went to philly last night to hear cecil taylor as part of the ars nova workshop's "seraphic light" tribute series marking what would have been the 80th birthday of john coltrane. (taylor and coltrane recorded together only once, with arguably mixed results.)
not yet the octagenarian like his one-time collaborator sam rivers, taylor did turn 77 this year. like rivers, he shows little signs of his age in performance, little sense that his energies or creativity are flagging. i first saw taylor five years ago, performing in duets with british percussion master tony oxley for the last two nights of a cecil taylor festival being sponsored by the johns hopkins university, and then two summers ago at downtown manhattan's castle clinton in a trio with drummer jackson krall and a bass player from boston whose name i still don't remember. so this was my first time seeing him solo. he played for about 75 minutes, the first piece lasting around 35 minutes and then four or so more each lasting around 10 minutes. known for his brilliant and fiery technique, taylor this time turned in as much if not more beautiful lyricism as lightning runs and furious pounding energy bursts.
the thing that struck me tho, and i think it has to do with watching a solo performance -- which is so much more demanding because it's all taylor and there is no foil or counterpart for him to play off of -- i feel like a little goes a long way. it's like reading gertrude stein: i know sometimes a few pages of her is all i can take and it can last me for months. how is one to approach this music? my thought was that one can either play taylor all the time and go about one's domestic business, almost have it as background music. or else one plays a single CD that is enough for months at a time. and in either case, what recording from his vast body of recorded output does one choose, and does it make that much of a difference? surely one can choose based on supporting musician, size of the group, etc.
then my thought was: has taylor ever played the same thing twice? or has he essentially been playing the same thing for the past (say, since his 1962 recording at the cafe monmartre in copenhagen with jimmy lyons and sunny murray) 40+ years? and aren't these essentially the same question, sort of like john ashbery's posed it famously in his prose poem "the new spirit," that including everything and leaving it all out are essentially the same thing? for the sake of argument let's just take his body of solo recordings: is it possible to speak of "development" in his taylor's work, such that a well-versed listener could identify a specific performance as coming from a specific point in taylor's career?
another thing: the arts programming director at the international house told us before the show that taylor was in the auditorium earlier in the day practicing, and getting a feel for the acoustics of the space, for five hours. and i wonder, what does taylor actually do to practice? would not a recording of his practice be just as valuable or rewarding for a listener as an officially released performance?