Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Mezzacappa Transcribes Cecil Taylor with Awesome Results

Last night’s Monday Make-Out at the Make Out Room began with a 45-minute set taken by duoB, consisting of Lisa Mezzacappa on bass and Jason Levis on drums. As regular readers probably know, the Monday Make-Out is a monthly offering of jamming at its most adventurous covering small-group music that ranges from free jazz improvisations at their most spontaneous to inventive, and usually daring, experiments in the use of charts. Last night provided an excellent opportunity to experience Mezzacappa at her most ambitious.

The offering was one of those they-said-it-couldn’t-be-done undertakings. Mezzacappa announced that the duo would play a transcription of a Cecil Taylor performance in Vienna, presumably the one that took placed with the Cecil Taylor Unit on November 7, 1987. For that gig the Unit included Thurman Barker on marimba and drums, William Parker on bass, Carlos Ward on alto saxophone and flute, and Leroy Jenkins on violin. In  her review for AllMusic, Stacia Proefrock described the recording as a “hurricane of an album that extends for more than 71 minutes.”

Mezzacappa’s act of transcription therefore also included a generous amount of filtering, probably focusing, for the most part, on Taylor’s piano work and his interplay with Barker’s drums. Even with that reduction however, Taylor’s music is what information theorists would call “information-rich.” Proefrock’s hurricane metaphor perfectly captures the extent to which Taylor can pack an almost innumerable quantity of events into even a few seconds of time. This was a skill that he had been cultivating since the Fifties, a time when he was well aware that Karlheinz Stockhausen was making similar demands of piano recitalists.

Given the limitations in physical material, duoB’s ability to capture the turbulence of Taylor’s “hurricane” was nothing short of awesome. One could be forgiven for just sitting there gaping and wondering where all those notes were coming from. To the extent that listeners in Vienna probably reacted the same way, it would be fair to say that, whatever the limitations may have been, Mezzacappa’s transcription was a faithful one.

Mind you, one has to be careful about that concept of “fidelity” where Taylor is concerned. At an exhibit at the Whitney Museum a few years ago, one could appreciate that Taylor’s approach to notation was as complex and “information-rich” as his approach to performance:

Display of Cecil Taylor score pages at the Whitney Museum (from the Open Source Twitter feed)

He also elaborated on this matter in the documentary Imagine the Sound, in which he discussed some of his “scores” while Ron Mann was filming. In all probability last night’s transcription was primarily a product on highly focused listening, perhaps even coupled with episode-by-episode efforts to reproduce was had been captured by the hearing process. Even this would be a challenge, however, since, while one is aware of different approaches to music-making as the piece evolves, it would be unfair to claim that there was an “episodic” structure to last night’s 45-minute offering.

To be fair, however, the Make Out Room was far from the best place in which the audience would be able to listen as attentively to duoB as Mezzacappa had listened to the recording of that Vienna performance. The place is a bar; and, while there is a “stage area” set aside for performers and audience, even the most aggressive music-making needs to contend with a fair amount of ambient noise. This does not serve well when one is dealing with the intense precision of Taylor’s musical gestures; but, for the most part, the amplification equipment went a long way to satisfy the interests of those who had come primarily to listen to the music.

Nevertheless, one must hope that last night was the first of several performances, if not an ongoing process of refining Mezzacappa’s transcription efforts. This is music-making that deserves a setting in which listeners who take their jazz seriously can engage their full powers of concentration. One might even wonder how Taylor himself would approach Mezzacappa’s efforts as a listening experience. My guess is that he would readily take it for what it was and allow himself to be drawn into it, exactly the same as many of the more attentive members of last night’s audience.

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