Cecil Taylor‘s relationship with Jost Gebers and the FMP (Free Music Production) label began in 1988, when he staged a month-long residency in Berlin which was documented in the lavish In Berlin ’88 box set (now available digitally from Destination: Out). In the years that followed, Taylor appeared at Gebers’ Total Music Meeting and other Berlin-based events many more times. Crucial albums like the three versions of Looking (solo, trio, and ensemble; reviewed here); the solo Double Holy House; Incarnation; Nailed; and more were recorded in Berlin between 1990 and 1999.
In 1996, Taylor came to Berlin with a nine-member ensemble that included trumpeter Chris Matthay, alto and soprano saxophonist Chris Jonas, soprano saxophonist Harri Sjöström, tenor saxophonist and flautist Elliott Levin, trombonist Jeff Hoyer, cellist Tristan Honsinger, bassist Dominic Duval, and drummer Jackson Krall, and over the course of the first three days of November presented two extended works, The Light of Corona and Almeda, which were released on CD in 2003 and 2004 respectively. The former was named for the Queens neighborhood where he was born and raised, and the latter for his mother.
In 2012, a previously unreleased recording, Almeda (To Matie), emerged, and in 2018 another recording from the same set of performances, simply titled Corona, appeared. This year, it was issued on CD by Corbett vs Dempsey.
The group Taylor brought to Berlin was the end result of a massive sifting process that began in early 1995. Jonas recalls that it came about at the instigation of Knitting Factory co-founder Michael Dorf. “[He] had suggested that Cecil do a large ensemble and that the Knitting Factory would support it, by providing rehearsal space and assistance in terms of getting an ensemble together of downtown musicians. I believe that meeting had been on a Friday, and Cecil set the next day… or maybe it was Sunday morning, that weekend, as the audition date.”
The late poet Steve Dalachinsky, who knew Dorf and Taylor and everyone else on the scene, was asked to help pull in players. “Steve sort of told his surrounding community, and a day or two thereafter, maybe 45 of us assembled at the Knitting Factory to audition for the Cecil Taylor Ensemble. A dream come true for many of us. In 1995 I was in my late 20s and I had been in New York City for four years I think at that point, and it seemed like a really exciting opportunity. So we all showed up at the Knitting Factory, it was probably 11 o’clock in the morning on a weekend, and Cecil said, ‘Good morning! I would like to hear each one of you tell us a little bit about yourself, do a little bit of a gestural movement, and dance for us, and then play us a short solo.’ And so subsequently everybody got into a circle and all 45 of us introduced ourselves and played a short solo. The first person, I think, was Jackson Krall actually, and he did a pretty funny and expressive little dance. He was standing next to the next person, who was [alto saxophonist] Rob Brown, who didn’t obviously feel comfortable dancing so he just said, ‘I’m Rob Brown,’ and played an extraordinary solo, which sort of set the pace for the rest of the ensemble to do the same. After going around the circle, which probably took 90 minutes and was actually a really interesting experience, witnessing the diverse constituencies of different scenes of downtown New York in 1995, Cecil said, ‘Well, that was wonderful. Thank you so much. I’ve decided that you’re all to be in my ensemble.’ And he said, ‘Show up’ – whenever it was, Monday or Tuesday that week – ‘and we’ll start rehearsals and performances at the Knitting Factory in a couple of months.’”
Krall remembers, “I came in in the beginning of the large group… then at a certain point, [drummer] Rashid Bakr kinda handed me the sticks, with Cecil’s approval. Rashid didn’t want to travel anymore. And then in that big band there were a bunch of drummers. We were all vying for position. I felt I was more experienced at the time with the way Cecil operated, the way he sought what he wanted, what his aesthetic was. I felt that I had a little bit of a leg up on them in a way. But I was the sole survivor.”
Over the course of several months, the ensemble met regularly to rehearse in a falling-down building on First Street and First Avenue, near Houston Street. Gradually, their numbers dwindled. Jonas recalls, “Cecil would make some pronouncement at the beginning of the rehearsal and then… he would never give us very clear directions, and so it ended up being kind of Lord of the Flies to a certain extent, different personalities competing, sort of the different poles of Cecil’s approaches to music in competition between his written music and the energy side of his music.”
Factions formed within the ensemble, with the free/energy-music devotees lining up behind Elliott Levin and players who were more interested in exploring the intricacies of Taylor’s compositions falling in with Jonas. “I think Cecil recognized that these kinds of different groups were starting to form, and in perfect Cecil Taylor [style], one day he went to three of us and whispered in our ears, ‘You’re the cat who understands my music the best – I want you to lead the ensemble today.’ I think it was somewhat of a sociological experiment, to see who would prevail.”
In late summer 1995, Taylor brought about a dozen musicians from the original 40-plus to the Knitting Factory; “we all looked around and were like, wow, we’re the ones who survived the burning pirate ship. And it was Elliott Levin and Chris Matthay and myself and a few others who had kind of made it through. Elliott once again kind of representing sort of the free jazz side of things, and myself representing more the combination of energy music and Cecil’s compositions. So we had to form somewhat of an alliance across our differences, and that was actually a wonderful thing.”
After that performance, Taylor left New York on tour. When he returned, Jonas says, “he called one day and said, ‘We have a few things coming up and we’ll be rehearsing at my house.’ And so we started rehearsing there in Brooklyn at his house, and it was even a smaller group of people. Cecil was at the piano and he would say, ‘Write this down – A up to B natural, down to F sharp, up to G, down to A flat, up to C, and then play it backwards one time, but when you get to the C the second time, play three Cs, play an F sharp, and then play G, G, G, G, G, G, G, G. Now play that back to me.’ And we’d play it back to him, and I would write it all down. I would go home then and would translate that into a score, and then we would play through it and he would be making all these insertions to the music, and what came from that was a piece called ‘Between Poles of Light,’ which we worked on all that fall. A very lovely piece and very long and complex, and I have to say I was very proud to be part of his compositional process.”
The core group traveled to San Francisco, where they were to perform “Between Poles of Light” with a massive group numbering 40 or even 50 musicians at the San Francisco Jazz Festival. “We rehearsed for a week ‘Between Poles of Light’… and just as we were about to go onstage, Cecil said, ‘I don’t want you to play the music; I want you to form lines and circles and to express yourself freely and just have a wonderful time. Let’s go,’ and so we all walked onstage expecting to play this music, and just had to improvise, and it was pretty messy. I remember standing next to [clarinetist] Ben Goldberg, and he and I kind of played together for the whole show, and that was kind of wonderful thing but of course no audience member would ever have heard any of the interaction. And I have to say that that was a bit of a disappointment, having helped Cecil to create this beautiful piece.”
The following year, Taylor was off to Berlin. He took some of the American players — Jonas, Matthay, Krall, Levin, and Hoyer — and added Sjöstrom and Honsinger when they got to Germany. (Note: Krall says, “A lot of people don’t know Tristan’s actually an American. They think he’s European ’cause he spent so much time over there and his name sounds European, but he’s actually from Connecticut.”)
The 1996 Total Music Meeting ran from October 30 to November 3, and it was billed as “Two Portraits”; the second was soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy. He was to perform the first two nights in various ensembles: a duo with dancer Shiro Daïmon, a duo with pianist Fredric Rzewski, a trio with bassist Jean-Jacques Avenell and drummer John Betsch, a performance accompanying actors Anton Reznikov and Judith Malina, and a trio with Rzewski and vocalist Irene Aebi. On November 1, Lacy and Taylor were to perform in duo, but it didn’t happen. According to Jonas, “when Steve Lacy’s first set came, he played [Thelonious] Monk tunes, and Cecil was so pissed off, so disappointed by the fact that he was still playing Monk tunes, that they had some short words backstage afterwards. We were sharing a large dressing room and the two of them subsequently never spoke for the rest of the week. And their duet never happened.”
Instead, November 1 was given over to a duet between Taylor and Sunny Murray. Jonas recalls it as a surprise; he says, “Somehow in the midst of all that stuff, Cecil revealed, he said, ‘Tomorrow Sunny Murray’s coming in, and he’ll be playing with us tomorrow night, and we’ll see what happens thereafter.’ He said, ‘We have to wait and see what moon Sunny is in,’ and sure enough, the two of them had both love and creative friction.” But the pamphlet for the festival lists Murray’s name on the front, along with the rest of the members of Taylor’s ensemble. So it wasn’t a surprise to Jost Gebers.
Corona documents that November 1 duo, with the members of the ensemble providing vocal exhortations not unlike a Greek chorus as the pianist declaims poetry to begin the piece. Honsinger also offers a few notes of cello, almost as background noise, but when Taylor and Murray get rolling, everyone else shuts up. The pianist and drummer hadn’t appeared together on record since 1981’s It Is In the Brewing Luminous, and were best known for the legendary 1962 live set Nefertiti, the Beautiful One Has Come. That music was recorded crudely, on a battered piano and minimal drum kit, inexpertly miked. The pristine sound and quality instruments on Corona, by contrast, allow the music to blossom fully, and it’s breathtaking. Murray’s snare and toms crack like thunder, while Taylor’s piano playing is like raindrops striking the surface of a stormy ocean, the flow of notes never-ending and the momentum seemingly unstoppable. After the duo, the vocalists return, hooting and gabbling, clapping their hands and hissing or sputtering a note or two through their instruments before eventually falling silent to let the leader finish his poem.
The original plan for the evening seems to have been for Murray to eventually yield to Krall, and for the entire ensemble to play, perhaps with both drummers, but that didn’t happen. Krall says Murray seemed determined to put him in his place from the beginning. “I remember the rehearsal; Sunny was at our rehearsal, but they had a whole lot of drums and cymbals there for me to choose from, and I put a set together for myself, and then I remember Sunny coming in. Actually, I ran into him later, and he said something about, ‘Whatever you did with those drums, I’m gonna be changing them all to suit myself.’ I said, OK.”
Jonas says, “Sunny was supposed to play with Cecil a duet for the beginning of the set and then I think Jackson Krall and the ensemble were going to come out and play, and Sunny never got up off the drum set… and afterwards, Sunny was not backstage, and Cecil said, ‘Sunny and I spoke and we decided it would be best for him to take the train back tonight to Paris.’ So we didn’t see anything else of Sunny Murray.”
On the second night, the group performed a single 76-minute piece, released in 2004 as Almeda. Like Corona, it begins with vocals and intermittent percussion from various members of the ensemble. Taylor can be heard growling and yelping in a choked, gravelly voice, as the others hoot like monkeys in trees. Then he begins reciting a few lines of poetry, but the others are still shouting and now individual instruments can be heard, slowly building an atmosphere. Matthay’s trumpet is particularly prominent and exciting, as he releases long tones which rise to squeals or dissolve into hiss. Gradually, the other members of the ensemble fill in, but it takes a full 10 minutes for Taylor to sit at the piano, and at first he’s plucking the strings like a harp as the horns wail and caterwaul and the bass and cello thump. Around the 17-minute mark, he can be heard striking heavy low-end chords, then sweeping across the length of the keyboard, but the horns are still the dominant voices. It’s not until nearly a half hour into the performance that Taylor begins to solo, with cello and bass (and interjections from Krall) keeping pace all the while.
The pamphlet for the Total Music Meeting indicates that the ensemble was to perform twice on November 2 and once on November 3, followed by a Taylor solo performance. But only Almeda was played on November 2, and the following night, the ensemble performed two complete works, which have been released as Almeda (To Matie) and The Light of Corona, respectively.
Almeda (To Matie) follows a structure similar to the 1978 live set One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye (more about that here), in that it begins with several tracks featuring one or two players from the ensemble in duet, before the entire group appears for a long final blowout. The first section is a duo between Honsinger and Duval, both playing with bows for much of it, as someone else shakes a tambourine or small bells. That lasts about 12 minutes, and is followed by a piercing solo from Matthay, equal parts Bill Dixon and Lester Bowie, with Krall backing him in emphatic, even martial fashion. Hoyer and Sjöstrom are up next, the trombonist grunting and moaning while the soprano saxophonist emits squiggly, tootling figures. Jonas, on alto sax, and Levin on tenor sax are last, blowing mournful lines across the stage at each other and eventually converging in a squalling harmonic battle. The full ensemble performance begins with Taylor reading a poem offstage, gradually emerging and making his way to the keyboard. But when he gets there, something even more surprising happens: Elliott Levin takes over, reading a poem of his own with Taylor as pianist and occasional backing vocalist.
Levin recalls, “Before we went to Berlin, we did some rehearsing in NYC. I came home to Philadelphia, to prepare for the trip. I received a call that a good friend of mine — Kathy Change, a political activist, guerilla street performer — [had] set herself on fire in front of the Peace Symbol sculpture at the University of Pennsylvania library, to protest violence and war in the world. I remember the date, Oct. 22, 1996, because it was the eve of my birthday, Oct. 23. This was just as we were getting ready to leave for the concerts, and I wrote a poem, “HUAN, Scattering of the Winds…,” dedicated to Kathy, and the effects of her actions, on me, and the world. I discussed this with Cecil as we were preparing for the FMP Fest [and] Cecil asked me to begin… by performing my poem. He danced around me on stage as I read it. He eventually started playing, and the rest of the band and myself joined him.”
That’s followed by an extended passage of solo piano; Taylor throws down notes in clumps, dancing forcefully across the keyboard as he whispers to himself. He alternates between tense but lovely phrases and passages of raw thunder, and eventually returns to poetry, punctuating his lines with notes as other members of the ensemble vocalize with him. At about the 15-minute mark (it’s a 36-minute piece), the other players return, first bass and drums and soprano sax, and soon after the rest. By 21 minutes in, it’s a full-on storm, and stays that way until its final three minutes, when Duval and Honsinger bring everything home like ground crew reeling in a runaway parade balloon.
The run of shows ended with the music issued as The Light of Corona. Fitting for a finale, it seems to combine aspects of each of the previous nights’ performances into a unique but related statement. It’s broken into two parts, running about 75 minutes in all. Like Corona, it opens with stomping and vocalizations from Taylor and the other members of the ensemble which seem to come from all over; listening on headphones, one can imagine them moving about the stage like actors in an avant-garde theater piece. The instruments come in slowly, one or two at a time, starting about four minutes in, and by the 15-minute mark the entire nonet is in position and revving up the machine. It takes them about 20 more minutes to conjure a full-on Taylor sound-storm, though; before that, it has the feel of chamber music, punctuated by the occasional explosion from the drums. And it winds down again before the end, with various members of the ensemble uttering seemingly disconnected phrases, no more than one or two words, like sound poetry. It’s nearly 53 minutes in all, but never feels aimless or extended for the sake of going on; it’s one of the most fascinating, theatrical works Taylor ever performed. The second section of the performance runs roughly 23 minutes, and begins with solo piano. Eventually, other players come in and out, but only a few at a time, in different combinations than the duos that began Almeda (To Matie), and there are no vocals until the final minutes, when all instruments have been laid down. It’s as if the ensemble has given up and fallen into bedlam before wandering off.
Sometimes it could seem like Taylor steamrolled his collaborators, that their contributions to his marathon performances were supplemental or decorative at best. But these four November 1996 recordings show him in command of an ensemble where every member was there for a reason, and permitted to make individual statements as well as being part of a whole. Krall recalls that Taylor “didn’t want to hear anybody who sounded like anybody else. He wanted originality, and uniqueness in playing, and I understood that. This is what some people didn’t understand, and would be trying to sound like somebody else, thinking that Cecil would approve of that. But that’s not the way his mind really worked… I also had the advantage of being a student of Bill Dixon’s, and Bill and Cecil were very close from a sense of aesthetics, in what they wanted to share and what they wanted from musicians. They wanted originality, both of them, and Bill would stress that everyone must develop their own voice. So that’s what we did. That’s what I did. I was always conscious of that, or at least conscious of not being self-conscious about what I was doing, you know, or trying to sound like anybody else. We all do borrow from everybody, but the idea is to use it and make it into your own personal voice.”
“I’m very delighted to see that there’s actually recordings of those [shows] and I’ll spend some time and listen through and see if I recognize anything, but a lot of it was very much in the moment,” Jonas says. “There were a lot of special moments at those shows, and we had a really wonderful audience. I think there were about a thousand people and they were rapt.”
All four of these performances are available on Bandcamp.
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