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

FMP CD 104

Ulrich Stock


Berlin, September 30, 1990

Are there two Cecil Taylor’s? (Just as there used to be two Berlins?). The solo pianist Cecil Taylor that many musicians and listeners worship like a cult because he plays the piano like nobody before and nobody after him - so virtuosic, so powerful, so inspired, so (archi)tectonic, so holographic, so lyrical? The band leader Cecil Taylor who leaves many musicians and listeners at a loss because he makes his bands come on stage hissing, panting, howling, murmuring before they start tumultuously playing wild and loud, often for one and a half hours without interruption until the audience reaches a state of paralysis, of terror, of giddiness, of ecstasy, not infrequently all at the same time?

No, there is only one Cecil Taylor. Recently I happened to be sitting opposite him, completely unexpectedly, in a Berlin pension, at half past one, midday, I had just come from the station, I needed accommodation, he had just got out of bed and was having breakfast. I didn’t know he was there. He didn’t know who I was (the one who, for four years, was supposed to write the liner notes for this CD and was in complete despair about it). We talked for two and a half hours, first about Bill Clinton and the USA and the Balkan war to which he showed his disgust towards the supposedly inarguable. Then we talked about other musicians, about himself, his solo playing, his current quintet, his latest American record (with Dewey Redman and Elvin Jones: “Momentum Space”) and also about this CD with the Berlin workshop-concert nine years ago which – as he complained – still had not been released.

Well, after this meeting I have no doubt anymore that there is only one Cecil Taylor – an absolutely fascinating, complex, at times inaccessible and then, again, almost serene and – with all his contradictions – imperturbable artist. The music because of this has not lost its attraction for me. Its secret is no clearer, only more present.

One thing is for sure: Taylor solo on the piano is more easily accessible than Taylor with ensemble. Although those of my friends with their ears stuck to the charts or to the canon of the familiar from Rock to Classic would comment on the adjective “accessible” in a sarcastic, even malicious way. Let’s be more precise, then: Microstructures are immediately recognisable in the solo playing, at a later point high energy, even later more high energy, still later even more while the sound is complex, requiring and thus allowing frequent listening at the same time - a rare quality.

In the ensemble, on the other hand: extreme periods of long playing, unpredictable developments; at times, the music becomes a deluge, a cascade, pure natural force showing no regards for aesthetic considerations. It washes, it soaks, it sweeps everything away and whoever commits himself to it cannot even be sure anymore that he hears everything that is happening in this instant: when he can still see musicians on stage passionately fighting with their instruments but cannot locate them anymore in the whirl of sounds ...

The concert documented on this CD took place on September 30, 1990 in Berlin. In West-Berlin, to be precise, because the official reunification of Germany only took place three days later. From the location of the Bechstein-concert hall in the Prinzenstraße in Kreuzberg, it had been possible to look over to the wall since 1961.

On stage, apart from Taylor, the three Englishmen Evan Parker, Barry Guy, Tony Oxley, and Harri Sjöström from Finland, six wind instrumentalists from East and West Berlin. The fact that the music was ahead of the politics is surprising only in retrospect; whoever knows the German-German history of Jazz knows about the successive, subversive pioneer work of the record company FMP. And whoever knows Cecil Taylor’s music could come up with the idea that with the downfall of the wall in 1989 there was more at stake than politics: Did he not do concerts in various constellations in East and West Berlin for a whole month the previous year by invitation of FMP, documented on that legendary eleven CD-pack? Was he, maybe, the first of the ‘wall-peckers’ (Mauerspecht)1?

Then, after the collapse of the wall, Taylor got a Berlin grant from the 'Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst', which meant: in the exciting year of 1990, money and housing in the separated but no longer separated city – and concerts. The FMP concert trilogy “Total Taylor Total” belongs in this context. Three evenings during the last week of September: one solo, one with a quartet (with Parker, Guy & Oxley) and then the “Workshop Ensemble”.

Taylor had worked together with the ad hoc ensemble for some days beforehand. “Rehearsed” would not be quite the right word: Even today some of the Berlin participants remember these sessions with mixed feelings. Looking back, to some it seems that they spent most of the time waiting for Taylor to turn up – and they’re probably not far wrong because whoever has breakfast at half past one is not ready to start at three.

Then he would turn up, with certain ideas, sequences of notes, yes, but he didn’t present them nicely written out and transposed: he put them down verbally. And he mumbled! So it was pretty much of a mess because not everybody understood everything correctly!

Not very German!

Hang on - before I start mocking: It would have nerved me as well, only a few precious days with one of Jazz’s greatest musicians and then you waste your time copying notes, that he could just as well have photocopied --- but that’s just his way of doing it! You hear this story again and again from people who have participated somewhere in one of his workshops. He just does not want to write everything down. He does not want there to be no misunderstandings. Just the sounds. No note values. No breaks. No emphasis. Space which is free space.

And then? Well, then the concert developed its very own dynamic which did not have much to do with the rehearsals. Looking back some of them did not understand why they had been dealing with tone rows for such a long time during the sessions.

There are various explanations for this statement – positive as well as negative. While listening, feeling the results you will decide on one of them. Mine is the following: Music is nothing but a sequence of notes when only one musician is playing. When a number of musicians are playing there is interaction, “communication”; support, understanding, holding back, disinterest, tension, aggression, destruction. In accordance with the common view communication is thought to be successful when the positive elements prevail.

Taylor, quite obviously, understands this in a broader sense. He seems to go for a collective preparation for a special moment which can then be completely undefined. Good or bad. There’s the piano, there’s the band, down there is the audience, outside there’s the wall, there’s war, the world, space. Music happens between sex and excrement and stars and money and light and near bridges that cross rivers where, for millenniums, water has been gushing over stones.

Extreme speed.
Utmost brutality.

The inconceivable, penetrating all of us, which will be forever incomprehensible: the one and only Cecil Taylor gives an idea of this to his musicians and his audience.
It is not always comfortable.

Translator’s note:
‚Mauerspecht‘ – was the name given to a person who, in the autumn of 1989, made holes in the Berlin wall with a hammer or other hand-implement, shortly before the dismantling of the wall and the official reunification of Germany

Translation: Isabel Seeberg & Paul Lytton

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