. It adds to the heartbreak of the song. 

The group also pays tribute Wayne Shorter by opening the album with his "Reincarnation Blues," which the saxophonist first played with Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers.Brewer's walking bass and Diehl's subtle chords, and notes that get staggered across the beat, sets a strong scene for what will come. A mid-chorus stop-time and Sorey's press rolls feel even more dynamic as a result.

We all need to slow down once in a while. Tyshawn Sorey presents plenty of reasons why.

Saturday, August 12, 2023

Projects In the Works, A Different Blog Post, A Couple Shows This Week

Check the blog every day and nothing changes. Walk away from it for a couple weeks and someone posts a comment on a piece from a few years ago, thanking you for your work. Never fails. 

I have been away from here for a while. I'm disappointed that I only came up with two damn posts in the month of July. Now it's almost mid-August. Then again, I have kept myself busy. I don't want to spill the beans yet but I'm working on a fairly lengthy piece for a local publication. It should be good. And it's something that has been in the works (i.e. in my head, germinating) for several months now. 

In the meantime, I wrote another piece for the Gullible Ear blog a few weeks ago. The entries on that site usually pick a quality song, which a lot of people don't know, and sing its praises. I decided to take the opposing track and grouse about the West Coast Pop Art Experimental band's cover of Frank Zappa's "Help, I'm a Rock." Yeah, it sounds convoluted trying to summarize it too. Regardless, check it out here. 

I have been checking out shows too. Last night, I got a little stoked as I was leaving work because I realized, I'm going to a rock show. And it won't be 90% over when I get there. The show took place at the Brillobox and featured Brooklyn's heavy Oneida, who were close friends and regular visitors to Pittsburgh about 20 years ago during the days of Rickety Thursdays at the 31st Street Pub. The show was long and loud, but I held out for the duration, even after three drinks. (They pour them tall there.) I paced myself with the hooch though, lest you wonder if I was irresponsible that way. 

Early this week, I barreled out of work over to Alphabet City to see the Devin Drobka Trio. I don't think I've been to that space at all this year, so I felt that, even though I know I'd be a little late in arriving, I'd still get there for most of the show.  A lot of great events have happened there over the last few months which I've missed mostly due to my work schedule or because of family things coming up. I was really itching to get back there.

Devin Drobka (above) has a few albums out on the label Shifting Paradigm. The first one I heard, Amaranth, came out in 2018 and included now-Pittsburgh resident Patrick Breiner blowing some wild tenor. I wanted to write about that, and a few other SP releases, here but never got around to it. 

In 2021, the label released Resorts, a piano trio album that is quite a change from what preceded it. The music from that album was what the trio played this past Wednesday in town. Matt Blair, who played piano on the album, appeared with Drobka. Jakob Heinemann (below) played bass, taking on the role that Aaron Darrell had on the album.

Listening to the album afterwards, I feel like I have a greater understanding of what the trio is trying to do. Three pieces on the album are called "Box Inventions," Numbers 1-3. All are inspired Johann Sebastian Bach (get it?) and all are pretty minimal and repetitive. In person, the group took one of these motifs and stretched it a little. Blair might play the same thing but Heinemann took liberties on top of it. And then Drobka himself, occasionally playing with one bare hand on the kit while the other tapped a cymbal with a sticks, or he alternated sticks with brushes. On record, it almost seems like the action and improvisation is happening with Drobka, while the others create the setting for him. 

That being said, I've only had one chance to check out the album, but I plan on digging into it further. Along with some other new stuff that I've been randomly pulling on the pile and exploring. 

In closing, the other things that's been keeping me busy is plotting and planning for my band, the Harry Von Zells. I was actually interviewed for a publication today (!), The Second Scene, a locally published but nationally recognized magazine of some repute. The band is also breaking in a new keyboard player. Now if only we can find some gigs.