Master pianist and meta-musician-poet-dancer Cecil Taylor turns 83 today. I had the honor of writing a lengthy feature about him in 2001 for Jazziz, which I’ve appended below, as well as the transcripts of phone interviews that Andrew Cyrille and Tony Oxley graciously gave me towards this project.
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”The best preparation for playing with Cecil Taylor is to be fit and open your ears. Things happen that have nothing to do with strategy or even preparation. The joy is so much more immense if you prepare yourself to go where the music will take you, and not try and make it go where perhaps you want it or where you think it might go.” — Tony Oxley.
For three weeks in February, in a smallish basement performance space at the Turtle Bay Music School on Manhattan’s East 52nd Street, the meta-virtuoso pianist Cecil Taylor guided a hand-picked master class — the final iteration comprised 11 sax and woodwinds, one recorder, one trumpet, one bass trombone, six pianists, one guitar, two violins, two vibraphones, one bass, two trapset, one percussion, one voice, and includes a poet and a painter — through ten intense rehersals of ten of his compositions. Each musician paid $300 for the opportunity to observe how Taylor organizes material, how he chooses to express it, how he shapes it into strong images, how he makes the drama develop.
Around four o’clock on the final day, the orchestra was concluding their “dress rehearsal” with a spontaneous joyful roar. After a dinner break, they were to reassemble for a culminating, self-conducted public concert, to be followed by a Taylor performance with as-yet undetermined personnel. I sat in the pale light of the school’s foyer with Trudy Morse, Taylor’s confidante and frequent liaison to the outside world. A mother of six with 20 grandchildren, Morse is 82, six months removed from her third near-death experience and three months past major surgery, but her voice is clear, her diction precise, her grip firm, and her eyes probe you like a laser beam.
Shortly after the death of her husband in 1987, Morse traveled to Huddersfield, U.K., to attend an electronic music festival, where she witnessed a concert featuring pianists Roger Woodward — performing Ianis Xenakis’ “Herma,” “Evryali” and “Mists” — and Cecil Taylor. At the post-concert lecture-interview, she perceived amongst the gathered cognoscenti a tone of condescension towards Taylor as a “jazz artist.”
“This puzzled me,” she relates. “I stood up and apologized to the scholars, and asked them if they understood Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. One man responded, ‘What are you talking about?’ I said, ‘Well, Heisenberg said that the spectator actually controls the experiment. I would suggest to you that in music it’s the same. We bring something to this concert. That’s the way Cecil Taylor strikes me, although I don’t know him personally.’ Cecil Taylor suddenly looked at me and wondered who I was. I sat down. Later I noticed that he kept turning pages of music with very interesting notation. I said, ‘Mr. Taylor, I don’t mean to be too curious, but what kind of notation and whose works are these?’ From then on, it’s history. Cecil Taylor puzzled me enough that I accepted his invitation to tour with him. I’ve been touring ever since.”
Morse met Taylor a little more than a year after the death of his significant other in music, the alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, his collaborator and alterego since 1961. From 1964 to 1975, Lyons and the drummer Andrew Cyrille developed with Taylor a way of collectively improvising with furious lucidity off of shapes and structures at whirlwind velocities that picked up where the likes of Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker and Max Roach left off. Their investigations, documented in the pathbreaking recordings “Unit Structures” and “Conquistador,” inspired musicians around the world as a guidepost to the future.
Over the phone, Cyrille described their process: “As the years went by, after we began to play together consistently, Cecil would say, ‘This is our music.’ He meant ‘our’ inclusively, because we were all creating it from whatever we brought to the table. I’d say, ‘Is there anything you want me to play in particular?’ I think only twice during the eleven years I played with him did he ever say, ‘Play five beats of this’ or ‘give me three beats of that.’ We would rehearse, listen for hours upon hours, days at a time. It opened me up and allowed me to try things that I had never played before.
No matter how deeply Taylor, Lyons and Cyrille ascended to the outer partials of abstraction, their connection to the jazz lifeblood was implicit. After 1975, when Cyrille stopped playing full-time with Taylor, the pianist worked with a succession of drummers — Ronald Shannon Jackson, Jerome Cooper, Steve McCall — who postulated definite rhythmic ideas, bringing forth a certain tension between the personalities from the contrast, the opposition, the push-and-pull. After 1986, Lyons was no longer available to demonstrate instantaneously and authoritatively how his notes should be phrased, and Taylor — whose aversion to authority or canons or systems of any sort is legend — had to develop a sort of pedagogy by which he could concretely communicate his intentions and maximize the understanding of the other musicians.
During the ’80s Taylor began to crack open a Pandora’s Box of improvisational possibility in encounters with Max Roach, with AACM individualists like Henry Threadgill, Fred Hopkins, Roscoe Mitchell, Leroy Jenkins, and Thurman Barker, and with European outcats like Enrico Rava, Tomasz Stanko, John Tchicai and Peter Brotzmann. He increasingly incorporated his authoritative knowledge of Native American, African and Japanese ritual into his performances. Then festivals in Berlin and Amsterdam in 1986 and 1987 spurred him to focus more steadily on Europe not only as a welcoming theater for his music, but as a source of broadening improvisational nourishment.
Taylor’s inexorable forward march gained irreversible momentum during a June 1988 residency in Berlin that juxtaposed him with the creme de la creme of European free improvisers in a series of concerts documented on 13 CDs on FMP. There followed consequential [visits] in 1989, 1990 and 1991 that left a permanent mark on the European scene. During those years Taylor collaborated on several hundred occasions with the English drummer Tony Oxley, whose capacious tonal palette has inspired comparisons to an improvising Varese or Harry Partch. Taylor now employs in his various units such virtuosi from the European speculative improv community as drummer Paul Lovens, cellist Tristan Honsegger, and soprano saxophonist Harri Sjostrom. Recent encounters include improvised colloquies with Oxley, Derek Bailey, Barry Guy, and the American vibraphonist Joe Locke, three supreme duets with Max Roach, six with Elvin Jones, and a 1998 meeting with Andrew Cyrille.
“Cecil was very sharp,” Cyrille recalled. “We had a magical dialogue. This kind of music and improvising is a matter of very close listening and trading of information. It’s like a game. We put forth sounds, ideas, rhythms, melodic fragments that turn into much longer statements, and we surprise each other with replies and continue to evolve within the dialogue. It can be endless. And when we decide to resolve what’s happening, it’s as though we’ve finished a conversation. We’ve grown, matured, to some degree even mellowed. It’s always a struggle to create art. But the way the effort is put forth is so much smoother and nuanced. We’re so much more confident with the language than we were.”
The Turtle Bay project gestated prosaically. At a party in March 1999, Morse met the guitarist Bruce Eisenbeil, a faculty member. She inquired whether the school, which has neither a jazz nor an avant-garde tradition, would be interested in hosting such an event. Eisenbeil investigated. The answer was yes, providing Eisenbeil would organize it. Needing to recruit 20 participants to meet expenses, Eisenbeil sent a mass email announcement to several contact lists and a slew of websites, and received 40 responses.
The age range of the musicians who gathered for the first rehearsal was 12 to 60. Apart from a few Taylor veterans — violinist Ramsey Ameen (1978-1980) and Elliott Levin (a veteran of a 1973 Taylor workshop at Glassboro State University and of an octet that formed from a huge orchestra project at the Knitting Factory in 1995) — they had no idea what to expect from the maestro, a sylph-like man who retains the elastic musculature of a dancer one month shy of his 72nd birthday. Dressed for work in stocking feet, black stocking cap, gray sweatshirt tie-dyed orange on one side, pants dyed white-aquamarine on the left and pink-gray on the right, Taylor first asked each participant to take a one-minute solo. Speaking quietly, in calm, declarative sentences, he dictated a sequence of chords, then sang the line with a variety of attacks. “Whatever you play, play it so people who hear it can hear the magic,” he urged. “Try to remain connected; I want you to have control of each note you play.” The musicians separated into sections; Morse strolled from point to point bearing a pot of hot tea. With his brisk, precise dancer’s movements, Taylor glided to the trumpets and to the strings, imparted information, then sprang to the stage to recite another chordal sequence, seemingly conjured in instant response to what he was hearing, which he demonstrated with stunning precision on the piano.
“Play notes exactly/the way they are supposed/to be played,” he intoned, punctuating his words with well-timed vertical hand-chops. “I played you just a single line. Unless you play this extension chord, you have all sorts of possibilities within that sound.” After a break, Taylor read off another passage, fine-tuned each section with a total command of detail, then played the passage with his left hand and launched into seven or eight variations. Tenorist Moshe Ras spontaneously applauded, and embarked on a few minutes of spirit-catching through his horn.
Taylor concluded the session with a statement of purpose. “There will be time for solos,” he told the ensemble. “But we have to play so that everybody can get the information. Each of you has the right to say, ‘I would like to hear this part over again.’ Each section has its technical problem. What is the relationship of the note to the overall structure? I can show you where everything is connected, but I don’t want to be in the position of telling you how to play it. Where do you want to begin? How do you want to proceed?”
Over the course of the next nine rehearsals, several key themes emerged. During the second session Taylor distributed photocopies of his scores, giving the musicians a chance to look at how he thinks about tones. He divides the scores into small modules, which he calls quadrants. Each has specific rules, with cues and gestures as to how they can be played, and each fits with the others in some manner. He uses neither bar lines nor staves, but presents the notes as pictographically arranged hieroglyphs of letters, ascending from A to G and descending from G to A, with register and pitch indicated specifically according to the distance in whole steps from middle C. They look like the branches of a tree, abstract landscapes of plateaus and mountains and valleys, perhaps a graphic representation of a dance.
“The scores seem to be what I would call fields,” says Dan Marmorstein, a composer-pianist whose friendship with Taylor dates to 1985. “Each page might have a group of 12 to 20 sections of notes. Each section might notate a melody or group of melodies (sometimes repeats are specified), but it might also be suggestive of a certain collection of notes that can be treated as a scale or mode. Part of the fun is too discover the possibilities of combining these notes in different ways. Soometimes Cecil stacks sequences lines of tones, and you get a sequence of diads or triads or polyphonic chords. These areas of the score can be very dense, and once again, the player has to keep alert and on his toes and decide whether to deal with the vertical stacks and the horizontal lines as consecutive tones or as simultaneously voiced chords.
“The musicians are asked to breathe their own poetry into these melodies and shape them as they will according to their own library of experiences. This being said, Cecil will often play the line on the piano and expect that we will be capable of hearing that this is the way he wants it to sound. Sometimes you can hear it, but sometimes if he plays it with his own customary incessantly florid fluidity, it can be difficult to hear the bare skeleton; he’s asking us to sketch the daisy when he’s given us a daisy surrounded by roses and orchids and African violets. Cecil sometimes simply is playing a melody voiced in four octaves. Of course, when he does it, it sounds like he is playing single notes on the piano — with authority!”]
Taylor is able to process instantly all the possible permutations of each quadrant, and splice them together in endless combinations. But how are mere mortals to self-orchestrate? For example, how to navigate section-to-section transitions? Once he suggested: “Play it as many times as it is rhythmically of interest. Play dynamics. When it’s exhausted, that’s when it ends. I am only giving you suggestions.”
The essential issue facing the orchestra was how to sustain a dynamic level that kept them dancing in and out of the vortex, like a magician who enters the maelstrom of a column of fire and exits unscathed. Taylor incessantly emphasized the imperative, in Marmorstein’s words, “to play in such a way that they could leave room, make space, and listen to one another.” Early on, he offered a lyric sequence at the piano, then asked each section to repeat it. “Play it as soft as you can,” he told the saxophones. “Tenors, think of Ben Webster. Think of the breath. Whoo-oosh. It should float.” He distributed the next section, which began with a three-note sequence for the tenors followed by a three-note response by the strings, commenting, “This piece is rather rapid. After all, that was pastoral. This is FIRE.”
Attention to breath, the silence before the note, is crucial. As the ensemble worked through possible approaches to Section 10, Taylor gave a telling exhortation. “After each sound you’ve got do this” — he inhaled — “so that each component becomes very clear.” One sound is exploding out; the next time when you repeat it, it’s exploding in — in other words, it’s becoming softer. We want to separate each quadrant, so that it doesn’t become a blur. It’s the continuation of the piece.”
Occasionally Taylor would decline to demonstrate. To a saxophonist who asked him to phrase a sequence, Taylor responded, “No, I’ve done that. It’s an emotion; you didn’t just walk into the room.” But soon after, Taylor stated, “We’re going to change the mood,” and set up a rolling bass line reminiscent of Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy,” tossing it off on the left hand with flawless nonchalance. Another time Taylor sang a four-note sequence and asked the group to play it twice. “But I also want you to break up the rhythm,” he added. “These notes are divided into different rhythmic registers, and that could be the basis of a whole improvisational…” Rather than complete his sentence, Taylor demonstrated five or six variations at half-speed. “Anything is possible,” he said. “Let’s try it.”
By the day of the concert, Taylor had convinced the ensemble, now winnowed down to 30 members, that anything WAS possible.
Bruce Eisenbeil compared Taylor’s organic process of orchestrating, arranging and composing during the rehearsal, coping with the colors and timbres of every instrument in real time, to the way Duke Ellington would state a chord, play it on the piano, and begin assigning notes to specific members of the orchestra. “Cecil’s musical vocabulary speaks of what’s going on today,” Eisenbeil said. “His body of work is idiosyncratic to him, as the music of Ellington and Miles Davis is idiosyncratic to them. As well as Xenakis, or Bartok, or Stravinsky. Each has a unique sense of rhythm, full of life and urgency. When he told the saxophones, ‘I want the breath tone; I want Ben Webster’ — that’s calling on the continuum! That’s so key and central to what the jazz vocabulary is about. Older musicians relate how Dizzy Gillespie taught them to play the new language of bebop fifty years ago. This is what you get when you hang out with Cecil today.”
The ensemble’s cogent, flexible navigation through four Taylor constructs — the emotional landscape spanned signature Taylorian canned lightning bellows to achingly ruminative rubato elegies — showed in a way that the rehearsals could not foretell how deeply they internalized the maestro’s principles. They played like an organic unit, with restraint, dynamic nuance, and idiomatic articulation; the brainy soloists conjured an array of rhythmic attacks, playing with concision and structural variation, always with the overall narrative in mind.
Perhaps the most startling “piece” was “Ka-Kaba”, a 45-minute masterpiece of tension-and-release. Pianists Dan Marmorstein and Alex Tarampi stated the core melodic kernel, the horns and violins dialogued over a swelling ensemble tone that ascended to a joyful roar. Elliott Levin and alto saxophonist Aaron Ali Shaikh commenced a firebreathing passage which subsided, giving way to a delicate shakuhachi-like recorder solo. The band clapped and hollered the syllable HA!! over entexturing violins and percussion; from the churning sound emerged a voice-like bass trombone statement. The band roared the syllable SO!!, counterstated by flutes, vibraphone glisses, pizzicato violins, guitar sonics, sax-breaths, and synth tone-shapes — Levin’s solo brought the section to climax. Poet Ulla Dydo chanted a Gertrude Stein-inspired poem (“Better and most and yes and yes, Yes and yes and more and yes”) complemented by synth, guitar, drum scrapes and clarinet microtones. The roar swelled oceanically, was becalmed by precise pizzicato violins and pointillistic piano, then returned with a high-overtone horn ensemble interlude. Clarinetist Kevin Sullivan floated over synth nachtmusik, John Keith’s malleted tom-toms gently underpinned a lissome bassoon-piano-bass trombone conversation. Then Rosi Hertlein sang a piercing DRRAAA-HAAA; trumpeter Amir El Saffar answered the call. She cried A-HA-HAA; the horn section, breathing as one, found a tonal analogue. The full ensemble reiterated the original theme, decrescendoing until the recorder emerged from the depths to play free rubato melodies with the violins and guitar until nothing was left to say.
For another hour the ensemble conjured fire and air in equal measure over two more Taylor compositions; they left the stage to a well-earned ovation. Before they could bask in the afterglow, Taylor abruptly strode to the piano, cellist Tristan Honsegger and trapsetter Jackson Krall in tow, to begin a furious fanfare. Poet Naima Wade embarked on an impassioned recitative about slavery, miscegenation, and hegemony of the master race’s world view. Honsegger responded with the dagger-like syllables “mata, mata, matamatika!!”, creating long, startling shapes, playing with such intensity that his bow began to shred, yet hitting the notes and tones with the spot-on articulation of a virtuoso.
He inspired Taylor, who may possess more ways of extracting sound from 88 keys and 3 pedals than any pianist in the world. Playing as though his arms were attached to springs, he deployed an awesome lexicon of meticulously choreographed snatches, grabs, clutches, swoops, crawls, snips, clips, slides, thrusts, plucks, punches, slaps, thumb glisses, and elbow crashes, each movement honed to micron-precise specificity. As the poet referred to Billie Holiday. Sarah Vaughan and Duke Ellington, Taylor answered with blindingly complex right-hand passages, riposting with exquisitely executed left-hand flurries. Honsegger danced around the cello, Taylor laid down a stride figure, Honsegger stomped, chanted and bowed demonically and consonantly with his decomposing wand. The poet sat. Honsegger took a dark solo that turned into a Bartokian stomp, answered by more Taylorian variations, left hand completing long, ascending runs begun by the right. Krall dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s.
There was more. The unit evoked rainfall, the forest, the sounds of creatures large and small. They wound down with a collective rubato triologue, Honsegger miraculously conjuring music with his all but disintegrated bow, Taylor’s head cocked to the right, his vigilant left ear attuned to sounds that he might alchemize so as to extend this iteration of his singular ritual.
Indeed, Taylor evoked the mythic half-man, half-dragon persona of Keqrops, the Egyptian who founded Athens in 1600 B.C., whose name titled a composition that Xenakis wrote for Roger Woodward some years after the Taylor-Woodward concert in Huddersfield that Trudy Morse attended in 1987. We thought of Tony Oxley’s delirious encomium, “To play with Cecil Taylor, you need the stamina of an athlete and the imagination of a God!”
“There was a lot of intensive work during my three years with Cecil,” Ramsey Ameen had stated midway through the rehearsals. “Now, twenty years later, I see a purification. Cecil has cleared a path to reach the basic elements of music that go beyond all elements of style, that go to human expression. Anything extraneous to that is irrelevant. He’s talking about sound, volume levels, what the ensemble should play very precisely, what they should not play too stiffly, and so on. I keep thinking I have to go back and read again the Herman Hesse book, Magister Ludi (The Music Master), a person who is constantly deepening into this state of musical grace.”
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Andrew Cyrille on Cecil (3-16-01):
TP: Do you perceive any change in the way Cecil approaches music since Jimmy Lyons passed away, conceptually or emotionally or in his inclusiveness of other vocabularies?
CYRILLE: I don’t know whether it’s changed really in terms of how he prepares. When I played with him two or three years ago… It must have been ’99 I did that concert in Berlin which was a live recording in Berlin.. We rehearsed, and it was an open kind of improvisation. I remember years ago… He probably still does this. I haven’t worked with him since. He would give out notes. The last time I saw him giving out notes before a concert we did was in Austria probably in 1987 in Nickelsdorf. He gave notes out to John Carter, Leroy Jenkins and Roberto Miranda, then later on in the evening we got together and performed the music he had given out. The last time, Tristan Honsegger was the cellist and a bassist from Curacao whose name I can’t remember. He lives in Holland. Anyway, we had a rehearsal, but the rehearsal was based on how we listened to each other and how we would feed each with the music that we made on the spur of the moment. We rehearsed for hours, I remember, that night. Then the next day, when we got a good idea of what each other did or could do, then we went ahead and did the concert.
I can say this much. I think that Cecil was very-very sharp. His technique had just gotten much better. He was much more comfortable. He listened. I remember he and I on occasion, when maybe the other two would lay out in a performance, we just had this dialogue, and we were having a great deal of fun. It was magical in terms of what was going on. Because what happens with us and that kind of music and improvisation, it’s really a matter of very close listening and trading of information. It’s like a conversation. It’s almost like a game, so to speak, where certain things are put forth — certain sounds, certain ideas, certain rhythms, certain kinds of melodic fragments that turn into much longer statements. It’s how we surprise each other with replies and the ability to continue to evolve within that kind of dialogue. If anybody is listens closely, they can hear the creativity, the way that we spontaneously play and listen and create this music. It’s just endless. It can be endless. And when we decide to resolve what’s happening, we just go ahead and resolve it as though we’ve finished saying something to each other in some kind of conversational story. There are so many parallels that can be thought about. It’s almost like a dance sometimes, where we can be inclined(?) with each other, and just move along and glide so easily.
But in order to do that, you’ve got to be on top of your game with your technique, what you want to do, and the other person has to be on top of their own technique. But it’s a matter of being able to listen and to hear and to create with what’s being delivered.
TP: Earlier you said that Cecil’s technique has become even better and sharper. One thing I noticed at this workshop was how many methods he has of eliciting sounds from the piano, the mechanics of how he does. I found the following verbs to describe what he does with his arms and hands: snatches, hammers, fences, flutters, clips, grabs, clutches, swoops, crawls, snips, slides, scrapes, thumb glisses, clusters, slaps, punches, plucks, spooling notes even…
CYRILLE: That’s right.
TP: All of those things, and all calibrated to micronic degrees of specificity. Was he that specific in eliciting sound production 30 years ago, or was it a different quality?
CYRILLE: No, it was the same. We were all in a sense, moving in the same direction that way. But I’d say we’ve gotten better at doing it. The older you get, as is said, the wiser you’re supposed to be. I know I’ve accumulated more information and I’ve been able to deliver more information in a wider variety of ways. I know more about drumming now. I feel more comfortable about drumming and what I did over the years than I did 20 or 30 years ago. And the beautiful part of it is that I’m not finished. I’m still learning and still evolving.
You made a very good analogy with the term fencing. It was like, “Hey, we’re crossing the floor, and you back up and you thrust it forward, and sometimes you touch somebody and sometimes they touch you, and sometimes you knock the blow away, etc. So all that can be considered sports-like or dance-like or maybe like a card game. But it was just delightful!
TP: Could I paraphrase that both you and Cecil have become more subtle players, more nuanced over the years?
CYRILLE: I would say yes. Because we’ve grown. We’ve matured to some degree; to some degree even mellowed. It’s always a struggle to be able to create art. There’s always a certain amount of effort that one has to put forth. But the way that the effort is put forth is so much smoother. And as you say, nuance. Yes. Listening to Akisakila, which we did in 1971, if I were to do it again, it would be so much different. That was formidable, but now there’s so many other things happening. We’re so much more confident with the language.
TP: Did Cecil use the notation he uses now when you first met him? Can you comment on how it evolved?
CYRILLE: He uses the same method. But for this particular concert, he did not give out any notes.
TP: The way he presented the notes to the people in the group, they looked almost like graphic renderings of a dance. They were like pictograms. Is that the type of notation he was using 35 years ago?
CYRILLE: Yes. See, he gives out notes, and he has his own particular way of drawing the lines. They may move in a number of different directions, going up, going down, for instance going straight-up vertically, on the other axis going horizontal… They’re like branches, in a sense. This is how his compositions look. So when he gives those notes out to the other instrumentalists, he will tell them whether they will be higher or lower or in the same register. Then the individuals write down the notes that he’s giving, and they play the notes. Interestingly enough, sometimes there may be unisons and then sometimes there are contrasting rhythmical lines, and sometimes the rhythmical lines are created by the players themselves with the notes. See, sometimes he doesn’t necessarily give the rhythms. He lets them decide their own rhythm with the notes that he gives.
TP: Can you give me the short version of the story of how you first linked up?
CYRILLE: It was so coincidental. It was Ted Curson, with whom I went to a rehearsal he was having with Cecil at a school called Hartnett-New York. This might have been ’57. I was living in Brooklyn, and that same day I was rehearsing with another pianist named Leslie Braithwaite. Ted and Harold Ousley heard the music from the street and came to investigate, and Leslie and I were about to wind down our playing for that afternoon, and Ted said he had to go to Manhattan to play with this piano player named Cecil Taylor. He told me, “You’ve never heard anybody play piano like this guy; come over and check him out.” So I went with him, and walked into the studio where Cecil was, and he was sitting down at the piano just playing. Ted said, “This is Andrew Cyrille,” and Cecil looked up and said, “Hi, how are you doing?” and Ted asked him if I could play. He said, “Yeah.” So I sat down and started playing. And to some degree, more or less, it’s like what we do now. It’s kind of like what we did at the concert in Berlin. It’s just that now I know, to some degree, what’s happening in terms of how he plays and how I would play with him. When I first met him, it was a thing whereby you play and you wonder what is it that he would want. Do I play the rhythms the way that I play with other people? I guess that is part of it. But nothing was said, except for the fact that we played with each other and it was something that we wound up exploring.
After that rehearsal, I knew a place up in Harlem… School closed, and I knew this club on Amsterdam Avenue that used to have jam sessions and was a place that had a piano trio with a guy named Cecil Young at night… I knew the bartender because I had gone there several times for sessions. Cecil and I went up, I asked the guy if we could play, and he said, “Yeah.” This was late afternoon. I had a snare drum. Cecil sat down at the piano and started playing, and I started playing with him.
That’s more or less how we met. There was never any tension or conflict or, “Man, I don’t know what you’re doing.” I was listening to him, trying to do what I could with what I heard him play, and I’m sure vice-versa.
As the years went by, after we had begun to play together on a consistent basis, he would say, “This is our music.” And he meant “our” inclusively, in terms of me and Jimmy and whomever else was playing, because we were all creating the music at that particular moment. So whatever we brought to the table was ours. And putting it together, we got this whole. Yes, of course, he gave us direction so far as allowing us to do what we wanted to do within the context of the concept. We would rehearse with each other, we would listen, rehearse, listen, rehearse. We did a lot of that, days, hours upon hours, within that period of time.
TP: Was it improvising or was he giving notes?
CYRILLE: He was giving notes for the players who played those kind of diatonic notes. But he never really told me to play anything.
TP: How did it change your conception?
CYRILLE: It opened me up.. It allowed me to try to play things that I had never played before, some new things. When we had these rehearsals, in order to make sure that I’d play the same rhythms when he called a particular piece, I’d memorize what I played. Those things, in a way, became how the heads were made. It made me feel as though I was really responsible for whether or not this thing came off in terms of what I was adding as a drummer. I’d say, “Is there anything you want me to play in particular?” And I think only twice during the eleven years I played with him did he ever say, “Do this” or “Play five beats of this or give three beats of that” or whatever. He’d say, “Man, you know what drummers do. You’re the drummer. You know how to play drums.”
So it was incumbent upon me to make sure that my integrity was as true-blue as Baby Dodds or Zutty Singleton! Because this was what was going on in my head. I did not want to do anything to the tradition and the memory of those guys, and the people whom I learned from, listening to Max and Art and Philly Joe Jones, because it could be said that it wasn’t genuine, that it wasn’t blue-blood so to speak. So I worked on that stuff, man! I got my information together, and I brought my information to the table. “Hey, man, look what I found now. Check this out! I worked on this.” That was on every aspect of the drumset, with the independent coordination, the foot-play, the dropping of the bombs, being tasty, playing in the spaces, accompanying, the way that the other members of the rhythm would accompany horn players…. But it was my own sense of how to do it. It wouldn’t necessarily be the same kind of rhythms that they would play or the way that they would parse the rhythms or how they would organize the rhythms, etc. But then again, it was! It was the same but it was different. Because I played the same kind of drumset as most of those guys, and on occasion I’d play all kinds of percussion instruments, too. It’s like when we did that recording, “Niggle Feugle,” for BYG.
TP: When we did the Blindfold Test, you made a comment about Cecil with Tony Oxley which was very interesting. When you play with Cecil, when Max Roach plays with Cecil, when Elvin plays with Cecil, you postulate very specific rhythmic ideas, there’s a counter-dialogue. Another approach, which Sonny Murray did and Jackson Krall and Tony Oxley, is “matching color textures with Cecil’s panorama of sound colors and textures and dynamics rather than playing his own contrasting rhythm,” so there isn’t so much push-and-pull, but it’s more a unison or a synthesis. Jackson Krall referred to it similarly. Did your approach change a great deal once you were performing constantly with him? Was there a difference between the rehearsal and the performance?
CYRILLE: No. It’s just that sometimes during the rehearsals, we would play some stuff that I wish would have been played during the performance. Because it’s improvisation. So sometimes certain things come to mind that are really gems, etc.. And a lot of times, what also has to be taken into consideration is the way you feel, the sound of the room, where the musicians are located in relationship to each other; in other words, where Honsegger was sitting, where this bass player was standing, where Cecil was, where I was…
TP: Honsegger is something else.
CYRILLE: Yes, Tristan is an excellent player. But I heard Cecil a few years back when he did a solo in Paris, and at the same time the segue to the concert with a group he had that was Honsegger, Harri Sjostrom and Paul Lovens playing drums. But the solo concert he played was just so magical! I mean, he just played, and his command of what he was doing… It was almost like a laser beam! He’d focus on something and he’d go after it and he get it! It was so pliable! And the place was packed, SRO, and it was in France. The people were just enthralled with what he was doing, and then he danced in conjunction and spoke his words, etc.
What I’m saying is that years ago the ideas were there, and we went ahead and did what we wanted to do. But as the years evolved… It’s like you’re cooking something, and you learn over the years how to make this thing come out and taste a certain way. It’s like he was the master chef now. You can put some stuff on the stove and say you’re going to experiment with this and sometimes it comes out beautifully and sometimes not so well and sometimes it’s a bomb. But on this particular night, it was like he was the master chef, he knew just the exact ingredients to put into the food to make it come out being sumptuous.
TP: Ramsey Ameen made the comment that when he was with Cecil, Cecil didn’t say much during the rehearsals. He said he thought one reason why is because whenever the ensemble needed to know how to phrase a section, Jimmy Lyons would just play it, which would give everyone their cue.
TP: The implication might be, again, that absent Jimmy Lyons, Cecil had to become more inclusive.
CYRILLE: That’s just what I was saying before in terms of a strong rhythmical player playing the certain notes. When you say “phrasing,” what is phrasing? It’s just make a rhythm out of what you have. Jimmy Lyons was a master at doing that, because he and Cecil played together in combination longer than any other individuals. He was with Cecil for 25 years. That’s double the time I played with Cecil on a consistent basis.
It’s so good. It feels so good. Like, if I have to sit down and do something with a big band, whether it be Muhal or John Carter or Murray doing Ellington’s music, you know there are certain things you can do in order to bring the music to the level that it should be. A certain amount of risk is always involved, but you mature and you bring the weight of that maturity with you. So if I want to play “Northern Lights,” I do the rhythm with a certain amount of conviction. It’s not that I’m timidly doing it because I wonder whether this is the right thing to do. I’m doing it because I know this is the right thing to do! So it’s the same parallel when I play with somebody like Cecil. Hey, this is what we’re going to do right now, this is what I’m going to do…
The thing that Cecil also appreciates, which is also why he doesn’t say anything, is because he wants your talent to come forth to inspire him. And when that happens, that’s when you have this beautiful dialogue where there’s laughter and all these elements of surprise that come up. It makes you want to continue doing what you’re doing, because it’s evolving on such a high creative artistic level. And you just don’t want to stop. It’s fantastic what’s happening at the spur of the moment. I heard that happen with Max to some degree when he played with Max at Macmillan Hall in 1979. I haven’t heard him play with Max in duet again since. And I haven’t heard him play with Elvin. But all I’m saying is that you have these two giants of the drum coming with all of their artillery, the full weight…the bag of all the stuff, and knowing what’s in that bag and knowing what they can use, and they selectively use whatever they feel is apropos. I feel the same way at this point. And as far as I’m concerned, hey, let’s do some more.
TP: How do you assess Cecil’s stature both in the music’s timeline and vis-a-vis people you’ve worked with, like John Carter or Muhal or Anthony Davis?
CYRILLE: These people feel as though he is definitely a seminal figure. He helped change the direction of this music. Before Cecil, there were certain things that were not happening. The expanse of the compositional arrangement… In other, it’s not like AABA (though that’s still a viable form, and people use it in many ways). But the music moves in so many different directions which aren’t necessarily limited by a prescribed traditional way of playing. The way, again, he would give out notes and expect people to bring whatever it is that they did to the table. This is where the weight of the sound, the creativity of his different bands, comes out. Because he is giving these people the chance to play what they play juxtaposed to what he plays. Like all those records for FMP with Bennink… He absorbs all of that, and they absorb him, and they juxtapose what they do in relationship. Now, you can’t find a whole lot of people who would allow all of that on their bandstands and that they would want to deal with. Then again, you have so many people now who say, “Well, this is the way it goes. I can do this. I can play duets with anybody.” And that’s with anybody on the planet. A man like Cecil has broadened the palette of technical possibilities — I’m talking about ways of doing things — that was not necessarily available outside of a certain kind of structural way that music had been made or had been produced before. Another way of manufacturing it.
TP: The people who played in this master class all paid 300 bucks, and everyone could play. Some were more adept improvisers than others, but everyone had command of the instrument. Jackson Krall said he thought that they had a certain focus he hadn’t seen in similar ensembles because they had paid money, and people left their egos at the door, so to speak. But when I spoke with them how the experience of working with Cecil matched their preconception of who he was, a couple of them were coming at him from a jazz perspective, and seeing him as kind of the apotheosis of the jazz timeline, and others were fascinated with his relationship with European classical music and 20th Century music. Do you see him as having achieved a sort of ultimate cultural synthesis.
CYRILLE: I don’t know if I’d use the word “ultimate.” But he’s found a place where he feels comfortable with what he has acquired and learned over the years from both cultures, the African and the European put together in the African-American in this country. There are other parts of Cecil which he doesn’t talk about too often, but on occasion he will mention his Indian roots. I’m talking about Native American. A lot of what he feels and thinks comes out of that cultural perspective also. Maybe somebody should ask him how much does he feel very close to this that he brings to the surface. You talk about being integrated and being a true American. It’s embodied in person like that — and many others also. When you talk about the synthesis of Europeans and Africans and African-Americans in how all this stuff comes together… All jazz musicians play European music, or most of us do in some way-shape-or-form. We get information from that area also. Africans don’t play the same kinds of chords that Europeans brought to the table of humanity. They don’t play XIII chords and flat IXs and sharp XIs and all that sort of stuff. That’s not in their vocabulary. It may come out incidental, but there’s nothing in their vocabulary that says that, okay, now we’re going to play this kind of chord and use this kind of color or voice it like… All that stuff comes out of Europe.
The thing that the African-American does is bring a feeling. The Europeans might make the clothes, but hey, we’re going to put it on and style it the way that we want. We’re going to make it ours with what it is that you put on the table. And it could be because maybe there’s nothing else available. But we’re going to do it this way. Then of course, there are other ways of manufacture of clothing by people from Africa, like the robes, free-flowing kinds of dress where you can have air that passes through because it might be a hot, arid place or whatever. As far as I’m concerned, all of it is valid, because all of it is valid in terms of giving life to human beings in the place where they live — to stay alive! So one can’t be more important than another. You wouldn’t wear the same kind of clothes in Northern Europe that you would wear in Sub-Saharan Africa. The same thing comes about more or less with the music.
All this makes me feel better about myself. As you ask me these questions and I try to give you some good, qualified answers, it lets me know t some degree that I’m not crazy. I have more students now than I have ever had who are coming to me, asking me about playing free. So there has to be a certain kind of qualification and certain parameters.
TP: I guess the paradox of the notion of musical freedom is the incredible discipline you have to have internalized to be able to do it.
CYRILLE: That’s right. There is nothing free. Not really. Number one, you’re confined by the properties of the instrument you play. But the reward comes out of finding things in that instrument that bring you to other places. You say, “Wow, I can do this with the instrument.” You listen to how you brought forth something you weren’t aware of that you can do with the instrument. That’s the beauty of it. That’s the beauty of the creativity and the evolution. Which certain kinds of methods don’t particularly allow you to do. But within the forms of those methods, you can find certain elements that are magical also. But you can go beyond that, too. So for me, that has been the contribution of a person like Cecil Taylor. I think it’s fantastic.
* * *
Tony Oxley (on Cecil Taylor) – (3-20-01):
TP: I am interested in what CT has indicated is an aesthetic and personal evolution in the last fifteen years, and it may be that your tonal personality is the one he feels the most affinity towards. So first: What was your first exposure to Cecil’s music?
OXLEY: It was in the ’60s, of course, with the legendary records Conquistador and Unit Structures. Of course, I heard something before that. I think it was from Denmark. I remember that showing up in the ’60s as well. But I think you’ll appreciate that living in Britain at that time, it was not easy to get this music. In fact, there were various people who worked on the Queen Mary who used to actually smuggle it back from New York — as well as equipment, American drums, Gretsch and stuff like that, which you couldn’t get here.
TP: People in the ship bands?
OXLEY: Yes. So a lot of this early culture and contributions of Cecil… I mean, it would have wonderful to be able hear…. On the few occasions he was working in those days, it would have been wonderful to be able to hear this live. but the real impact for me was Conquistador and Unit Structures.
TP: You became interested in speculative improvising at an early period, before those records came out. How did hearing that, if at all, affect the course of how you approach the drums and spontaneous composition?
OXLEY: Well, I found it very refreshing, very optimistic. For me personally… I can tell you that the people who were interested in that music in Britain who I knew used to use it as their standard-bearer, if you like. If they were trying to inform anyone to what was happening in New York with Cecil’s music, those two records would be the thing they would be talking about. Of course, people were starting to tape this stuff and send it to each other, because you could only get very few records. So the impact of it for me… It was an alternative, you see, that was not exploited over here in Europe. That really comes out of what went on before in New York, a continuation in some ways. Very surprising. For me, very different to Ornette Coleman, which was a bit more predictable, in a way. The rhythmic elements in Cecil’s work had a lot more possibilities, in my opinion. Ornette’s approach had quite a traditional rhythm moving behind it. It was well-commented-on. It was noticed over here. But Cecil seemed to give the space in every direction for what seemed to be the right thing to do at the time, and the right way to go, and how to respond to the way he was working. So I think there was a lot more openness in the rhythmic side of the music to match the harmonic side.
TP: When you’re referring to the music as a continuation of what went on before, are you referring to Cecil’s immersion in Bud Powell and the jazz tradition, or are you talking about the early roots of jazz music in the U.S.?
OXLEY: I don’t know if he comes out of Bud Powell in a direct line. I wouldn’t like to speculate about that. But I do know how much of an admirer of Thelonious Monk Cecil is. And there might have been some kind of connection between what he does and Thelonious Monk. Now, of course, that might seem ridiculous on first hearing — kind of the opposite. But influence works in many ways, and it does not work in imitating, in my view. The philosophy is the thing you learn from, not the imitation. I would hesitate to recommend anyone imitating. But that’s another question.
TP: If I may go on a tangent, who are the drummers whose aesthetic philosophy you assimilated when you were developing?
OXLEY: Of course, the big band era was very prominent when I was growing up. So consequently, the big band drummers were very prominent in the public eye. But for the more discriminating jazz listener who would be brave enough to look for small groups (because big bands really dominated the scene), I would have to say that, first of all, Art Blakey, and then Elvin Jones, and then Milford Graves in those plays were very influential in showing the real issues in American jazz music.
TP: The real issues?
OXLEY: Well ,the reality, if you like. What was important and how to do it. How they do it. Because they were all different. Roy Haynes was another very interesting player in my development for years. Of course, we’re always developing. We never really stop, I suppose.
TP: Was your development entirely through listening to records, or were you ever able to witness any of these people in Britain?
OXLEY: I did actually. Because Norman Granz used to send shows with four or five bands in them around Europe, and fortunately, they showed up in Sheffield, where I lived. So I was able to hear Monk and Blakey live during that period of time. But it wasn’t very easy to anticipate what might be coming, because you’d have Ella Fitzgerald on the bill, then Monk or Blakey…a variety of music. But never Cecil Taylor.
TP: But also in the ’60s, around the time Conquistador comes out, you’re the house drummer at Ronnie Scott’s.
OXLEY: That was in ’66. But in ’61 and ’62 and ’63, I did take some work, deputizing for the regular bands on the Queen Mary, and that meant three trips a year because there were three bands that needed to be deputized for. Of course, on those trips, with the 36-hour turnaround in New York, that 36 hours was consumed entirely by chasing around, looking for the best music we could find. So as a kind of pattern of activity, I would say to you that it would start in the late afternoon at the Metropole, listening to the Woody Herman Big Band. The Metropole was just one long bar; the band was all strung out along one line, like washing. There were mirrors on the opposite wall so they could see each other through the mirrors. And people stood at the bar, so that meant you’d two yards away from the trumpet section. That was unbelievable! Lift you off your feet. Then we’d move on to Birdland to hear Blakey. Then we’d move on to the Vanguard and hear Bill Evans or Miles Davis. Then we’d move to the Five Spot to hear the legendary quartet with Thelonious Monk. So doing that three times a year, hoping that they would be there… It wasn’t always Blakey at Birdland when we happened to be in town. But at the best times we had, it was such a ritual as that. And that was ’61-’62-’63, so quite early in my active professional life I was able to be exposed to some of the realities of New York at that time.
TP: And I guess you were able to bring that sensibility back to what you were doing in England.
OXLEY: Well, it couldn’t be ignored, could it. It was a very dramatic experience for me, I must confess.
TP: So in the ’60s you were able to function as both a straight-ahead, timekeeping drummer and as somebody interested in a more open-ended form of pulse and texture with the kit.
OXLEY: Well, at the same time, I was very interested… In ’62-’63 I was starting to work with Derek Bailey and Gavin Bryars. I’d previously been playing diatonically Classical music, i.e., Beethoven, Mozart, Prokofiev, Haydn, this kind of area. I was in the Army, and this was the kind of thing we used to be doing…heh-heh, apart from other things. Of course, when I came out of the Army, I continued my interest in what’s called Classical music, European Classical music. So that interest transferred itself to 12-tone music. So during this time, around ’63, I became very aware of Schoenberg and Anton Webern, and of course, that led to John Cage eventually. So this was happening at the same time as hearing the developments in improvised music, i.e., Cecil Taylor-Bill Dixon, and my interest was continuing to develop in what’s called Classical music, only the second Viennese School. So there were a lot of influences going on with me at that time. And I was very hungry as well to hear it. I suppose that might answer your question.
TP: Between then and when you wind up playing with Cecil, it’s another two decades. When were you first actually able to witness a performance by him?
OXLEY: It would be in the ’70s at Ronnie Scott’s. There was a production for a week at Ronnie Scott’s, and Cecil was included on the program with Sam Rivers, Jimmy Lyons and Andrew Cyrille.
TP: The Fondation Maeght recordings are from ’69.
OXLEY: It could have been. The date I don’t know. But it was in that area, and there was a whole week of television from Ronnie Scott’s, and Cecil was the program with that quartet. I think I’ve got a recording of it somewhere!
TP: What was your impression?
OXLEY: Well, I was more worried about how Cecil was going to find the piano. Because the kinds of pianos that he needs…really they have to be in very good condition. This has nothing other to do than that the way he approaches the music, the instrument has got to be in good shape. And I wasn’t so sure about the piano at Ronnie Scott’s holding up! We’re talking about the late ’60s now. But from the musical point of view, of course, I was very happy to be there and hear what waas happening. I remember speaking to Cecil, but of course he wouldn’t remember that. Many people were saying “hello” and “how’s things” and how’s… I remember asking him how was the piano.
So it was the ’70s when I first heard him live. Then I don’t remember him coming to Britain… .The impact of playing with him in 1988 kind of obliterated any preconceptions I might have had about what the music that he might be playing… It was such an impact, that all my concentrations went onto that and not so much an historical view.
TP: So in other words, it erased anything but the immediate moment of getting sound out.
OXLEY: Absolutely. I felt I needed all my concentration and effort, and to try to put out of my head anything that I’d heard him do with other people on record. And the only records I had were those two that I mentioned. I tried to put that out of my head in order to approach it with a cleaner palette.
TP: Does playing with him demand new strategies and approaches on your instrument?
OXLEY: The music speaks for itself, you know. When you’re playing with Cecil Taylor, there is only one Cecil Taylor. And when you become involved in the music, things happen that have nothing to do with strategy or even preparation. The best preparation I’d say is be fit and open your ears!
TP: I’ve heard you quoted that you have to have the stamina of an athlete…
OXLEY: …and the imagination of God! [LAUGHS] You can quote that, if you like. Well, it’s just to give a sincere answer to a kind of general question, ,to bring it into some kind of perspective. I think just recently, when we played in the Tonic, I think the power of his work and the power of his imagination was evident. I thought it was best in ’88 anyway to try to approach it as prepared and unprepared as possible. Let’s put it that way. It’s a contradiction, but…
TP: Over the years have you sustained that strategy of no-strategy? Do you go into each performance with him with that blank slate?
OXLEY: Well, I am fortunate, because I love to play with Cecil Taylor and I love to be with him — and so does my wife. We actually are always together when we are with Cecil.
The joy…and believe me, that word is very, very important when I have to describe the experience of playing with Cecil… The joy is so much more immense if you prepare yourself to go where the music will take you, and not try and make the music go where you want it perhaps, or think it might go. With Cecil you don’t have to have any of those worries. There is always something happening. So you can relax and have this experience of working… He has his language. I have my language. And we think, I hope…at least I think that the compatibility is quite special. That is one of the most important aspects to remember when you’re either listening or thinking about his music. That’s about the best way I can describe it.
TP: Can you discuss your philosophy of playing this music? Do you have a philosophy of playing with Cecil Taylor?
OXLEY: No. As I say I don’t have a plan. I think by whatever grace, whether it’s the grace of God or the grace of whoever, we actually came to the point where we play together. Now, before that, I don’t know if he had heard me. I doubt it. So I don’t think there’s any answers to this question in that direction.
But I will say to you that when I was growing up, leaving school, I was a steelworker in Sheffield, and I think that that environment, which I paid close attention to, not only listening, but physically it wasn’t, shall we say, something you wanted to jump out of bed to do every morning…but anyway, it had to be done… The sounds and the rhythms of that kind of environment, I’m pretty sure, had more influence on me than I have ever appreciated, and I am starting to think now that maybe that has quite a significant role to play in the way I work with percussion. For the rest of it, we’ll wait for the book! [LAUGHS]
TP: Some of your interactions with Cecil are totally improvised and some would involve his notation, I imagine, with the larger ensemble perhaps.
OXLEY: Not very often.
TP: So you’re the wrong person to talk to about his notation..
OXLEY: Of course, I’ve been quite close to Cecil since ’88, and I’ve seen him in situations with ensembles. But to put it on a basic level, it would rather depend on the ensemble. If people come along and they’re well aware of Cecil… Why would they be up there, I suppose, if they weren’t? But if they come along with the right attitude and they want to be there…
TP: Trudy Morse said that one reasons she’s very proactive in instigating these workshops is because she wants to introduce as many musicians as possible to Cecil’s notation. And having seen a number of the sheets he was passing out, they’re graceful, poetic, dancelike…
OXLEY: You’re talking about this last project, and of course it would be difficult for me to comment about that because I wasn’t there.
TP: But there were people who had participated in projects of his from 1970 and 1973 who said that the notation was similar. I thought you’d be interesting to ask about it because of your immersion in modernist classical music?
OXLEY: It would be easier to talk to Cecil about that. Have you tried to approach him about that question? [ETC.] Cecil is one of the most generous, sensitive people I know. But it has to be respected that he also needs time to himself and he also has his way of dealing with a situation. He works at his own pace. But believe me, at the risk of repetition, he is one of the most generous and sensitive people I have ever had the privilege of working with and playing with. So it’s nothing other than having to catch him at the right time. Between you and me, when I’m ringing him, which is reasonably often, I can ring three or four times and not even get him on the phone, and the machine comes on, and I’ll leave him a message. He has his own way of working, and that I respect 100 percent because he gives me the same freedom also. If I’m not there, I’m not there.
TP: Let me ask you one more question that I raised in the fax. You addressed Cecil’s impact on the community of European improvisers in the ’60s. I’m wondering how his intense interaction with that community in the last 15 years has affected the music in Europe.
OXLEY: You mean personally or musically?
TP: Both perhaps.
OXLEY: It’s hard for me to speak for other people. But of course, I am aware of the people who have worked with him over here in various things, particularly in that production for FMP, the box, which accounts for quite a few people. I know quite a lot of them, and I know that the impact was quite surprising. There are different drummers in the duets who show different ways of approaching the music.
TP: More generally, can you describe the impact he’s had on the community?
OXLEY: Different people have different views on it, as far as I can gather, and I would only be prepared to speak for myself on that. Because people change their views. And the views that I heard in ’88 would probably be very different now.
TP: Without quoting anyone, can you tell me what views you heard in ’88?
OXLEY: This time he spent in Berlin I think left a mark in history that will never be erased, in my view. I think that’s about as much as I can say there. Musically, it was absolutely phenomenal. And after we finished…there were gigs being prepared even before he went there.
TP: I looked at the website. I counted 24 different gigs. Not individual dates, but gigs of varying length between 1988 and 1991.
OXLEY: Well, that’s only half of them that we did. There’s a 10-CD production coming out from London which I expect will be called “The London Trios.” If you think about that, that’s ten CDs, and go back to the box and also go back to the productions Jost Gebers made outside of the box, which I think there are 7 CDs that I’m on… If you look at that amount of work and that amount of playing, it’s quite a phenomenal achievement, when you think about it.
TP: You used to use an enormous…
OXLEY: A cowbell.
TP: Well, not just a cowbell. Your drumset incorporated things that normally wouldn’t be found. Do you still have such an expansive tonal palette in your drumkit, or have you pared it down?
OXLEY: Well, I’ve cut it down, but not from when you heard it in Sweet Basil. I cut it down from the late ’60s when I had electronics as well. I actually devised a system of having live electronics with the kit, which there are some records around. Pity you don’t know them.. But it’s an interesting way of working, and I found it great. I worked with that until about ’78 or ’80. If you’ve got February Papers… Some of Howard Riley’s recordings; I played the electronic stuff with his trio. But anyway, around ’80 I gave up the electronics, and went back to playing acoustic entirely, and that’s the kit I used at Sweet Basil. More or less. You change a few things here and there, bring a few different things in. If you have a sound you want to reproduce, then you have to find a way of doing it. If you have to make something, then you make it and then, of course, you add it to your language.
* * * *
Dan Marmorstein on Cecil Taylor (3-29-01):
TP: A little of your personal history with Cecil. Where did you first meet? How did you become involved with his music?
MARMORSTEIN: I first read about what Cecil was doing in the Leroi Jones book called “Black Music.” I was largely living on the West Coast then when I was about 14 years old, so for me to read about this phenomenon of this kind of inferno of musical activity that was taking place largely on the East Coast fit in with my mindset, which was that nothing was really happening out there in the suburban West Coast, and I was looking for some kind of sanctum-sanctorum of energy and consciousness, which seemed to be being described in Jones’ book. I went and got the records. I guess the first record I got was Looking Ahead, which is still one of my absolute favorite records made by anybody at any time.
TP: Were you playing piano at this time?
MARMORSTEIN: Well, I’ve always played around on the piano, and I’ve always been involved with the piano enough to feel comfortable on it, but never enough to really call myself a pianist. That’s still largely the situation. So my approach to all this stuff is as a composer. I’ve basically taken the piano thing and written things for other people to play, even on my own releases with my music.
TP: And was your interest in composition then beginning? Did it begin with Cecil? Did it begin before Cecil? Was Cecil tangential to it initially?
MARMORSTEIN: Cecil’s music functioned more as a magnet for me to stay connected and close to the idea and process and activity of making music, whatever that may be, in the way that other things have operated on me as kind of magnets. I would also call S. Balanchandra, the vina player from Madras, a kind of magnet. I would also call the Grateful Dead a kind of magnet in the same way. But in the field of let’s call it modern improvisational American Music, I’m closer to Cecil’s music than I am, for example, to Duke Ellington’s music or, for that matter, even bebop. Cecil’s music speaks to me more directly in a certain way, and always has.
Starting with Looking Ahead was coming in on a good page. I think from Looking Ahead I went to Conquistador, which I still think is a beautiful symphonic seance. That’s what I would call it. Both sides of it. The last couple of years I acquired the CD where you have the alternate version of “With/Exit”. And you can understand why they chose the one that they chose . But even hearing those characters try the same piece twice…things like that brought home to me how compositional Cecil’s music is. You used the word “structuralist” in one of your questions, and that’s not a word I feel completely facile in using because I don’t know exactly what you meant.
TP: I’m interested in the way Cecil puts his compositions together, and I thought you’d be the best person to discuss with among the people there. Because you see the scores and you have a sense of his process and how one process links to another and you attended every one of the rehearsals. How he presented the material, how the material was received, how the linkages came together, the psychology of the band. I’m interested in your overview.
MARMORSTEIN: I’m real qualified to talk about that.
TP: I know. First of all, tell me how you met Cecil.
MARMORSTEIN: My meetings with Cecil as a member of the audience were numerous, before I actually met him personally. He was already such an object of… There was so much admiration there that I was too shy to approach him or come up to him in several situations, even in several what I would call pretty close encounters. One the more interesting of the encounters was… Is it okay to say things that I’m not sure if I want…
TP: Anything you want off the record, just say so.
MARMORSTEIN: One of the most interesting encounters was when I went to Duke Ellington’s funeral at St. John’s the Divine, which was packed with people, and various artists were performing from the pulpit. There was no place to sit down. I came in just as the funeral was starting. Somewhere about ten minutes into the service, a woman stood up and left, and I decided to grab the seat. I walked up several aisles in the apse of the church, and turned to the left, and I was about to sit down at the empty place I said to myself, “My God, that’s Cecil Taylor sitting there.” So I sat next to him for the whole funeral. And I knew from the things I’d read that for him Ellington was a kind of spiritual father. So in no way, shape or form was I going to disturb him there. Then when we left the church I managed to both evade him and take another street down and get away, but when I got on the subway to go downtown, he was on the subway also. Then I ended up going on the same subway car with him, and we were alone in the subway car. This would have been my chance to say, “Hey, you’re a big influence in my life.” But the guy was coming from a funeral and I was coming from a funeral, and it just didn’t seem appropriate.
There were a couple of encounters like that. Once a guy came to my college and we were going to take a ride to Montreal and Toronto, but on the way we were going to stop off at a little college in Vermont where his brother was teaching, which was Goddard College, and we got to Plainfield, Vermont, which… I’m from New York. This is in the middle of nowhere, and there was this college, Goddard…oh, and by the way there was a concert there that night. And who was playing? Oh, yeah, some guy from New York named Cecil Taylor. I actually think that concert was recorded and put out on a CD or a bootleg. It was a stunning concert. He played solo. As I remember, there were 50 or 60 people in the audience. A month later he came to my college, to the music department at Brandeis, and played for less than 50 people with Sirone and Andrew, and then they answered questions. But Cecil got tired of the public quickly. Somebody asked him a question, “What kind of musical cues do you give each other?” Cecil didn’t like the question, and he got very upset at that question, and he let Andrew take over the rest of the question-and-answer session. Andrew had a very direct and strong way of confronting the audience which impressed me very much.
So there were experiences and close encounters. But then we have to cut about ten years later. I was living in New York, and finally I asked somebody who I knew was in touch with him if it was possible to obtain the phone number and phone him. And I did. I introduced myself on the phone and told him I was calling him because I had started composing music fairly late in life, but I had been very influenced by his music since I was in my early teens, and I had always wanted to approach him and ask him if I could take a composition lesson with him — or several composition lessons with him. He said to me, “I don’t give lessons.” But he said it in a nice way, and we continued to talk for over an hour. Then he said, “Why don’t you come over tomorrow at around 11 and we can continue this talk.” I remember I somehow made a reference that I’d be coming over at about 11, but maybe I could stop into this place and some… Then I realized that he wasn’t asking me to come at 11 in the morning. He was asking me to come at 11 at night! [LAUGHS]
So I came over at 11 that night, and we talked, and we must have talked for several hours. Around 3 o’clock, he said to me, “Well, this piano piece that you told me about on the phone that you wrote, did you bring it with you?” I said, “Actually I did.” Even though he had said he wasn’t going to give me a lesson. He said, “Can you play the piece yourself?” I said, “Yeah, sure.” He said, “Well, go in the room and play it.” So he’s got this rather large piano. I have basically a four-movement piano sonata, and I went in the other room and played it for him. It took me about 50 minutes to play it. Then I came back in the other room, and he was sitting there, and he began to talk about the piece. And he spoke so directly and so insightfully and so analytically and constructively about the piece that it was the lesson that crystallized what I was doing up until that point and which I have continued to draw from since.
We became friends from that meeting, and I never broached the question of having lessons with him again since that. As you know, Cecil is a guy…
TP: You approach him at his own pace.
MARMORSTEIN: He’s a guy who goes at his own pace. [LAUGHS] I’ll just agree with you on that. And you have to catch it when you can.
TP: So you’ve had a relationship since you were about 30.
MARMORSTEIN: Right. Since about February 1985.
TP: Just so I get it straight: You are an American who lives in Denmark?
MARMORSTEIN: I am an American. I lived in America my whole life until 1982, when I moved to Holland, and lived in Holland for two years, and attended the Stedelink Conservatory and studied with Misha Mengelberg. I was a guest student in the Improvisational Department. At the end of that year I had kind of run out of gas in Holland on a lot of levels, especially… Well, that’s a whole other subject. But then I moved back to New York to tank up, especially economically, and I lived there for a year during which I met Cecil. I was able to pick up some teaching jobs. Then the woman who I had when I was in Holland who lived in Denmark came to New York and had an art show there, then we lived together, and in the summer of 1985 I moved to Denmark. And I’ve been here ever since.
So my contact with Cecil, during the time I’ve known him, has largely taken place when I’m in New York for anywhere between a week or two weeks or a month at a time. Maybe I’ll see him once or twice. Maybe I’ll see him more than that. Very often I don’t see him at all. I might phone him several times, or we get the machine — and you never get any clue whether he’s around and just not answering the call, or whether he’s out of town. Since 1989, a lot of my meetings have actually taken place in Berlin. He’s in Berlin a lot, and Berlin is close enough to Copenhagen. I’ve been to Berlin to see him three or four times.
TP: Did you witness the June ’88 event?
MARMORSTEIN: I wasn’t there for any of the box, but I was there in ’90 when he played at the Bechstein Hall. I think that concert recently came out on Free Music Productions. Off the record, I don’t think Cecil is very pleased with the release of that, because I don’t think he authorized it. That’s the Workshop Orchestra. I was also there for a concert he played at the Berlin Opera House a year after that, in the summer of 1991.
This invitation to the workshop came as a thrilling surprise to me. I have a computer, it’s hooked up to the telephone, and who knows what’s going to happen? Usually you turn the thing on, and it’s nothing but a lot of junk mail asking people to do this or do that. But all of a sudden there was this letter that was forwarded to me from Trudy Morse that had been sent out by Bruce Eisenbeil about the workshop. It was a very nice thing for Trudy to do. I had met Trudy in Berlin a couple of times with Cecil. I responded right away. I guess first I emailed Trudy and said it sounded really good, and should I really take this as an invitation. Because to me this was like rubbing the magic lantern. This is what I wanted to do. I wanted to study composition with Cecil Taylor, and to be invited to participate in a master class like that.
So I emailed Bruce, who I’d never met, and said, “I’m not a skilled jazz pianist; I don’t play changes. I’m not an expert classical pianist. But that being said, if I am still welcome to participate in the workshop without taking up a place that would be better reserved for a more adept pianist, then I’m in.. I would love to do it.”
I remember Bruce’s response. He said, “Thanks for your email.. I think you should come to this workshop. You’ll have a blast and you’ll learn a lot.”
The workshop definitely lived up to that. I had a great time and I learned a lot. It was a pleasure. There was one day when I think you weren’t there when Cecil got a little bit tight, and he kind of scared all of us! But I think for the rest of it he was in a great mood, and I think he was very-very generous with all of us.
My impression is that he was writing the stuff the night before. Maybe some of it was old stuff that he had lying about. But he came in with veritable reams of composition. I could see from what I could guess that… You can’t talk about pencil markings as being fresh; you can only talk about ink markings that way. That was my sense, that the graphite was fresh on the paper. He came in with this stuff day after day. He brought in about ten compositions which we played….we rehearsed ten compositions over the course of the event, and played four at the concert.
The first day of the workshops, my recollection is that he didn’t give out any paper at all. He dictated the tones to people. If you weren’t ready with your pencil and your paper before he started talking and you weren’t 100 percent concentrated as he was talking, then you simply couldn’t keep up with the succession of tones. He was dictating them really rapid-fire. So I was actually able to get some of that stuff, and some of the other people in the class were able to get some of the stuff. So what we were able to practice the first week was pretty much what we were able to get.
Then by the second class he came in and gave us a score, so we were able to look at the score and look at his way of thinking about tones. There are certain intervals that he likes. There are certain links that he likes. There are certain licks, especially in connection with octaves and how octaves are filled in. One lick that seems to be quite prevalent in his music is something being voiced in octaves and…
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…middle will stay where it is. So a lick that turns up a lot in these scores is something like a C to the C above it, with the G in between, and then the C# to the C# above it, but then still with the G in between — or things like that. Then maybe you’ll go up from the D to a D, and probably keep the G as a pedal tone. There are a lot of sounds like that.
Also, as a pianist, it was interesting to see that a lot of the power of his playing and his melodic statements have to do with the fact that he simply plays these rather curlicued and very harmonically dense melodic lines, which don’t always follow a diatonic sequence of tones but a much more chromatic sequence of tones, but that these lines are played sometimes as octaves or as double-octaves or, in many cases, simply as triple octaves — Cecil is simply playing a melody over four octaves. But of course, when he does it, it sounds like he is playing single notes on the piano. But that gives a color and a dimension.
The scores seem to be what I would call feels. On the page of the scores, he has a group of anywhere between three or five or as many as ten, and sometimes he may stack sequences of lines, in which case you could have 25 or 30 different tones. Quite frequently, more than one tone is described. The way that music is transmitted to the musicians is that the musicians are basically being asked to breathe their own poetry into these melodies and shape them as they will. But that being said, with Cecil being there, Cecil will often play the thing on the piano and expect that we can hear that that’s the way he wants it to sound. And sometimes you can hear that, but sometimes if he plays it with his own floridness, it’s hard to hear the bare skeleton through this beautiful flower. He’s asking us to sketch the daisy when actually what he’s done is given us a daisy surrounded by roses and orchids.
TP: Ramsey Ameen made the point that before Jimmy Lyons died, basically personnel took phrasing cues from Jimmy Lyons’ articulation of the melodies and lines, that Jimmy’s phrasing would tend to be the authoritative guidepost for the musicians.
MARMORSTEIN: [ETC. ON JIMMY] I wasn’t around…
TP: The essential issue with the orchestra seemed to be how to phrase this music and how to create a dynamic level that didn’t keep them in the middle of the fire, but enabled them to maybe go into the vortex and then skip out, and go in and out and in and out like a magician going into the center of a maelstrom of fire and coming out unscathed.
MARMORSTEIN: I think in this workshop situation, Cecil was sitting back and listening quite a bit. I think he wanted to hear to some extent how this music would sound in a large group of people, and his coaching of the group tended to be on the minimal side — unless he really felt that it had become messy and that people weren’t listening to each other. His coaching largely consisted that people should play in such a way that they could leave room for each other, make space for each other, and listen to one another. That was not always the case in the rehearsals.
The miracle of the concert for me, from where I was sitting, was that suddenly everybody seemed to be listening to each other, and suddenly these pieces really functioned as finished pieces. Okay, maybe not recording studio quality, but interesting enough for people who hadn’t been part of the building-up process to sit and listen to it. As you probably know, we didn’t know what we were going to play until just before we played before the public.
TP: How do sections come together in Cecil’s music? First, is his notation singular unto him?
MARMORSTEIN: I’ve never seen it before in any other composer. But the composer Glenn Spearman had charts which are the only things I’ve seen which look something like Cecil’s composition. But I know Cecil was doing it before Glenn Spearman was.
TP: As a composer and someone who is immersed in post-Webern European music, can you speak to the Cecil’s connections structurally and on a more metaphysical level to that music. I mean, during our conversation he was talking a great deal about Xennakis.
MARMORSTEIN: And I guess Xennakis died a few days later, on the same day as J.J. Johnson. He did tell that story about Xennakis being kind to him the way he was.
TP: Trudy met Cecil on a Xennakis festival. [ETC.] Obviously there are palpable connections. Without your necessarily going into the details of how that concert was put together, I wonder if you see connections in their musical thinking.
MARMORSTEIN: I certainly can hear connections in Xennakis’ music with Cecil’s stuff, to the extent that when I first heard Xennakis’ piano music, I thought this was somebody who was trying to play like Cecil Taylor. But when I mentioned this to Cecil, Cecil didn’t seem to be too thrilled about that kind of cross-comparison. I think Cecil… I get this as much from what’s written in the Spellman book than actually talking about it at great length with Cecil. I think Cecil’s attitude about compositional music that’s built around a system of any kind is…I think he tends to stay away from that. I think he almost tends to eschew that….
TP: Are you saying that he tends to stay away from the system or that he’s internalized the system so comprehensively that he is able to use that as a part of his improvising vocabulary without even thinking about it?
MARMORSTEIN: Well, yes, but that still wouldn’t be right, because I think by nature he avoids system. He would avoid Serialism. He would avoid any kind of licks stuff. John Cage’s famous objection to the word “jazz,” as I remember it, is that…
TP: He said it’s imprisoned by the beat.
MARMORSTEIN: Did he? I knew also that he said something about the fact that jazz players learn licks and then stick with that. I think Cecil is trying in every which way to not be confined to his own shtick as such. Yet, what I think he tries to do is cultivate a familiarity and an honesty about…you know, definite, clear, sort of subject-predicate-adjective sentences. I think he tries to say things in music which can only be said through music, a la Schoenberg’s response to Webern’s music when he talked about the Bagatelles — that famous preface. I guess that’s why I gravitate both to Cecil and to the Webern-Berg Schoenberg thing. But whereas I would say Webern-Berg-Schoenberg were interested in positing systematization, especially Papa Schoenberg, I think Cecil is not interested in that. He is not interested in creating a system. He is not interested in creating a George Russell type theory. Although I know he respects that thing. I know he respects George Russell and what he has been doing, by and large.
That’s why it’s a funny thing to be in a workshop situation with Cecil. He doesn’t really want to teach his approach. What he wants to do is motivate the participants to find their own poetry and their own way of getting started with this stuff. I think what he wants his compositions to do is to get people to think about music as a process activity and not just a kind of finished product. I think that’s his game.
I use the word “game” because to me the scores function a little bit like games. You asked me how did we move from one field to the next. Cecil gave various directives on that. In one instance, he simply said, “When you feel that you’ve exhausted the material in one of these melodic sequence fields, when you feel that you’ve said it the way that you wanted to say it with as much variety as you can, especially rhythmic variety, then take a breath and move on.” That was a very explicit instruction he gave. Now, how do you translate that when you have 39 participants in the workshop, which had boiled down to about 30 by the time the concert rolled around.
That was funny paradox of the rehearsals at the concert, that for me during the rehearsals it never really-really jelled or was clear. But somehow, when the public was sitting there, and people were forced to collectively in not an antagonistic us-against-them but in a cooperative us-and-them situation… When you have the performers and the public, you do have an us-and-them situation. You have the people you’re playing with, and you also have people that you know are listening, who have taken cut these few hours out of their otherwise busy prime-time Saturday night and paid a their money, and you want to offer them something. You’re not just playing for yourselves. Now you’re playing for them. And somehow, like magic, it worked.
Cecil turned to us literally five minutes before the public came in and he said, “Okay, we’re going to play this one and this one and this one and this one.” Then shortly after that, he said to me, “The first piece is called ‘To be’ and the second piece is called ‘Ka’ and the third piece is called ‘Ka-Ba’ and the fourth piece…” When he gave those names, that’s the first time I or anyone else had heard those names, and I think it’s the first time that they had names. So I that the process wad done like that. It was like finally the creator of the games decided that these four games were the ones that would work best together, and then he gave then names which gives the audience a chance to remember them.
So I’d say each one of the scores has an element of chess or a game of Go, where different variables happen in one area and different variables happen in another area. In some scores, you’d play through the whole score and then there was a da capo, where you started again and went back to a certain point. The link between the “Ka” and the “Ka-Ba” pieces, which was the second and the third piece, was something that maybe Cecil had in mind. I guess he did bring those pieces in on the third day. But we all could feel that it was a very natural progression from one piece to the other. But otherwise, the pieces seemed to function as independent… And I use “games” on the highest level I could use the word.
TP: Do you feel that Cecil’s music is singular in the world of music?
MARMORSTEIN: I think that’s definitely the case. I don’t know any music that sounds like that except… I would say that as a pianist, Cecil is the next step from Thelonious Monk. Also Duke Ellington, but certainly Thelonious Monk, in the same way that for me Eric Dolphy is the next step from Charlie Parker. It’s a certain way of taking the predecessor, and expanding it and stretching it out and making it little more Gaudi-esque in its shape.
TP: Do you feel that Cecil’s absorption of architectural shape and form and structure influences the arc of his pieces.
MARMORSTEIN: Absolutely. That’s something you know if you talk with him for ten minutes. And I absolutely think that ballet…dance in general, but for me, his interest in the Classical Ballet…
TP: It’s like he’s dancing over the piano. That’s what his gestures are like.
MARMORSTEIN: His fingers are making the same kinds of leaps that the dancers make in space. I’m sorry I never saw the duet he made with Baryshnikov. Another thing that I think is super-important to him these days is singers and vocalists. So I think we can’t really talk about his piano playing or his composition without talking about architecture, dance and singers, especially the jazz singers, or opera singers, or singers of any kind who have influenced him. He’s got so many things coming into him. He’s so hooked up to the outside world and he’s got so much input, that it comes out with this kaleidoscope of stuff which doesn’t sound, to my mind, like what anybody else is doing. But sometimes, in terms of the internal intelligence and humor in the melodic sequences, you could say that his music is kind of Monkish. I don’t think Cecil would take too much offense at that.
TP: I kind of see him as a cross between Monk and Tatum. I can’t think of any other pianist who ever had that kind of technique. Of course, he admires Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal, who are contemporaries of his.
Can you address Cecil’s relationship to the European improvisers community? It sounds like you’re an interested observer in that scene, and I think one of the more interesting developments of the last 15 years is the mark Cecil has made on that community, and I think they’ve made quite an impact on him.
MARMORSTEIN: That’s a tricky question. I don’t know if I can come up with so much on the last one. My impression is that Cecil misses some blues in the European music. He misses some basic things that for him are essential in the music. He misses some American Indian and he misses some Blues, which to me the European guys often don’t have. My impression is that the European guys sometimes manifestly eschew it in their way. They say, “We don’t want to just be like blues guys. We want to come up with something all our own.” Of the European guys, there’s quite a few of the drummers that he feels have something very important to offer. I don’t know his feeling about the wind players and the pianists.
I think the impact Cecil has made on that community is enormous. But in my opinion, the impact that community has made on Cecil is more social and humanitarian, in a certain way, than musical. I think Cecil likes the respect and the fair treatment and the admiration that he gets in Europe, which pleases him. But I don’t know how much of the music itself…