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


Steve Lake


JULY 9th, '88

"We're like birds, I think. Everybody really sings
his song, no matter in what medium, he's always
singing the same song somehow."
Paul Bowles

Cecil Taylor, who knows his song with a greater certainty than most of us has begun, in the last few years, to put it to the test, a spirit of curiosity prompting him to seek out new contexts, to see how he might survive and thrive in them, what he might learn.

Of the six duet concerts that Taylor played in Berlin in the summer of '88, this meeting with Derek Bailey was the riskiest proposition. With the various drummers he'd partnered in the concert series, Taylor was all but guaranteed a measure of common ground: at the very least, one could assume the combinations would find congruence on the rhythmic plane, given the pianist's percussive abilities. But what attributes did this emotionally intense player share with Bailey, that dry, droll Yorkshire man, instigator of the "abstract," "free" guitar "style?". Stubbornness? Yes - Bailey knows his song, too - but this did not initially seem like sufficient basis for musical understanding. Nonetheless, the concert was Cecil Taylor's idea. "I'd seen Derek Bailey playing," he was to reflect the day after the event, sounding still intrigued by the results, "and I knew there was something in there that I could work with."

The opening moments of the recording find Bailey playing some uncommonly pretty figures, letting the notes ring, letting harmonics sing together in the air. Taylor responds with a growling vocal drone and strangulated gurgles. A considerable period of time will elapse before he goes anywhere near the piano. Seated, cross legged at the side of the stage, he spreads poetic texts around him in a semi circle and reads a few fragments, almost to himself, as if verifying them from the perspective of various character voices. His tone is, by turns, querulous, exasperated, indignant, mockpompous, surprised. He has one little shaky voice that sounds like Ezra Pound at Spoleto, another one that sounds like (but l' m sure isn't intended to be) a parody of John Cage performing "Empty Words". He croodles, gobbles, chirrups, hums, bleats and buzzes. To all of which Bailey remains supremely indifferent. The guitarist seems to go further into his own musical language, that string-tangled world, inscrutable after all these years, as if there were enough problems to be resolved without involving oneself in "theatre." (This is my, possibly erroneous, impression.) Taylor's onomatopoeic noises - onmatopoetic either Spencer A. Richards or a printing error calls them in the "Live In Vienna" liner notes - contagiously inspire an outbreak of coughing amongst the audience, and Bailey takes a walk around the stage - reflecting the sound of his acoustic guitar off the back walls, trying different attacks, hammering hard, backing off, playing clusters of choked notes. He runs his pick down the length of the strings a few times, a sound that slowly draws Taylor to his feet. Cecil moves to the piano and grabs for its innards, plucking and scraping...

It's here, really, that the duet begins in earnest, with Taylor's decision to enter Bailey's territory. He takes the role of accompanist upon himself, rather amazingly. The improvisation becomes an extended piece for guitars (Bailey switching to electric en route) augmented by piano interior. At first, Taylor's effects suggest various outposts of world folklore, some flamenco-like thrumming (which Bailey will later extend), some piquant twangs like the koto he must have heard during his recent Japanese sojourn. With great precision, Taylor plays some very fast right hand trills while dampening each note with his left hand on the strings, thereby tossing some "clavichord" colours into the music for a few seconds. After a while, the pianist, still plucking fervently, begins to approximate the fractured rhythms of Bailey's guitar, finally getting so close that differentiation becomes difficult; he gets right into the web and tissue of it. (It seems a long time since anyone has played with Bailey as persuasively as this: one might have to go back to the day when Evan Parker's soprano was the frequent adjunct of his feedback lines...)

As--Bailey settles into the electric guitar - the hum of his amplifier reminding us that there's no such thing as silence, not even in the new, improved, pristine CD world - Taylor goes back to the song he knows best, energy gathering force as he returns to the keyboard. It occurs to me here that the "something" that Cecil Taylor heard in Derek Bailey's playing might have been a connection felt between the guitarist's way of displacing rhythmic accents and his own relationship to Monk's music and its rug-pulling rhythmic shifts. Maybe that's far-fetched, but, as the music braces itself for the home stretch, Taylor plays some beautiful, wry melodies, very Monkish in their jaunty step, and Bailey's accompaniment (roles alternate from here on in) of staggered staccato discords fits perfectly.

The closing moments hover around a rainbow of possibility. This is improvisation of a very pure stripe, luminously vulnerable. The musicians, listening furiously, tilt it this way and that, its sense of flux tipping toward swift squalls, toward pellucid calms. To the very end, we don't know how this music will be resolved.

The final sequence turns out to be among the new music's loveliest with guitar overtones bursting inside the piano's arpeggiated ripple (so crisp a sound, like hail stones striking bells).

Yet it seems fitting hat the music closes with a final rasp of a plectrum on steel strings, Bailey scraping his way down the fret-board. There's a raw beauty in that sound, too. One that only an improviser could reveal to us.

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