MAX ROACH & CECIL TAYLOR/ “Historic Concerts”
You won’t hear Cecil Taylor on commercial radio these days although back in the sixties I could catch him on WYLD AM&FM, Saturdays 4-7pm on the “This Is Jazz” program hosted by Larry McKinley, a popular New Orleans-based DJ (I believe Larry was originally from Chicago). Larry was renown for his weekday morning programs, The Larry and Frank show.
Larry was the straight man and Frank F. Frank was… well, what would you expect with a name like Frank F. Frank. Imagine Langston Hughes’ Jess B. Semple but with an ignant (short for an aggressive but lovable ignorant) New Orleans hipster inclination. Larry used to pinch his nose to do the voice of Frank. The routines were off the chain, including a hilarious pre-taped one-liner that would be inserted at appropriate times when Larry and Frank were discussing something either reprehensible or ridiculous in which some New Orleans citizen was engaged. All of sudden out of nowhere would come a shouting feminine voice: “you just like your old black pa!”
Can you imagine how that sounded on commercial radio? If Larry could get away with that on the weekdays, then Cecil Taylor on the weekends was no surprise. I’d be walking the picket lines with a little portable radio, engaged in our boycott of Canal Street, the main shopping area of that era. We were demanding jobs and equal access to public accommodations in the establishments where our people spent our money.
We were out there for weeks, months, stretching to over a year. Kept at it, and eventually the segregationist barriers fell but it was a long and sometimes wearying trek. Jazz helped sustain me.
Even though I didn’t fully understand Cecil’s music, his thundering crescendos, wild harmonies, and broken-field melodies not only kept my mind occupied, they also ripped open my imagination.
Cecil Taylor helped me think in new ways, especially his trio double-LP with alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons and drummer Sunny Murray. Nefertiti Beautiful One Has Come was recorded in Copenhagen in 1962.
Murray’s drumming was just as unorthodox as was Cecil’s approach to the piano and could be equally as assaultive. Listening to them together you felt like you were being bombarded by percussion but without a regular beat. They could make you run for cover. Critics often referred to Murray as the perfect percussionist to ride shotgun on Cecil’s sonic explorations. The thought was you needed someone with a non-swing approach to offer the appropriate accompaniment but then in 1979 along comes this historic encounter: Max Roach & Cecil Taylor.
Now, Max Roach is in my estimation the dean of bebop drummers and certainly the greatest exponent of hard bop drumming—in that style, nothing surpasses the Clifford Brown/Max Roach collaborations. But Max was more than a swinger, as a drummer Max was the most complete improviser in the jazz idiom. No other drummer could completely cover so many bases with such deft and adroit instrumentation as Max Roach.
Whether totally solo with just Max and some drums, or in his M’Boom all percussion ensemble, or jazz combos, or whatever (especially when that whatever was work with vocalist Abbey Lincoln), not to mention his smoking symphonic orchestra work, Max Roach was the pinnacle of jazz percussion.
But prior to the recording I never would have thunk that Max would be the best drummer to work with Cecil Taylor.
In most cases a drummer working with Cecil was often an attractive but non essential ornament—some glitter or light bulbs but not the tree. On this recording, no matter what Cecil does, Max is right there almost as if Max had a map of Cecil’s imagination and knew what the pianist was going to do a milli-second or so before Cecil hammered out a phrase.
What is really instructive is the reality that Max and Cecil not only had never played together before this recording, even more astounding there was no rehearsal, nothing but mutual respect. They might as well have been from different countries, different languages with only two things in common. First, was their mutual love for improvised music. Second, and most important, was the left/right combination of technical proficiency and open-mindedness.
The recorded concerts was actually two different performances on one night, hence the plural designation. The first concert opened with a short drum solo, followed by a short piano solo, and then a forty-minute duet. The second show was a 38-minute duet that de facto had three movements. On the Mixtape I have included the two short solos and the second duet.
The 2CD recording also includes two interviews with Max and Cecil that have snippets of the concert inserted. Sounds like they could be ten minute radio promotion pieces for college radio, which was back in the late sixties the main broadcast venue for this music.
I’m not going to even try to describe this music. Whatever words I might choose will fail to convey the gigantic, oceanic intensity of this music. I suggest the best way to listen to it is alone with the lights off, no distractions.
I have a bunch of Cecil Taylor recordings including a handful of duets with drummers. This recording is the gold standard. Period. There is no other Taylor with drummer recording that I know of that can match the orgasmic climax of the second concert, nor for that matter the opening of Max punctuating the proceedings with hand percussion of various types. The opening is as fascinating as a Rubik’s cube, different permutations of sound. The closing is a Molotov cocktail of nuclear proportions. This music is the sonic equivalent of smashing atoms, of nuclear fusion.
Nobody can think and execute music that fast. Thinking goes out the window. You have to be, focus on flowing in concert with the interior pulse, except you’re approaching the speed of light, which is why you have to be a technician of the highest order to hang with this shit. Just listening to it is exhausting.
This music is a cosmic gift. Journey with the sounds to the outer zones of your imagination. You will be changed by what you discover.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Historic Concerts Mixtape Playlist
01 “Drum Solo”
02 “Piano Solo”
03 “Duets, Pt. 2″
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