Two Lazy Afternoons: Steve Kuhn and Cecil Taylor

Two very different Lazy Afternoons, another LJC contrast-and-discover opportunity, one just a trifle more relaxing than the other, though some might disagree. Some might prefer a Busy Afternoon, on account of us under-employed find every day lazy. However, let’s go with the flow:

First Lazy Afternoon: from BLP 4205 Pete LaRoca –  Basra (1965)

Pete-LaRoca---Basra---Blue-Note1965-cover-1800-LJC

Selection: Lazy Afternoon

Artists:

Joe Henderson (tenor saxophone) Steve Kuhn (piano) Steve Swallow (bass) Pete La Roca (drums) recorded Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, May 19, 1965

Pete (LaRoca) Sims made just a couple of albums as leader, Turkish Women At The Bath being the other for Svenghali-producer Alan Douglas.  He then abandoned music, driving a New York taxi  to qualify in the legal profession, at one stroke robbing the world of a much-needed jazz musician, while adding one more to the world surplus of lawyers.

Sims returned to music in the late ’90s,  approaching the age of sixty, with a group called  “Swingtime” for Blue Note (CD-only, a sign of the times), endorsed with the following definition of his philosophy of jazz music:

“Music is the result of bow on string, breath through metal, fingers on ivory, sticks and mallets on brass and strings – all applied by real people who’ve taken the time to learn the skill and magic of it”

A good definition, which also sums up some of the reasons we have so few  musicians today that measure up to the talent-pool of the ’60s.

La Roca’s swinging drums finally fell silent at the end of 2012, obituary courtesy of The Guardian.

Steve Kuhn I don’t know. Blindfold I would have said Duke Pearson or McCoy Tyner on piano, but I am sure Steve has his own songbook and manner. It’s perhaps the first time I have seen his name on Blue Note, a name I associate with ECM. Maybe I need straightening out here.

Music:

Pete La Roca’s mighty  Blue Note debut Basra (1965), one of the stand-out Blue Notes of the ’60s, and infuriating difficult to find, but savoured for its modal style, unique and memorable tunes more than a little Joe Henderson influence evident.

Lazy Afternoon: Joe Henderson’s sublime breathy tenor outlines the dream-like, lingering  melody; Steve Kuhn’s languid piano drifts in and out, eddys rippling around the notes, Swallow’s bass a firm undertow. As befitting of a leader, LaRoca supports, adding colours and highlights to the flow.  As an easy-paced ensemble piece, a perfectly Lazy Afternoon. One of the finest Blue Note recordings ever.

Basra is also home to a host of brilliant tracks, I make no apology for a second bite of the cherry, first posted  by a (comparatively) new jazz fan  LJC in 2011. The more inquisitive might want to compare the same track ripped through a $150  Numark USB turnable and I-tunes with todays State of The Art 320kbps from the back of His Master’s Hi-fi.

Numark USB turnable rip (2011) 160 kbps direct to PC

Contrast and Compare:

Second Lazy Afternoon: Cecil Taylor – The World of Cecil Taylor (Candid 1960)

Cecil-Taylor-World-Of-Candid-OG-cover-1800-LJC

Selection: Lazy Afternoon

Artists:

Archie Shepp (tenor saxophone) Cecil Taylor (piano) Buell Neidlinger (bass) Denis Charles (drums) Nat Hentoff (supervisor) recorded Nola Penthouse Sound Studio, NYC, October 12, 1960

Music:

Recorded a  full five years before “Basra”, The World of Cecil Taylor burst on  the 1960 stage. Archie Shepp takes no prisoners, but stays largely within Cecil’s unique  reimagining of the original dreamy melody, a tune that probably only Cecil can hear.

It’s interesting to hear the other musicians try to sync with what Cecil is playing (collective improvisation), as Cecil is syncing with something entirely different in his head. It’s an interesting struggle that works well where there is common ground, signposted  in a strong original melody.

Whitney Balliett on Cecil Taylor

On the second night of the final weekend ( of The Great South Bay Jazz Festival, 1958) , the pianist Cecil Taylor, accompanied by Sylvester Gandy on bass and Dennis Charles on Drums,  played four of his own compositions.

Taylor’s music is, in the main, unclassifiable. It is an impoverished atonal music, that has jazz rhythms more often implied than stated, and forms that appear to be strictly his own.

An expert classically trained pianist, he plays with a hammering intensity that never lets the listener rest for a moment. The result is a passionate  often grinding mixture of sounds, occasionally reminiscent of a bulging sample case  of modern classical music, which chock-a-block range from graceful lyrical Debussy arpeggios to angry staccato chords that leap backward and forth two or three octaves at a time. …His work appears exciting and furious, trying to force its way  to a level that has only been hinted at by the work of such modernists as Charles Mingus and George Russell.

Throughout Taylor’s performance, the audience fidgeted, whispered, and wandered nervously in and out of the tent, as if the ground beneath had suddenly begun to wobble.

The Sound of Surprise, Penguin Books (1959)

LJC on Whitney Balliett

Whatever your reaction to Taylor’s playing,  Whitney Balliett’s writing sets a standard that is without peer. Sometimes, words help unlock your understanding of what is happening, to make sense of it. There are the “my music needs no explanation, it speaks for itself” school of musicians, but in Taylors case I’m not sure it speaks in any known language, at least not one known to me, so a translator is a useful companion.

Vinyl:  Candid CJM 8006

Cecil-Taylor-World-Of-Candid-OG-labels-1800-LJC

Cecil-Taylor-World-Of-Candid-OG-rearcover-1800-LJC

Collector’s Corner

Just as both these records are musically at opposite extremes, so their acquisition on vinyl is likewise. The Blue Note was the result of a trans-atlantic on-line Ebay battle in the small hours of the morning GMT, the Candid turned up in a marché brocante market stall in southern France, totally unexpected. There you go, Hi diddly-dee, a Collector’s Life for Me (hat tip Walt Disney)

I’ve done some writing, interested to hear your thoughts on a Lazy Afternoon, Cecil, Archie, La Roca, or indeed, lawyers.

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18 thoughts on “Two Lazy Afternoons: Steve Kuhn and Cecil Taylor

  1. Steve Kuhn (along with Pete La Roca) was in John Coltrane’s quartet in 1960. Steve never recorded with JC but a private tape exists of their April gig at the Jazz Gallery. He was replaced by McCoy Tyner. He also recorded a Cd tribute to Coltrane with Joe Lovano. I caught them live at the new Birdland in NYC and it was a great show.

  2. And actually Steve Kuhn for a time at least was influenced by Cecil Taylor , even Paul Bley has cited CT as an influence, to hear that influence manifested in Kuhn’s own playing look no further than “Childhood is Forever” a Wonderful Album
    http://www.discogs.com/Steve-Kuhn-Childhood-Is-Forever/master/308528
    Here’s what Paul Bley had to say about Cecil Taylor
    “Cecil is wonderful. He’s one of these wonderful, wonderful musicians who are much more than just musicians or instrumentalists. Their personalities color life itself. It’s been a blessing to be in his presence. End of story.”
    https://tedpanken.wordpress.com/2013/04/01/an-uncut-blindfold-test-with-paul-bley-around-2002/

    • Thanks for the link to the Downbeat blindfold test. Gosh what an interesting perspective, that of another pianist. Quite an insight.

      I am not convinced that his mantra “no repetition, everything must be new, always ” is a winning formula but at least it is an unequivocal point of view.

  3. I was lucky enough to see Cecil Taylor on two occasions at the “Village Vanguard.” He played solo for both gigs. I remember the second concert vividly. He played the whole set without a break. The man had so much energy, I couldn’t keep up with him. I still believe he is one of the greatest original geniuses of modern jazz history. Only the passage of time will reveal whether he is a truly an immortal artist.

    I remember reading about the great poet Keats’ despair when he realized his illness would cut his life off at a young age. His anxiety was mostly doubt about whether his poetry was good enough to last the passage of time. Then one day, he felt at peace, with confidence that his art was worthy to survive the generations. We now see that he was correct. And many are amazed that someone so young could produce such beauty.

  4. Wish I could ‘get’ Cecil Taylor – maybe there is a lump missing from my musical education……
    ‘Basra’ on the other hand, is a truly great album – one that I will turn to time and time again. I have never seen this album on vinyl and my own “ESD” was brought back from Japan for me by a business chum along with a load of other rare and hard to get hold of stuff that he found for me in the many musical ‘Aladins Caves’ over there in Tokyo. Class.
    On the strength of Steve Kuhn’s performance here I stumped up the cash for ‘October Suite’ on an Impulse “ESD” and although I quite like it, for me it will never have the gravitas, style or appeal of ‘Basra’.

    • Bill, I was surprised to read your comment about being unable to find BASRA on vinyl — and then I checked and revised my ideas! I bought a cheap reissue within the past couple of years — new, provenance unknown, quality not too bad…. But whoever did that particular reissue, it certainly isn’t emerging in searches currently. There is a 45rpm Music Matters double still floating around (about GBP60.00).

      Looks like an ESD will have to suffice for the time being…

  5. Nice selections to emphasize contrast in styles. I’ve been a Steve Kuhn fan for years, although through his handful of relaeses on ECM where he’s considerably more adventuresome compared to his playing on Basra. I don’t have a copy of Basra, but definitely need to find a copy, reissue or otherwise, after hearing these two tracks.

    One can imagine how startling Cecil Taylor must have sounded in 1958 to some concert-goers. Thanks for the motivation to pull “World of” off the shelf and give it a spin. It’s funny how we find a way to accomodate and enjoy music that once sounded so strange. I agree with a previous comment on the cleverness of Balliett’s writing, never quite showing his own hand, but still fully describing the music.

  6. A terrific post, LJC. Despite knowing both of these records reasonably well, I had never to my shame made the link between the two versions of LAZY AFTERNOON. Well spotted, well analysed, well listened. The La Roca is a genuinely impressionistic lazy afternoon, hauntingly gorgeous; the Taylor/Shepp track is about as lazy as afternoons get chez Taylor. Nonetheless it’s marvellous stuff.

    Again, a splendid choice to accompany your own commentary with Balliett’s. The thing I love about WB’s analysis is that you can’t tell whether he thinks it a good thing or a bad thing that the audience seemed to feel the ground wobble beneath its feet…

    There’s something deeply fitting somehow in finding your copy of Taylor in a provincial French market. Lovely touch.

  7. Cecil Taylor and Archie Shepp are as haunting to my ears now, as they were fifty years ago when I discovered them. The Laroca album is new to me. The polished Joe Henderson lacks the intensity of Archie. Kuhn is not in the same league as Cecil. I find the Blue Note a bit lacklustre.

  8. Steve Kuhn really is a fabulous pianist and a composer in his own right. Yes, he recorded some records for ECM, but some of those I like quite a bit. But the Pete LaRoca association also includes a rare trio date with Steve Swallow on the Contact label entitled “Three Waves” which, though not as adventurous as Cecil Taylor (whom I truly love, but I realize he’s not everyone’s cup of tea) was pretty forward thinking in it’s own way. Also a great recording with Gary McFarland called “October Suite” on Impulse.

    • His LP ‘Trance’ on ECM is beautiful, especially for the title track. I also love October Suite, and would like to hear the Three Waves album.
      I’d completely forgotten he was the pianist on the exceptional Basra.

  9. Being unfamiliar with these records, I struggle to hear any relationship between the two, which I presume is mostly due to the free form of the Cecil Taylor version. You might as well have compared The Beatles and John Cage for someone without free jazz leanings like me haha. But what’s not to like about that Basra album art?

    Thanks for the recommendation. This reminds me of when you put me on to Curtis Fuller’s The Opener, which is now one of my favorite records. There’s something about getting the rec from someone whom you know cares about the music then previewing it on original vinyl, which contrasts with the popular modern way of being recommended music through a Spotify algorithm.

  10. Ohhhhhh! Man – Eiderdown is on the shortlist of my all-time favorite jazz songs and certainly the shortlist of greatest Blue Note cuts ever. It’s perfection. One day I too will own a copy of this on wax. Well done; again, good sir!

  11. Two fantastic interpretations. I can’t chose a favorite. I like Cecil Taylor’s for his haunting piano playing and the one on Basra for Henderon’s lighter touch.

  12. I have not heard the LaRoca, but the Cecil Taylor album I have in excellent condition, and got it for a great price. and i love it.

    i like the liner notes, because they represent how i wish more people reacted to music they didn’t understand. i need to take a nap. i’m not really saying anything.

  13. The version of “This Nearly Was Mine” on The World of Cecil Taylor is a wonderfully coherent and unthreatening series of variations on a most unlikely choice of theme. It’s one of my all-time favourite piano-trio tracks.

    • Respect, Richard. On prompting I sat and listened again through This Nearly Was Mine. I’m not familiar with the Rogers and Hammersmith original (owe TFL apology)

      I have two pressings, the original Candid mono, and the Mosaic stereo Complete Cecil Taylor Candid Recordings. The stereo seems ethereal, spaced, but strangely uninvolving, the original mono blunt and visceral, but more coherent.

      Cecil really shifts through a gamut of style, pace, mood, in and out, melodic, dissonant, comfortable and uncomfortable. Seems to me Cecil made a feature of bypassing common sentiment, it’s like he doesn’t want to be “got”, committed to being elusive.

      Shepp’s presence on two other tracks is lightening rod, actually more grounding. At least I get where he is coming from.

      • The way I view Taylor’s process is that he has a personal vision and sticks to it. I don’t know anything about the size of his following. But the two concerts where I saw him were sold out. It’s true that “The Vanguard” is a small place. But I’ve been there to see excellent groups, when the place was half empty. You may be correct in your assessment. But I would change it to: He just doesn’t care whether he’s appreciated by the mob. This may sound elitist and perhaps it is. His music definitely requires some work. And like any artist, some of his compositions may not be as good as others. I honestly don’t know. Yet, I continue to listen and collect his records.

        I have several first pressings of his early live European concerts. I bought them from someone’s personal collection. They are closer to mint than most of my other jazz records.

        I envy your ability to just take a train to Paris for a record shopping trip. I live in a complete cultural vacuum.

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