Some fantastic video of Cecil Taylor from 1983 was recently uploaded to YouTube. The two lengthy performances come from European TV, and were posted by André Martinez Reed, one of the two percussionists in the version of the Cecil Taylor Unit that featured alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, bassist William Parker, drummers Martinez and Charles Downs (known at the time as Rashid Bakr), and vocalist Brenda Bakr. This is the same group featured on the extremely hard-to-find album Nicaragua No Pasaran, which was recorded August 27, 1983 in Willisau, Switzerland. The same group, augmented by six additional players, can be heard on Winged Serpent (Sliding Quadrants), recorded in October 1984 in Milan, Italy.
The first performance, running about 45 minutes, comes from Italian TV. The band is in full cry from the first note, with Brenda Bakr‘s operatic vocalizations adding an unexpected and exciting element to the music.
The second performance, from German TV, is significantly longer, lasting nearly 70 minutes, and is even more amazing. It features the Unit accompanied by four dancers: Leon Brown, Mickey Davidson, Ron McKay and Pauline Tagnelie. This piece starts out much more theatrically; Bakr and Martinez enter playing hand drums (with Parker and Lyons accompanying them on conga and bongos from the back of the stage). Taylor, dressed entirely in white, stalks around the stage, reciting sound poetry and occasionally striking whatever’s nearest with a baton. Brenda Bakr offers incantatory vocal ululations as a counterpoint to Taylor, and as accompaniment to a male and female dancer who move spiderlike back and forth across the stage, seemingly taking it over for themselves.
Martinez and Bakr (and even Parker) are surrounded, behind the piano, by a massive array of cymbals, gongs, and other percussion instruments—this whole section of the performance reminds me more of the Art Ensemble of Chicago than any Taylor concert I’ve ever seen. Everyone but Taylor and Bakr is drumming on something. Adding to the dramatic effect is the fact that Brenda Bakr is initially not seen; she’s singing from offstage until about the 15-minute mark, when Taylor finally sits at the piano.
This is an absolute must-see/must-hear performance for anyone interested in the music of Cecil Taylor.
After watching these videos, I decided to reach out to Martinez Reed, and we spent an hour on the phone talking about his roughly decade-long relationship with Taylor, which encompassed not only music, but home renovations as well. Excerpts from our conversation are below.
I played in a high school band, and in college I played classical music—Haydn, Brahms, those kind of composers. So that was where the music background started coming from. Then I started studying privately; I was a maniac for studying music at that time. I studied Afro-Cuban percussion with a drummers’ collective; I had a few great teachers, like Jerry Gonzalez, Gene Golden, Frankie Malabe. I studied Brazilian music, which was a big part of my life, with Dom Um Romao, Alyrio Lima and Guilherme Franco; we had a group called Pie De Boi. We did a lot of gigs at the Mudd Club, we were in Interview magazine, we used to play out in the streets in the theater district—it was a pretty amazing experience. You can hear part of it on Harris Simon’s album; he was a pianist who had a Japanese release that we did one cut for, it was called “Wind Chant,” where you can hear that group. There’s a trade-off of me and Franco on the cuica doing stuff. Michael Brecker was on that gig, and so was Billy Cobham and a few other people. Then I spent a lot of time on the dance scene—Chief Bey was one of my teachers, and a singer named Pedro Morejon, who’s renowned in Yoruba music and all those kinds of things. I had my own percussion group called El Monte, we used to do radio shows at the Nuyorican Poets Café when it first started. But I had to train my mind that whenever I studied with a certain type of musician or style of drumming, I could never really bring up the other teacher or the other style, because it would always create mischief for some crazy reason. So I kept that to myself, and tried to learn all of these different languages, you know. Then I played with the James Jabbo Ware big band, which was with George Stubblefield and J.D. Parran and Bill Lowe and Warren Smith and Andre Strobert and Renee Strobert…I studied with Michael Walden, but my greatest teacher was Beaver Harris. I spent a good deal of time with Beaver, and at those sessions I met Jimmy Garrison, Don Cherry, and a whole bunch of other cats. That went on for at least two, three years, and then, I was in Philadelphia, playing with funk bands, and working for Dee Dee Sharp, who was famous in the ’60s and whose husband was Kenny Gamble, of the producers Gamble and Huff. We would practice at their mansion, and I met a whole slew of great musicians there. Some of those guys introduced me to Sun Ra and we started hanging out at that house, which wasn’t far away in Philly. And somehow that mingled in with the R&B through Blue Magic and Sister Sledge and all these other groups; it was a whole smorgasbord of stuff to absorb and explore. It was really hard work, but it was quite rewarding. So I did all that for a while, and somehow, Beaver Harris, my teacher, was playing drums with Cecil. So that’s how I first heard about Cecil. Beaver invited me to the Village Gate to see Cecil, and that was an amazing night. It was like a shock, you know?
I had a brother-in-law who used to run the Village Gate’s Salsa Meets Jazz, so I would get in for free all the time, and I went one night, and I ran into Cecil. It was a Ray Barretto concert, and I walked by and said, “I know you!” And he said, “From where?” I said, “You played with Beaver.” So we exchanged numbers, and I went home. This was 1980 or ’81, in December. [So then] I went to Park Slope to go have breakfast and pick up a Christmas tree for my house, and Cecil was coming out of Purity Diner on Seventh Avenue in Park Slope. I’m walking in, and he was walking out, and he’s like, “Wow, I was gonna call you this week! What are you doing right now?” I said, “I’m not doing anything,” so we went to a neighborhood pub, and hung out there, and next thing you know it was like 11 o’clock at night. It was amazing. And all we did was, we just kept talking about music—it was a nonstop flow, like, he would talk to me about piano players he loved, like Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum and Duke, about McCoy and Lennie Tristano, and have these full-on discussions, and then we’d switch over to drums, and start talking about my favorite drummers. I’d start talking about Sonny Payne and Al Foster and Billy Higgins and Eddie Marshall and Eddie Blackwell and J.C. Heard and Louie Bellson and Sonny Greer, and then I’d start talking about my influences on drums that were another major part of my life, which was Tony Williams and Mike Clark and funky George from Kool and the Gang and Maurice White, and Clyde Stubblefield from James Brown‘s band, and then there’s another group of drummers I love, like John Bonham and Ian Paice and Simon Phillips and Cozy Powell, even Carl Palmer at one time. They were all my idols, all these guys.
So then Cecil came to my house, we carried the tree from Park Slope to my house on Dean Street, and then I think we got together two, three, maybe four times, doing the same thing, talking about music and listening to records. It was wonderful, and I haven’t really ever met another musician like that, who would just have so much time to give, and ponder. And then he invited me to his house, and I took a few instruments to the house on Union Street in Park Slope. He got behind the piano, and I set up some percussion stuff, mainly bongos that night. He threw stuff my way, I threw it back, he threw more, I threw it back, and the next thing was, he told me, I want you to come down to this rehearsal. It was a big band, and they were rehearsing for a gig at Lush Life. Craig Harris was on that gig, William Parker and Rashid Bakr, Steve Coleman, Jimmy Lyons, Karen Borca…it was a whole slew of people in this band at Lush Life, which unfortunately I believe is now a Duane Reade. So we would go to the rehearsal at the telephone building down by Leonard Street, where the old Knitting Factory was. The Odeon Café was there, too, across the street. That was Jerome Cooper’s place, a well-known studio, but I forget the name. Jemeel Moondoc and all those guys would go there and record. So that was where the band was rehearsing, and those were fearsome. Cecil, at the end of the night, was exhausted. I think they put in like 10 hours a day. I was like wow, this is some heavy stuff. So then I got invited to go play at Lush Life with him. We did a couple of those gigs, but I was still working in Philly for Gamble and Huff and them. I was going back and forth, and Cecil said it wasn’t a problem, when I came back we’d do stuff. So I finished that project, and then that’s when it all started with Cecil. We went in as a unit. It was Cecil, Jimmy, Raphé Malik, William, and Rashid. We started doing shows at Lush Life, three shows a night, a breaking ground for me in the unit. And then I think Lush Life closed after a while, but we also did the extended band with Glenn Spearman and Charles Tyler and Butch Morris and Craig Harris and Jed Simon. We did that, and then I think in 82 was when we started the gig at the Eye of the Crocodile, which was at the Judson Street church. We did a dance thing with Diane Macintyre, which was modern and African, that combination.
Then we were invited to the sixth annual ArtPark Festival in Lewistown, and that’s when the Unit started really getting tight and together. We started restructuring the shows at that point. I was working at this restaurant at night at that time, and Cecil would have me over afterward, so I’d bring some food and stuff and we would just sit up talking for hours. Cecil was really interested in the show I was doing in Philly, and I happened to have the program—how we begin with an introduction, then we go into a mellow piece, how to work the audience and draw them out and create an event, where it becomes an experience. So we started going into nice, tight sections that Cecil worked really hard on, with a lot of clarity. The music was very precise. This band was not like, what are we gonna do next? That never happened, never. It was super tight. And the reason for that was, we would practice a section, and sort of build—it was like every other great band. You get together, and there’s a chemistry. It got to the point where Cecil would be backstage and we would set up this whole thing, depending on if we had dancers, depending on the audience—because that was something Cecil always drilled on us. You’ve got to work the room, because the same thing might not work in Germany that’ll work better in Spain. So we figured out how to do a show that was actually a production. That’s what we worked really hard on, was creating a show that was concise, precise, and transitioned from one section to the other to the other.
We were all talented rhythm people, so it was wonderful. Rashid was studying Yoruba music and Yoruba culture—he was very attuned to all types of drumming, like Afro-Brazilian stuff, you know, so we would play and it would just work. It was never like we rehearsed it; that was totally improvised on the spot, the introductions. Not the rest of the show; the minute Cecil sat at the piano, it was showtime, as far as the musical arrangements. And Cecil had his system of notation, so everything was structured, but it was a preparation for the battlefield. Once you get to the battlefield, it’s like, you’re on your own.
We played in Poland, we played in Czechoslovakia, and those were TV shows. We played in Barcelona and Madrid and Zaragoza, Sicily and Sardinia, and all these things were filmed. It’s not like there’s just a few things out there. But at the same time, when Cecil was doing the Berlin project [for FMP], we did the US and European tour, the Winged Serpent one. At the beginning of the tour, Rashid was also playing with us, but we performed one night—the concert had finished, it was wonderful, and these guys were working on these giant stage lights that were on two tripods, and somehow shifted it and it fell down. And I happened to be putting my drum set away, William was packing his equipment, and Rashid and Brenda were onstage. And these guys were undoing the lights, and somehow did something wrong, and the lights fell, hit Brenda in the back of her head, but as she fell down to the floor, the lights stopped on top of the piano, came crashing on top of the piano. So it wasn’t like a full impact; the lights didn’t come all the way down. But she had to be taken to the hospital. It was sad. She was becoming a celebrity then; the headlines all spoke about her. She was so in tune with everything—she was like a Maria Callas, you know. She did phenomenal improvisations. I can’t believe I don’t know anything about Brenda since those days. And then Rashid had to go back home, so all the work and all the rehearsals of all the sections [was out]—’cause I had the music in my head as this section, that section, that section, tympani, percussion, drum set, you know, where we’d do the swinging, or the straight-ahead stuff, you know what I mean?
Then [in the late ’80s] Cecil was doing all these European projects, but at the same time, he had bought a house in Fort Greene, where he still lives now. And a friend of mine helped arrange the deal for him to buy this house, but it needed extensive work. So what we did was, we basically gutted the place and rebuilt the whole interior. Not the exterior, I never got to that. So that took—it was a couple of years without the work, and then, when Cecil went to Europe, I stayed behind and remodeled the whole house, ’cause I’m a professional contractor. I gutted the whole top floor, the whole second floor, the whole place. Cecil was away for six months, and just kept asking how things were going, and helped us out by sending things in, and when he came back, he was shocked. He couldn’t believe it. He was like, how the hell did you do this? I spent a year or two just rebuilding that whole place. He was doing all those other things, and I was holding down the fort and doing all the work, and then he moved in upstairs and I went and did downstairs, and then I lived there for a couple of years, in 1990-92. It was a very productive time for each of us in a lot of ways. And then I had kids, and you know, your life moves on. We haven’t been in touch since ’92. And it’s okay. I did go to see concerts, but I was the archiver in the band. For him, there wouldn’t be any interest. Life evolves, you know? It’s complicated. I love Cecil dearly, and this is what really happened. This is history. These were extraordinary concerts—these were not just like, let’s go do a gig tonight.
Here’s one more performance, from Italy, on Soundcloud:
These days, André Martinez Reed is a painter and photographer in Brooklyn. Visit his website to see his work, and for much more audio and video from the early ’80s.