Last night at the Center for New Music, the Rova Saxophone Quartet presented a program entitled AIR: A Tribute to Cecil Taylor. Each of the members of the group, Bruce Ackley, Larry Ochs, Steve Adams, and Jon Raskin, took an improvisation set with one or more invited guest artists; and the quartet as a whole played a movement from Ochs’ Certain Space, which he had dedicated to Taylor. As might be guessed, there was considerable variation in the approaches to improvisation, with the result that the composed offering was the most consistently satisfying one. This was not surprising, since Taylor’s instrument was the piano; and none of the evening’s guest artists played any sort of keyboard instrument.
At the very least, the absence of a piano entailed a significant lack of those factors that made Cecil Taylor sound like Cecil Taylor, so to speak. As Adam Shatz observed in his NYR Daily obituary (cited yesterday on this site), the core of Taylor’s style and rhetoric emerged through building blocks of massive tone clusters, which took Henry Cowell’s percussive methods and elevated them not just to a higher level but beyond the planet’s gravitational pull. One could almost think of Taylor as being a bit like a race car driver, always “tinkering with the engine” to figure out how to produce ever more notes per second. (That metaphor is far from gratuitous, by the way. A quintet session that Taylor recorded with John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Kenny Dorham on trumpet, Chuck Israels on bass, and Louis Hays on drums on October 13, 1958 was released under the title Hard Driving Jazz; and the currently available CD of this material shows the blurred image of a speeding race car on the cover.)
Yet, all of the intensity of Taylor’s clusters was crafted around a scrupulous sense of precision. He seldom used pedals, since that would blur the significance of the individual sounding tones. Indeed, no matter how dense the cluster, Taylor himself declared that he was always focused on the significance of every note. Indeed, it may have been in the interest of allowing every note to have its say that Taylor tended to eschew any sense of a consistent metric pulse, instead letting his thematic content (if you can call it that) unfold through jagged rhythms leaving the listener in suspense as to what would happen next and when it would happen.
Out of fairness to Rova, then, it must be said that most of this does not translate easily (if at all) to the wind family. The satisfaction that arose from the Certain Space excerpt came from Ochs’ ability to grasp the significance of Taylor’s approach to rhythm and then find just the right way to translate that approach to suit four saxophone players. That attentiveness to rhythmic eccentricity also provided the driving force behind Ochs’ improvisation, for which he was joined only by drummer Donald Robinson. Playing together, the two of them could summon up that same awe-inspiring sense of precision that Taylor could bring to his piano.
It should also be noted, as an aside, that Ochs seemed to use his improvisation to acknowledge that brief partnership that Taylor had with Coltrane. If his saxophone could not summon up a tone cluster, it could still revel in the arrhythmic wailing found at the beginning of “The Father And The Son And The Holy Ghost,” the first track of Coltrane’s Meditations album. It was hard to imagine that this was an accidental gesture. I prefer to think of it as the spirit behind Taylor’s keyboard work emerging through the spirituality of Coltrane’s rhetoric.
None of the remaining improvisations convincingly tapped into Taylor in either spirit or flesh. Working with Adams, Clark Coolidge recited texts that he had written spontaneously while listening to Taylor recordings. Adams put his saxophones aside in favor of an alto flute for this set, and his deep and dark sonorities were perfectly complemented by Lisa Mezzacappa’s bass work. However, Coolidge’s diction, even with the assistance of a microphone, was just not up to snuff to allow his verbal free associations to have much impact. If anything, they tended to interfere with the moody qualities of Adams’ duo work with Mezzacappa, a performance that reminded one of Taylor’s quieter side without ever trying to imitate what he did at the keyboard in such moments.
That left both Ackley and Raskin, who seemed more attentive to doing their own thing than in relating that thing to Taylor. Ackley offered some provocative licks in the rather unbalanced company of Andy Strain on trombone and Karl Evangelista, doing his best to get his guitar amplification to hold its own above the fray. Raskin, on the other hand, engaged in some blood-curdling call-and-response with Darren Johnson on trumpet (playing an instrument that he calls his “peace cannon”). Safa Shokrai provided some highly active bass work behind the two of them, but it never emerged as its own unique contribution to the mix. Vijay Anderson’s drum work was capable, but too steady to be mistaken for anything referring to Taylor.