In June 1988, Cecil Taylor traveled to Berlin for a month of performances and workshops, teaming him up with the cream of European improvisers for a series of duos, trios, and some large ensemble pieces. The massive box set In Berlin ’88 was not only a crucial document in Taylor’s discography, but in the history of free music.
What often gets overlooked is that it was not a solitary event, but the beginning of a long relationship between Taylor and producer Jost Gebers, whose FMP label released the box. Though their partnership never yielded anything as massive again, the producer continued bringing Taylor to Germany year after year, and the resulting albums made up the bulk of the pianist’s discography throughout the 1990s.
The year after his initial Berlin residency, in November 1989, Taylor returned. Over the course of four nights, November 1-4, in performance at the Quartier Latin, he and a small group of collaborators explored a composition — or series of compositions — called “Looking”: first solo, then with a new group, the Feel Trio, featuring bassist William Parker and drummer Tony Oxley, and finally with an ensemble dubbed Corona, which added violinist Harald Kimmig and cellist Muneer Abdul Fataah. Each version was released separately.
The first performance, Looking (Berlin Version) Solo, is divided into seven sections. The first two are roughly a half hour long each, while the last five are short, mostly in the two-minute range. By 1989, Taylor had been performing solo concerts for roughly 20 years, and the form had been more or less codified. He would sit down at the piano, tap out a short, staccato melodic figure that might seem at first almost like a limbering-up exercise, a kind of digital throat-clearing, and then ring changes on it for somewhere close to or slightly more than an hour. The most beautiful Taylor solo album is 1977’s Air Above Mountains, recorded outdoors in the summer on a piano with a booming low end. But the performance on Looking (Berlin Version) Solo has unique qualities that set it apart and draw and hold the listener’s attention. The piano sounds like a gigantic steel harp at times, the strings zinging and seeming to fly loose. The notes have a sharp edge, like the keys are made of glass. He moves with inhuman rapidity from barrages of single-note strikes like raindrops hitting a pond, spaced just far enough apart that each one can be heard landing, to clanging chords possibly struck with his entire forearm, to rumbling bass-line-ish figures succeeded by clusters of high notes like a thousand glass beads striking a marble floor and bouncing every which way. The two long sections that begin the performance seem arbitrarily divided; it could just as easily be a single hour-long piece as two half-hour ones, since it’s not like Taylor even stops for breath. Throughout the marathon, he can be heard cackling softly and hissing and meowing along with the sounds produced by his sharp, pointed fingers. When he winds his way to a slow, descending sequence of notes, repeating the final low note once like the period at the end of a hundred-page-long sentence, it has a finality that makes you feel like anything else you do all day will be an anticlimax. And yet…the five encores that follow don’t seem like afterthoughts or footnotes; they share enough melodic and conceptual DNA with the big piece that they’re Taylor’s way of saying “and another thing…” and expanding on his thesis just a little bit more.
The Feel Trio, with William Parker and Tony Oxley, was a relatively short-lived group, but an extremely potent one. The bassist had entered Taylor’s orbit in the early ’80s, appearing on 1981’s The Eighth with alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons and drummer Rashid Bakr and then playing on a string of albums recorded in 1987 and 1988. The drummer had first encountered Taylor in Berlin in 1988, when they recorded the duo album Leaf Palm Hand; the two continued to work together until the end of the pianist’s life. There are only three Feel Trio albums: their volume of the Looking series, 1990’s Celebrated Blazons, and the 2002 box set 2 Ts for a Lovely T, which contains 10 full sets from a week-long stand at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London, also recorded in 1990.
Their version of Looking, performed on November 2, 1989, is divided into three sections: a 36-minute opening gambit and a 31-minute closer, with a five-minute interlude in between. As was almost always the case, Taylor begins alone, and even though it’s the same club, only 24 hours later, the piano sounds richer and fuller than it did for the solo performance. The low notes are woodier, and the glass-and-steel jaggedness is gone. Parker and Oxley join in almost immediately, and the dynamics of the trio’s relationship becomes apparent just as fast. Oxley is an almost manic drummer, skittering and rattling across the top row of his kit, focusing on small cymbals and even smaller plastic toms; he sounds like he’s striking tuned coffee cans with a pencil. He never seems to touch the kick drum or the snare; actually establishing a rhythm is totally outside his purview. He wants to be as floridly lyrical a percussionist as Taylor is a pianist, rattling his hi-hat like he’s jingling keys, or striking a surprisingly bell-like cymbal. Parker, meanwhile, is in the middle of the music like a boxer bouncing from foot to foot. He’s not providing a rhythmic floor for Taylor, because Taylor doesn’t need one; he’s not locking in with Oxley, because neither groove nor swing have any place in this music. He is left to his own devices, and the role he chooses for himself is to be a calming voice in the middle. He’s not soloing, not for quite a while; he’s almost walking at times. About 27 minutes in, though, he picks up the bow and begins to emit low drones, and somehow that draws Taylor back from the headlong sprint he’s been engaged in since taking the stage; the pianist’s phrases become shorter, with space in between so you can almost track his thinking. The music could even be considered romantic, a love ballad, were it not for Oxley’s hisses and rattles from the other side of the stage.
The transition between the second and third parts of the 73-minute performance is seamless, but the end of the first part and the beginning of the second is startlingly abrupt. The music comes to a natural conclusion and then the short middle passage begins instantaneously, as though Jost Gebers edited out an applause break in between. It’s kind of weird, and something similar happens on the third disc in this series.
On November 3 and 4, two more musicians were added to the group. Violinist Harald Kimmig had been a member of the Cecil Taylor Workshop Ensemble the previous year, appearing on Legba Crossing, a disc contained in the In Berlin ’88 box. Cellist Muneer Abdul Fataah had worked with drummer Doug Hammond in a trio with saxophonist Steve Coleman; they made two albums together, Folks and Spaces, at the beginning of the 1980s. Fataah later made one album as a leader, with a guitar-cello-bass-drums ensemble dubbed the Rhythm String Band.
This quintet, dubbed Corona, performed the most unrelenting version of Looking yet. It consists of a continuous 60-minute piece, followed by two sections of three and a half and just under eight minutes, respectively. The most instantly notable thing about this ensemble’s sound is that Parker is virtually inaudible. Between Taylor’s relentless clanging (he seems to have beaten all the beauty out of the piano by this point, leaving shards of ivory on the floor), Oxley’s clattering toms and cymbal crashes, Kimmig’s jagged sawing, and Fataah’s undersea groans, there’s no real room left for such a foundational player to make himself heard. It would have been great if Taylor had chosen to subdivide the ensemble, as he did on the 1978 live album One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye, where violinist Ramsey Ameen and bassist Sirone got a duo passage, as did Jimmy Lyons and trumpeter Raphé Malik. But here, everyone is on all the time, for a solid — in every sense of the word — hour of music that seems to pin the listener under a boulder. At about the 48-minute mark, things do get a little more spacious and airy, but nobody actually stops playing; it just becomes a dense chamber piece rather than the sonic avalanche it’s been, and it doesn’t stay that way for long. The storm picks up again. When the piece ends, the audience erupts in wild applause and cheers, but it’s easy to wonder whether they’re applauding the music, or the athleticism.
The second section, only three and a half minutes long, gives the string players their own space. Taylor mostly recedes, plucking the strings inside the piano, as Kimmig, Fataah, and Parker play an improvised but extremely potent trio piece, with a few rattles from Oxley. The final section, which an extremely rough edit makes me think must have come from the second night of performances, begins with a delicate and morose piano-violin passage, with cello and very minimal, skittering drum taps entering cautiously as it progresses. Everyone plays throughout its nearly eight-minute running time, but at its heart it remains a dialogue between Taylor and Kimmig, and it’s a stunningly beautiful coda that makes me wish more of the main piece had taken that elegiac, almost Balkan tone.
It’s impossible to say which version of Looking — solo, trio, or quintet — is “the best.” It’s not one of his hookier pieces, like “Conquistador” or one of the sextet compositions from 1978, so tracing the variations each ensemble adds would be difficult without spending weeks obsessively listening for phrases that match from one disc to another. Each piece is brilliant and beautiful in its own way, but they absolutely deserve to be heard together, complementing each other.