I’ve seen Cecil Taylor live four times. The first was in August 1997, at the Village Vanguard, with bassist Dominic Duval and drummer Jackson Krall. It was a one-nighter, not part of a multi-night stand at the club. Walking in, I knew nothing of Taylor’s music. I went because I’d heard that he was a genius and not to be missed anytime he played New York. I came away almost literally shaking my head. I didn’t know what I’d seen and heard. Taylor had assaulted the piano with great ferocity, playing a single piece for just under an hour. The bassist and drummer had been working hard, too, particularly Duval, who sweated up a storm, but none of what they’d played had seemed, to me, connected to his activities. I wasn’t ready.
The second and third times I saw Taylor both took place in 2002. By then, I’d listened to quite a few of his records and had developed some understanding of his work, or at least an appreciation for it. I particularly favored the albums featuring his late ’70s Unit, the one that included alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, trumpeter Raphé Malik, violinist Ramsey Ameen, bassist Sirone and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson. I spent many hours listening to the marathon work 3 Phasis, and almost as many watching the price of the two-CD live set One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye go up past what I could afford on eBay (it hadn’t yet been reissued). But I also very much liked the solo album Air Above Mountains and the quintet disc (Lyons, Malik tenor saxophonist David S. Ware, drummer Marc Edwards) Dark to Themselves. In February, he played a set at Alice Tully Hall, half solo and half trio (again, with Duval on bass and Krall on drums). I was blown away by the solo set, during which he’d blast through a staggeringly complex improvisation—and then repeat it note for note. The trio set was more of a display of blunt force, but the shimmeringly beautiful passages occasionally gleamed through, like bits of broken glass stuck in a hunk of pavement. In June, he played two nights at the Knitting Factory with a large ensemble billed as the Sound Vision Orchestra, premiering a sprawling work featuring three female vocalists, a massive reed and brass section, two bassists and two drummers. I reviewed one of those performances for Jazziz magazine, and didn’t like it much. Too many instruments playing too many notes for too long, and the vocals irritated me.
The fourth time I saw Taylor was in October 2006, at Iridium, with Henry Grimes on bass and Pheeroan akLaff on drums. By that time I was deep into his music, having heard over 30 of his albums (including the massive, 10-disc box 2 Ts for a Lovely T, which took months to arrive from England after I pre-ordered it—printing problems with the booklet). That, too, was part of a two-night stand; I can’t remember whether I attended the first or second night. I do remember it being the last time I went to a show at Iridium, and I remember leaving a hat there. It was a black baseball cap advertising Anabolic Video (Google it); I wonder if someone kept it.
By that point, I was long past paying attention to who was backing Taylor at a given performance. He was going to do his thing, and if the accompanying musician(s) could find a way to make themselves noticed a time or two along the way, that would be awesome…for them. On only a few of the CDs I owned did the supporting cast make much of an impression—the ’70s albums mentioned above; Pleistozaen Mit Wasser (a duet/duel with guitarist Derek Bailey); Spots, Circles & Fantasy (a battle with Dutch drummer Han Bennink); Incarnation (on which the ensemble featured a guitarist who made interesting noises with a wah-wah pedal); and most controversially, his 2003 trio performance from the Festival de Musique Actuelle in Victoriaville, Canada alongside trumpeter Bill Dixon and drummer Tony Oxley. That set was truly shocking, because Taylor was not the dominant player. Dixon was. His swirling, smeared, electronically processed trumpet set the tone, and the other two men worked around him, keeping the mood suspenseful as the audience awaited an eruption that never came. I find the recording of that concert to be one of the most beautiful in Taylor’s entire discography, but to this day there are people who hate it.
The double LP Ailanthus/Altissima documents a set of duos by Taylor and Oxley recorded at the Village Vanguard back in 2008. Ten hours of material was recorded over the course of a two-week stand, and this is what was selected. The first album splits the piece “Ailanthus” into three chunks, the first of which runs just over 23 minutes, the second a little more than five, and the third 13. The second album offers “Altissima” in four sections, two per LP side. There haven’t been many reviews of the set, because it’s an ultra-limited edition. Only 475 copies were made, and they sell for $110 each. Of course, you get a thick booklet featuring Taylor’s poems and Oxley’s paintings, but still, that’s a little out of my budget. Luckily, the label sent me MP3s.
Maybe it’s because the music was recorded as part of an extended engagement rather than a one-night stand, or maybe it’s because Taylor and Oxley have been performing together, off and on, for over 20 years, but there really is a surprising amount of genuine interplay on these two slabs. A lot of it is Oxley responding to Taylor’s melodic and structural provocations—hammering the kit as the pianist hammers the keys, throwing evocative little phrases in when the older man (as I write this, Taylor is 81 and Oxley is 72) gets quiet—but there are many moments when Taylor, too, seems to be really listening to his partner.
It’s hard to choose one piece over the other, as both are similar in mood: Taylor spins out lushly romantic ideas and Oxley rattles delicately. But there are plenty of eruptions and convulsions in each piece, too, if that’s what you’re after. “Ailanthus” begins slowly, with Taylor delicately feeling his way into the jungle he’ll spend the next 40 minutes or so exploring. Oxley’s approach to the drums is both pointillistic and minimalist; he taps the cymbals and what sound like small gongs, occasionally rattling the toms, which sound very small, more like plastic buckets than drums. Taylor begins to build an almost bluesy structure, expanding on it with resonant, rumbling flourishes. At around the seven-minute mark, he winds down his initial statement with some carefully chosen phrases, and begins again in a more aggressive fashion that continues throughout the rest of the piece’s running time. It ends with a particularly explosive coda, Oxley slashing at the cymbals as the pianist attacks the keyboard seemingly with closed fists.
“Altissima” is similar in mood, and even in structure, but more fervid and aggressive, especially at the beginning. By the middle of the first movement, things have calmed down somewhat. The second segment is actually as much about Oxley as Taylor; his drumming is an equal portion of the music, not just accents. The third section raises the intensity once again, without becoming as balls-out as the end of “Ailanthus”; around nine minutes into it, an almost Latin melody appears. Eventually, the piece diminishes in pace and volume, ending almost as cocktail piano music and letting the audience down easily.
When you’re sitting in the audience at a Cecil Taylor performance, it’s impossible to do much but let the music wash over you. But spending serious time with a recording will reveal felicitous phrases, near-telepathic exchanges, and sudden shifts from gentleness to earthquake-like brutality. He makes intensely involving music, and this is a superb example. If you’ve got a spare $110 lying around (plus shipping), and a turntable, you can get it straight from the label.