FMP/FREE MUSIC PRODUCTION - An Edition of Improvised Music 1989-2004


Steve Lake



Louis Moholo and Cecil Taylor had played together just once prior to their meeting in Berlin, but Taylor had long wanted an opportunity to further their association. Given his interest in drums and in Africa, it seemed a supremely logical move. The drummer from the Langa township of Cape Town seemed to be uniquely placed to take Taylor's music closer to an important inspirational source.

"Cecil plays the piano like a drum", Archie Shepp noted a long time ago, a statement that now seems truistic, "... in a way, it's more of a throwback than a projection into some weird future. A throwback in the direction of the African influences on this music."

African inspired notions of call-and-response have been central to Taylor's playing almost from the beginning, as a means of ordering motivic material inside his dense, layered sound. In his groups, from the mighty Copenhagen sessions of 1962 onwards, it has often been a matter of strength calling to strength, the piano demanding its echo in the other instruments . . .

Amongst his related commitments in Berlin, Louis Moholo was scheduled to conduct a workshop in African Rhythm; I'm told he's a good teacher. As an improviser, however, the sum of his playing is too complex ever to be utilized as someone's ethnic resource. Moholo: "People tend to interpret the force in my music as pure aggression. Obviously my music reflects my life and the times in which we live - not to mention the divine hell-hole of Southern Africa - and so, aggression has an important part to play. But there are many other things that l'm saying that need to be heard. Just as the 'free' is not all aggression, so the 'freedom' is not all anarchy."

His drums have long since synthesized any number of approaches, including the multi-directional rhythms of such seminal Taylor drummers as Sunny Murray and Andrew Cyrille (who, in turn have looked to Africa . . . the cross cultural traffic runs both ways.) Most often, he's considered an extrovert fiery player, and anybody who has witnessed him in the driving seat of ensembles from Brötzmann's trio to McGregor's big bands, knows something of the power of his whip-hand, of the cracking rimshot that can make the most wayward instrumentalist get back in line. His meeting with Taylor was anticipated as a locking of antlers, a dynamic wrestling of energies.

By this point in the Berlin concert series, it was perhaps presumptuous to maintain expectations. Cecil Taylor had consistently rerouted his creativity, uncovering new ways to play with this latest round of partners. In this concert, it was Moholo's turn to surprise. Throughout its length, Louis resisted the straightforward options; he never met the force of the piano headon. Instead, he chose to detail the piano's sound, to detail it, colour and embellish it and speed it on its way. The result was a music subtly different from anything else in Taylor's discography. Outside of a laconic interlude with brushes, prompted by some wry Nichols-like chords, Moholo rarely played stressed rhythms but maintained a sense of perpetual motion with propellent broken pulses that shadowed the piano, raced it round labyrinthine corners and up the proud polished sides of its vortices. The drums' emphasis rippled outward from snare to cymbals, often very delicately, using the lightest of pressures. If a violent intensity was demanded, it was supplied, but never forced from Moholo's side. Through the drum sound, the gathering swirl of accents, the tiny cup-chimes of Moholo's hi-hat kept up a murmuring susurration, a purr of agreement. No matter how fast Taylor moved, how rapidly he fired off his "unsimultaneous clusters", Moholo stayed with him, shoring up the sound.

Vintage Taylor quote: "Part of what this music is about is not to be delineated exactly. It's about magic and capturing spirits." Is that why the drum's was called a trap set? In any case, the spirits were snared and skewered this night by the brilliant pianist and his subtle accompanist. Roles were defined as clearly as that, yet the formula never seemed a conservative one. Cecil Taylor is always "free" in his playing; Moholo's sympathetic support seemed to make him doubly so. (Another Taylor quote springs to mind: "Creating music is no longer about making it difficult, but rather about making it easy to play." Louis made it easy.)

What else is there to say? After the interval, the two musicians came back wearing different hats. This was the extent of the showmanship on display.

The tiny encore appended to this record was one of several, miniatures all. Louis Moholo took this one standing up, leaning over his kit to graze the drum membranes with tom-tom beaters, a gentle throb like the echo of malombo drums through the tall grasses of the Transvaal. A spontaneous addition to this formal, written ("whatever that means") piece. Wherever we were now, it seemed a long way from the New England Conservatory, the institution where Taylor learned his craft.

But the sound was the right one to send us out, thoughtfully, reflectively, into the Berlin night.

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