Cecil Taylor: Spring of Two Blue-J’s (1973) Unit Core

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Selection: Part 2 (21:29 minutes) Warning: Free Jazz. May contain nuts.

Artists:

Jimmy Lyons (as) Cecil Taylor (p) Sirone – Norris Jones (b) Andrew Cyrille (d) recorded at “Town Hall”, NYC, November 4, 1973

Music

Once again LJC dips his toe in the bathtub of Free Jazz .This Cecil Taylor recording from 1973 has the virtue of being an original US production on Cecil’s own Unit Core label. It is an original so there is no fidelity issue about “reissues”. This is it sounding at its best. I couldn’t be bothered with the hand-written poetry-lite of the liner notes. I don’t know if I missed anything.

Fear of Music:  Why do people get Rothko and not Stockhausen?

Stubbs Fewar of MusicThat’s the title of a book by music journalist David Stubbs. The premise of the book is that people willingly accept abstract and experimental art but don’t “get it” when the sense becomes sound rather than sight. The equivalence of abstract art and abstract sound is flawed, but it’s an analogy used many times, and is a useful starting point to examine the different ways our senses interpret two artistic media: painting and music.

Ornette-Colleman-Free-jazz-Atlantic-1364-gatefold-1800-LJCOrnette Coleman selected Jackson Pollock’s White Light  as the metaphor for his double quartet simultaneous improvisation. The instantly recognisable New York 1940’s drip-school oeuvre of  Pollock has just one problem – they all tend to look the same to me, as does the sound of free jazz . Much “energy”: splatter/noise, a riot of colour/sound, but stylistically, the same.

The opening few minutes of Spring of Two Blue-J’s Part 2, I am quite comfortable with: scene setting, atmospheric, sparse, fits well with some of my John Adam’s modern contemporary pieces. However ten minutes later I am struggling. While I like “freedom” in art, I don’t like it so much in sound. Importantly, it bothers me why I don’t.

Cecil-Taylor--free-Jackson-Pollock

It has something to do with time

If you don’t like a picture you simply look away and move on. At best you might spend a couple of minutes on it. With music there is the time it takes to complete – in Cecil Taylor’s case, around twenty minutes per side or up to three hours in concert. That’s a lot longer than you would probably spend looking at a picture, and a lot longer than you would spend looking at a picture you didn’t like.

Can you have too much freedom?

I firmly believe in artistic and musical freedom, to break and bend the rules, to experiment, to innovate, but does Taylor’s level of freedom from melody, rhythm and harmony make for good satisfying music?

Beauty is in the ear of the beholder

To some people, Taylor’s freedom clearly does. At the end of the Taylor piece, the audience applaud the performance. Unless the applause is picking up the audience’s gratitude that it’s over, who is to say they are wrong? The adjective I have noted that is frequently used by fans of Taylor to say what they like about his music is the word “beautiful”. Beauty is more usually associated with sight – a visual aesthetic dimension –  but here applied to describe sound. Interesting. May be somewhere here is the key, in this fusion of two senses.

Expecting the unexpected

The other attribute of free jazz appreciation I have noted is the value put on surprise, and unpredictability You don’t know what will happen next. It is true, at least on first hearing, though I worry about repeated listening and what effect familiarity has. Do you only ever play it once? Would you enjoy truly random notation that changed continually? I suspect enjoyment of free jazz requires developing a level of pattern recognition, just not a pattern that is immediately predictable, but one that is significantly less predictable.

Beauty and the Beat

During some of the more pop-oriented numbers at the recent Nice Jazz Festival, I couldn’t help but notice the number of people in the audience (mostly ladies, of a certain age) who, whenever they sensed common time, would leap to their feet to clap along with the music, on the first and third beat. That is what they wanted from the music, the chance to join in, raise their spirits, while I look for something more adventurous than keeping time.

Vinyl: Unit Core 30551 (stereo)

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Cecil-Taylor-Unit-Core-insert1800

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Collector’s Corner

Source: Suburban London record store.

Purpose: Testing the Free Jazz boundary

Result:

I’d love to be the super-cool hipster just recently returned from Saturn. On my Jazz Journey I rode the subway train, starting at Bop Central, changing at Cool St and Post-Modern Plaza, but I still get off at the Avant Garde train station. Free Jazz remains a station too far. Taylor is still too far out for me. Another time, maybe

If you want to articulate your opinions, its open season, the floor is yours, share your thoughts.

The music of Cecil Taylor – further thoughts

To say you like or don’t like something is as far as many people get. The “like button” (or red arrow) can be pressed without any requirement to explain why, it’s a position no-one can argue with. For those who would go further, offer some insight, welcome to the difficult world of music appreciation.

Cecil Taylor’s music is what music would sound like if the components of melody, harmony and rhythm were merely implied rather than stated. The moment one crystalized into form, it evaporates. Light retreats into shadow. Melody without direction, constantly elusive. Harmony is absent or present only fleetingly. Music that avoids being defined, but nevertheless tightly composed, not random, but always out of reach. Is this what people who like it like about it?

Lets try a different tack: why do people dislike it? The question challenges you to say what you want from music, that is absent there. It’s just notes after all, as all music. Maybe it’s the order he places the notes in: the “wrong” order. Or the wrong notes. What makes a note or its order wrong? Why are some people content with the notes and the order and others not?

I’ve got a good number of Taylor records. I keep listening. I’m in no mood to quit.

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24 thoughts on “Cecil Taylor: Spring of Two Blue-J’s (1973) Unit Core

  1. I appreciate you making 20 minutes of this music available on the web. Amazingly, it is not uploaded to YouTube yet. There is a lot more music from this concert which I think has since been released. I love Taylor’s music and have ever since I first heard it, which was an encounter with his solo recording “Air Above Mountains (Buildings Within)” when I was about 13. It just grabbed me right away. I got to Taylor’s later playing first and was astonished and disappointed by his early records that are still metrical. They seem so stilted and uptight compared to where he would eventually go. It’s funny to me that a few people advocate for those early recordings above. As for Taylor being “difficult” or “inaccessible,” I totally get that. But there is no requirement to get him. I do think there are vast riches to be found in his music, but there’s a lot of music in the world with a lot of riches.

  2. Great great conclusion that while all those wild things happen, they are uniform.
    That said, it’s not for or against free music. It’s just an extremely good point.

  3. Nice, thought-provoking post! What attracts me to Taylor’s music is first and foremost his very dry and unsentimental melodic sense. It has a sad, melancholy quality that is quite particular to himself, and gives his music an almost 20th-century classical feel. This is of course simplifying it a bit – many late Coltrane sessions, for instance, have a similar sound.

    In my opinion, it’s the contrast between the moments of subdued, melancholy melodicism (often occurring during intros and codas) on the one hand, and the pianist’s eye-watering strength and intensity on the other, that makes a Cecil Taylor recording.

    Duration plays a part as well, of course – one might argue that the quiet, more obviously “melodic” moments are accentuated just because they are so few and far between.

    • What I should have said was, I was enjoying that — until I ran out of steam about ten or twelve minutes before the end. Too much — of everything. I like my abstraction sparser and a bit less high-energy, I suppose. Or at least, shorter.

      • A friend threatened to subject me to Taylor’s entire Nuits De La Fondation Maeght – six sides. There is that certain point, about ten minutes in, when you know it’s not going to get any easier for you and you begin to lose the will to live. Ironically the Fondation Maeght at St Paul de Vence is a hugely enjoyable modern art gallery. May be Taylor sounded better live.

        • With friends like that etc etc. But _do_ try the early records — LOOKING AHEAD, NEW YORK CITY R&B, LOVE FOR SALE. You’ll be pleasantly surprised because they swing like crazy.

  4. LJC choose the hardest Free musician to digest, and one of his really toxic recordings.
    I do love Free but I must admit I no longer go back to this Taylor.
    Incidentally there’s another record on Taylor’s label, Unit Core 30555, called INDENT.
    Older Taylor is definitely more appealing to me: Jazz Advance on Transition TRLP 9, At Newport on Verve MGV 8238, Looking Ahead on Contemporary M 3562, Hard Driving Jazz on United Artists UAL 4014 and, most notably, The World of Cecil Taylor, Candid 8006.
    All these records are pre 1961.
    Interesting, and rare, Live at the Cafè Montmartre and Nefertiti, both on Danish Debut.
    Going back to USA, the thing gets harder and my interest fades.
    Ah, a couple of Blue Notes too.
    Anyway I’m pleased that other readers declare some interest in Free.
    LJC willing, I would like to write some notes on Free Jazz, the one I love, collect and still listen after 45 years.

      • As dottorjazz says (at least, I think it was dottorjazz), the earlier Taylors do make for easier listening. LOVE FOR SALE, LOOKING AHEAD, NEW YORK CITY R&B (now there is a fine and surprising record!) are all fiercely swinging records, with CT constantly pushing the envelope (but stopping short of putting it through the shredder). NYC R&B has a slightly shambolic but wholly natural feel to it. These are the CTs I return to. And oddly, some of the solo records. While intense and demanding, I find the solo records more disciplined. And having only one instrument to focus on, you can pay more attention to whatever enigmatic things it is CT is doing…

  5. When Cecil was playing at Ronnie Scotts in the late 80’s he would regularly pop over to the Wag club in Wardour St to join the dancers grooving to Fela Kuti and James Brown records. Cool guy.

  6. Thank you LJC for having such a wonderful site and such ‘big” ears. As someone who came to Jazz hearing Charlie Parker music in a record store in 1964 and having one’s ears blown away at the Downbeat Jazz Festival in Chicago at Soldier Field in 1965 by John Coltrane’s group with Archie Shepp, I have gone from bop to “out” and do so appreciate an open discourse on the matter.
    To me, music reflects the time frame of history in which it is created. The turmoil of the Sixties produced fervent musical exclamations from Jazz artists. And such left the ladies who wish to dance/clap on one and three at a disadvantage. Bebop perhaps killed dancing by making the audience listen. free Jazz perhaps goes a step further by forcing the audience to listen by what some would call excess.

  7. Thanks LJC for sharing your perceptive thoughts about music. As a jazz/free jazz fan, I have noticed that the problem with trying to turn your jazz-averse friends onto “beauty” has mostly to do with the “free”part of it. At the risk of sounding excessively political, i would say people are usually uncomfortable with too much freedom, in music, art, life, you name it… Jazz has always been about strong personalities pushing the envelope. Cecil Taylor’s music is phenomenally intense and I understand it can be overwhelming (to both the layperson or the general public). Interestingly though, you put on Jazz Advance, his debut album back in 1956, and he launches off with Monk’s Bemsha Swing, over 4/4 swinging rhythm. I think a listener’s appreciation of music (or art) is informed by so many things beyond genre distinctions, or even, say, music. Jazz is by definition “free” music, or least freeing music (a subject for another discussion, I guess). Whether you tear apart Autumn Leaves or just blow “free” for 3 hours on end.
    Keep up the good work

  8. Bravo LJC for launching this discussion. You have, by giving examples from the visual arts, succesfully explained what, for you, is “wrong” with this music and why you don’t appreciate it. It is often easier to explain things one does like. You succeeded the opposite exercice.
    When I discovered Cecil (Looking Ahead- CR), I was very positive about an Afro-American (and Red Indian) artist who blended the classics with his own experience as a black man in America. The result on vinyl, in my ears, was a hopeful direction in music, confirmed by the Candid experience. But then, the disenchantment came, pieces, too long to keep one interested, the music turning in rounds, no ultimate conclusions.
    I have the same unsatisfactory feeling after listening to the double quartet of Ornette, whereas his quartet numbers and trios of the time were models of neat execution and inspiration, and beauty.
    The only New Thing artist who did not get trapped is Albert Ayler, but then, what happened to him in the end?

    • Wonderfully put. I have often found Mr. Taylor physically punishing to listen to. Mr. Ayler, on the other hand, perhaps by his links to spirituals and the intensity in his being, stands alone. Charles Gayle comes close though.

  9. Thanks LJC for this encouragement to open the ears and listen. I liked its thoughtfulness and your subway analogy. A great many of my friends, many of whom are passionate about the music that they like, seem afraid of Jazz. To them it seems to be an impregnable monolith that is liked and ‘understood’ by a minority. They prefer to take the bus (or the taxi in the case of one who loves and listens to a huge range of classical music- but refuses even to consider giving a small amount of time to the copy of Kind of Blue that I gave to him). It’s their loss. Back on the Jazz underground, I’m currently exploring the B3 Line from Hammond Central, although I’m well aware that isn’t LJC’s favoured route.

    I saw Cecil Taylor at Ronnie Scott’s on August Bank Holiday Monday 1990. His music did nothing for me on that swelteringly hot evening, but at least I tried. With LJC’s selection above, I now have all the Cecil Taylor tracks I need (to recall a LJC comment on The Incredible Jimmy Smith).

  10. LJC, an interesting post. I don’t think there are any definitive answers to the questions you pose about free jazz (or indeed about abstract expressionism in the visual arts) but it makes for an interesting debate. However, it’s also an analogy that tends to mask an essential truth: abstraction in the visual arts is as varied as abstraction in music or any of the other arts and includes the great, the very good, the mediocre and the plain awful. Ditto free jazz. It might therefore be better to consider what kind of abstraction (in whatever) you do like, rather than whether you like all abstraction…. Meanwhile, keep ’em coming…

  11. Free jazz is something I try regularly to ‘get into’, thinking I am missing out in some way. I feel a ignorant fool for not ‘understanding’ it. I am a painter and your analogy with difficult art LJC is interesting. On the one hand, professional artists can look at art in a certain way – for example we tend to take note of the brush marks, and how one area of colour meets another, the juxtaposition of forms. We also take note of what happens ‘in-between’ the marks. The silences, if you like, between the noise. Edges of the canvas, edges of colours, are very important. For me, whether a painting is figurative or abstract is irrelevant, it’s the way the paint has been applied that counts.

    For this reason I’m frustrated that much of free jazz leaves me cold, or annoys me as sounding like noise. I’m annoyed at myself for being so hemmed in by lyricalism in music when I am so open and adventurous in visual art. Even Ornette and Monk give me problems. I can’t listen to Monk without thinking of Les Dawson doing his off-key piano playing comedy routine!

    People often talk about failing to understand modern or contemporary art, but I know as a pro in this field there is really nothing to understand. Art is not algebra. It either speaks to you or it doesn’t, on a gut level. I imagine these people nodding their heads to Cecil Taylor or Albert Ayler know something I don’t, they possess some secret knowledge. Maybe they do. But I shouldn’t beat myself up over it – as jazz fans we are in enough of a musical minority without adding to it!

    Listening to Taylor’s Conquistador there are long passages I really like. I can actually play that album in its entirety without running to the off button. Who knows, free jazz may speak to me yet.

    • How can one understand art? Sure, we can trace the cultural, political, and sociological context in which particular artist has been working, and through this we can build some “environmental” image of such artwork. But understandinig art doesn’t make it immediatly acceptable.

      The problem is that art has long ago stopped to be a social experience, and has moved to individual perception and gameplays with the observer, listener, reader etc. Art has become a field for connoisseurs (at least the art that wants to be taken seriously).

      As for music… For me, everything is in emotions. I like avant-garde jazz from 1960s simply because it fits in my taste, not because I’m aware of all the racial issues that were happening then.

  12. I share some of your frustrations with Cecil Taylor LJC. I have to be in a very meditative mood to find my way into it. It definitely falls into the category of jazz that doesn’t really swing whereas Ornette’s bands, for instance, generally do swing making his music much more accessible.
    Cecil’s music is very ‘physical’ I think – a kind of workout for the piano which is used as a sort of cerebral punchbag for the duration of a piece. Rather than swing it ebbs and flows with kinetic energy.I have had moments of revelation when listening to it and the next day it leaves me cold.
    Never seen this one before but it sounds like a great recording and a wonderful pressing.
    I have some live Taylor recordings on vinyl, such as Live in Bologna, which are terrible
    Incidentally I was a little miffed to miss out on a copy of Looking Ahead! on Contemporary Vogue yesterday but I’m really hanging on for the US stereo anyway – a record which has been paraded here and as pointed out on the previous item those Contemporary pressings really are something.

  13. Remember seeing this group minus Sirone at Ronnie’s in 75 where the bill was shared with Joan Armatrading! Very powerful intense music that demands the utmost concentration, try listening with headphones. Marvel at the sympathetic always apt drumming of the great Andrew Cyrille, still active today and worth catching wherever possible.

  14. I like it! Very, very satysfying, although makes it hard to listen and write in the same time:) pretty expensive record though, at least according to ebay

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