[JPL] Cecil Taylor/John Zorn @JALC Reviews

Lazaro Vega wblv.wblu.fm at gmail.com
Tue Mar 13 17:11:36 EDT 2007


Published: March 13, 2007

There was a superficial electricity ahead of last weekend's double
bill at the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center: Cecil Taylor's new
trio and John Zorn's Masada. It was conducted further by some critics
and through the nervous conversations of the audience before the show.
It had to do with the notion that a pugnacious jazz avant-garde was
being invited inside the gates of a dull and powerful establishment.

The jazz avant-garde is a problematic notion: everybody knows roughly
what it means, but nobody knows where it begins and ends. And if you
accept Mr. Taylor and Mr. Zorn as avant-gardists, you're too easily
forced to consider Wynton Marsalis — Jazz at Lincoln Center's artistic
director — as a mainstreamer. He's not. His bands don't sound like
anyone else's.

But above all, the experimental composers and bandleaders whose work
refers to, argues against and engages with different parts of jazz —
the putative jazz avant-garde — just don't need Jazz at Lincoln Center
anymore. Their interests and audiences don't extend there. They've
built their own festivals, their own record companies. (Mr. Zorn has
created his own Lower East Side club, the Stone, with music six nights
a week.) The MacArthur Foundation has honored almost all the major
figures of the jazz avant-garde with fellowships. Academic presses are
pumping out books about their achievements. What's the big deal, for
them, about a gig at the Rose Theater?

Since it began presenting concerts in 1988, Jazz at Lincoln Center has
never before contracted Mr. Taylor or Mr. Zorn for a concert. (Oops.)
Now, toward the end of a season called "Innovations in Jazz," they
were packaged together as a twofer. But whatever ponderous
metathoughts about jazz the weekend's shows promised, they happily
delivered something much more specific: the end of one great band and
the beginning of another.

Mr. Zorn distrusts institutional authority and has mastered the
language of the outsider-scourge. Onstage with Masada on Friday, he
righteously cudgeled the institution.

"Let's hope this is the beginning of a trend of enlightened
programming here," he yelped. "There are more young faces in the
audience here than there have been since the inception of this place!"
The remark ennobled the scattering of mostly white and schlumpy
student hipsters among the old subscription audience, but that didn't
make it true.

Speeches delivered, the quartet started up, and of course it didn't
sound out of place; it sounded great. Nobody got up and left. The
older subscriber types around me weren't put off by the aggression in
the music. They liked it.

Masada's music is logical, comic, athletic; it rides on a strong
groove from Greg Cohen's bass and Joey Baron's speeding drums. It
never sounds comfortable or settled, which fits with the rest of Mr.
Zorn's artistic temperament. It uses Jewish scales, early Ornette
Coleman melodic shapes and hardcore-punk energy, and both Mr. Zorn and
the trumpeter Dave Douglas feed off the rhythm section's rush: Mr.
Douglas's solos are harmonically engaged; Mr. Zorn's are gestural.

Like all of Mr. Zorn's best projects, Masada is an airtight system. It
has also barely changed since its first records in 1994, and
Tzadik.com, the Web site of Mr. Zorn's label, Tzadik, announced that
the Lincoln Center shows would be two of Masada's last concerts.

What is it, at this point, that's so important in Cecil Taylor's
music? Rhythm. He plays some interesting chords, but it isn't so much
how he gets from one to the next, or the melodic shapes he traces;
it's all in the movement. As with any innately charismatic actor or
dancer, witnessing it is infinitely better than trying to explain it.
It's in the millions of choices that make a flowing gesture.

There's plenty of alluring stuff in Mr. Taylor's phrasing: funk, 6/8
grooves and very familiar bits and pieces of blues. It's just that a
lot of it happens almost simultaneously, one strand merging into the
next before the completion of a single measure. His new trio, AHA 3,
had Henry Grimes on bass, who confirmed the music's shifting key
centers with his low-end rumble. But it was the drummer Pheeroan
AkLaff, playing with technical detail and plenty of funk, who made it
all clear for you.

In a handful of pieces, some becoming impossibly dense and clotted,
too much for a sizable chunk of the audience — was this why the Rose
Theater technical crew made the idiotic decision to bring up the house
lights before the show was over? — the three musicians careered
through agitated pantonal improvisations, bass and drums tightly
aligned to Mr. Taylor's phrasing.

Mr. Taylor's music doesn't draw on a body of consensual, practical
knowledge; he is the single source of his art, and his sidemen got as
close to it as any Taylor group I've seen in 20 years.

Will Friedwald's review of the same concert in The New York Sun:


March 12, 2007

When Jazz at Lincoln Center got going 15 years ago, it was initially
perceived as the leading bastion of jazz conservativism, preserving
everything that was good about the music's past. As for the future,
the thinking seemed to go, it would take care of itself. In the three
years since the opening of Rose Hall, however, there has been more of
an effort by JALC to position itself as the organization for all of
jazz — classic and contemporary.

Saturday night's program featured two groups: Masada, the avant-garde
jazz ensemble led by alto saxophonist John Zorn and pianist Cecil
Taylor's new Aha 3 trio. The evening represented a major step forward
for the idea that JALC can truly be all things to all jazz lovers. Mr.
Taylor, a venerated statesman of jazz who has been a controversial
headliner for over 50 years, is the archetypical revolutionary. Mr.
Zorn has positioned himself as something of an anti-Wynton Marsalis:
He runs a performance space (the Stone, on Avenue C, in addition to
the record label Tzadik), but whereas Mr. Marsalis champions
everything traditional — New Orleans, swing, bebop — Mr. Zorn is the
guru of everything downtown, experimental, and just plain flaky.

Masada, which first recorded for a Japanese label in 1994, is both a
specific body of compositions and the ensemble, with Dave Douglas,
trumpet; Greg Cohen, bass, and Joey Baron, drums. The concept behind
this group was to present what Mr. Zorn calls "radical Jewish
culture": '60s-style free jazz with a decidedly Hebraic outlook — sort
of Ornette Coleman meets Mickey Katz in hi-fi. Mr. Zorn's main tactic
here is to start with melodies that sound like they could be played at
a Jewish wedding, but the music is rendered with collective melodic
improvisation. Mr. Zorn's saxophone statements — such as shrieks and
shouts or disturbances and distortions — are just as much a part of
the music as the regular tempered notes. The most conventionally
melodic moments are Mr. Cohen's bass solos, and the quietest passages
are Mr. Baron's drum solos. The group is constantly playing beautiful,
minor key melodies, often involving exotic polyrhythms, and then
immediately destroying any chance of the audience relaxing into the
music with eruptive, explosive dissonances — as if it were a
production of "Fiddler on the Roof" staged by the inmates of

Mr. Zorn, who was recently awarded the MacArthur Foundation's "genius"
grant, also seems to be competing with Keith Jarrett for the role of
jazz bad boy. After the first number, Mr. Zorn harangued the Rose Hall
technical staff to lower the house lights and refused to proceed until
they did, and delivered nearly all of his spoken announcements
off-mike, as if he couldn't be bothered to walk three feet and talk
into a microphone. He was dressed like a rapper, in camoflauge pants
and hooded sweatshirt, and treated like a rock star, in that the crowd
went wild every time he overblew a note. But because his skill as a
composer, and his mastery of the horn, as well as the interplay of the
quartet, are all remarkable, I was going wild as well.

Cecil Taylor's major bit of stagecraft was to have his drummer,
Pheeroan akLaff, begin the show by tapping on his conga drum, while
Mr. Taylor, still backstage, responded by tapping back. (Mr. akLaff
sports the largest, most intimidating percussion setup I have ever
seen — even more impressive than that of drum star Jack DeJohnette.)

Next Henry Grimes made his entrance, but rather than picking up his
familiar olive oil-colored bass, he began scratching random notes on a
violin. Mr. Taylor then alighted the stage, but did an odd dance
holding what looked like Balinese finger cymbals, gargling what
sounded like a death rattle. When he made it to the piano, he plucked
a few strings inside the instrument, and read several lines of
decidedly nonlinear poetry (seemingly random words) before starting to

After a lot of buildup, we were suddenly in the middle of it. Whereas
Mr. Zorn's music employs theme and variations, loud and soft dynamics,
fast and slow, Mr. Taylor's playing is nothing but pure momentum and
energy: a morass of rhythmically driven music with nothing that
suggests conventional melody or harmony. Never before has JALC emcee
Todd Barkan's standard opening line about jazz being "a journey into
the unforeheard" been so accurate. Mr. Taylor's playing seems at first
like pure pounding, an assault on both the piano and the audience, but
gradually patterns emerge and a kind of inner logic reveals itself.
Mr. Grimes switched between violin and bass, and Mr. akLaff was all
over his encyclopedic trap set, but the main force was Mr. Taylor,
pushing ever forward. His stamina and technique were remarkable in his
30s, and now, for a 78-year-old man, they are even more impressive.
About two thirds of the way through his set, he slowed down, letting
our ears relax a bit. The softer and almost tranquil passage that
followed seemed beautiful.

Both groups, who played to a near capacity crowd of people younger
than the standard JALC audiences, received two of the only standing
ovations I've seen at the Rose Theater, and both played encores. After
tonight, nothing could surprise me, even if Wynton Marsalis were to
give a solo, unaccompanied trumpet concert at the Stone.

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