Winged Serpents: Six Encomiums for Cecil Taylor

Winged Serpents

If the music of Cecil Taylor was a continent, this album is a chain of islands. Divided in magnitude yet sharing the same creative waters, each of its pianists offers one of six eulogies in praise of an artist who knew no bounds and whose powerful life is held in the balance of interpretation.

Craig Taborn’s “Genuflect” plays out a dialogue between the ethereal and the earthly. His feel for texture is savory enough to be edible and recalls the soul-filling starches that were staples of the Taylor diet. This catharsis sits comfortably next to Sylvie Courvoisier, who brings her knowledge of the piano’s interior to bear on “Quauhnahuac” as a linguist would phonemes: that is, creating meaning out of elements that in and of themselves have none. Her anatomical precision elicits solace and strength in equal measure. The humbly titled “Minor Magus” finds Brian Marsella scraping away the dirt of grief in handfuls. It’s an unrelenting piece that speaks of a biography struggling to catch up with its departed subject.

“Grass and Trees on the Other Side of the Tracks” is Kris Davis’ song of spontaneity. By turns prayerful and spasmodic, it struggles to breathe of its own accord, like a pair of lungs fighting the influence of a respirator. Aruán Ortiz’s “Unveiling Urban Pointillism” may just be the body housing said lungs, pulling away from a dream so adhesive that one begins to question the value of waking at all. Anthony Coleman swings from the rafters of a written score (the album’s only). Its title, “April 5th, 2018,” dates Taylor’s death, veering into improvised corners of renovation. The most somber of the set, it is also the most traditional, sprinkling fragments of ragtime, swing, and pop into its brewing vessel. A fitting end to one whose posthumous legacy is just beginning.

(This review, in its original form, appeared in the December 2018 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

John Zorn: There is No More Firmament

Firmamament

Throughout his career as musician, producer and collaborative lightning rod, John Zorn has never forgotten the importance of putting pen to paper. This all-chamber program of pieces spanning 2012-2016 speaks deeply to his indefatigable spirit and the obvious care with which he chooses his musicians.

Two brass fanfares, consonant and invigorating, are palate cleansers of a sort. “Antiphonal Fanfare for the Great Hall” commemorates Zorn’s historic 2013 day-in-residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It moves harmonically and with a precision that fortifies its ancient roots. “Il n’y a Plus de Firmament” likewise breathes formidable life into the wind quintet genre. With attentions to texture, rhythm and color rarely heard outside Edgard Varèse, Zorn provokes each strand of motivic DNA to fullest unraveling.

“Freud” is an enchanting psychoanalytical detour. Violinist Chris Otto and cellists Jay Campbell and Mike Nicola are its breathtaking interpreters, negotiating neuroses and reveries with comparable aplomb. Its wilder moments recall Zorn’s seminal pieces for the Kronos Quartet, but also the chamber music of Henryk Górecki. “Divagations,” inspired by the poetry of Stephane Mallarmé, places a through-composed score at the hands of classical pianist Stephen Gosling, with the interpretive jazz rhythm section of bassist Christian McBride and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, who must make spontaneous decisions along the way.

This disc’s crown jewels are its solo pieces. Clarinetist Joshua Rubin performs “The Steppenwolf” on the rarely heard A clarinet, eliciting a dynamic and tonal range as only a master of the reed like Zorn could enable. “Merlin,” for solo trumpet, is even more compelling in the two versions presented here. Peter Evans fills the ears with wonder, his extended breathing providing the most thrilling moments of the program, while Marco Blaauw (on his custom-built double-bell trumpet in C) adds ghostly dimensions.

There is so much philosophy packed into this album, it feels like a living (auto)biography of which we are given a tantalizing synopsis.

(This review originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

John Zorn: Flaga

Flaga

Eight tunes from The Book of Angels make up Flaga, the 27th installment in a series exploring the parallel opus to John Zorn’s popular Masada series. His interpreters this time are pianist Craig Taborn, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. “Machnia” puts listeners into the thick of things, highlighting the playing as much as Zorn’s prolific gift for melody.

What would appear to be a triangular relationship in theory turns into a pyramidal one in practice. The atmosphere is joyful and exciting and finds each musician grabbing the wheel in succession with idiosyncratic vigor. It’s a formula that leads to consistent piquancy in the remaining tunes, if at times dulled by the compactness of the engineering, which suffocates tunes like “Peliel” and “Katzfiel.” Other places it works beautifully, however, as in “Shiftier.” Here Taborn balances sacred and secular impressions, launching into his solos with territorial wanderlust. But not even a few misfires at the mixing board can reign in a double take on “Talmai,” of which the landscape is vast and the rhythm sectioning robust.

As may be expected in anything branded Zorn, abstractions are never too far away. Their wonders enliven “Katzfiel” and “Rogziel,” the latter recalling its composer’s fascination with the cartoon music of Carl Stalling. In this respect, the trio allows the spirit at hand to take the music where it needs to go, even if, like sand in an hourglass, every particle of improvisation eventually funnels into a steady passage of time. Which is not to say that reveries are absent: “Agbas” and “Harbonah” show sensitivity in kind, the latter an atmospheric gem that draws an arco bass thread through a stormy patchwork of piano and cymbals, teasing out the indestructible heart of the whole enterprise.

The way these veterans ease into and out of such eclectic themes is masterful, yielding a fresh take on Zorn that may just be the standout disc of the series and one that reasserts his position in the modern jazz canon.

(This article originally appeared in the June 2016 The New York City Jazz Record, of which a PDF of the full issue is available here.)