Ezz-thetics

a column by
Stuart Broomer


Section of “Akisakila”: Attitudes of Preparation (Mountains, Ocean, Trees) cover


“It’s not a situation in which this is a controlled environment.” Cecil Taylor

Jazz historicizing is an apache dance, a ritualized conflict, between nostalgia and revolt, straw boaters and slave ship, the Dukes of Dixieland and Heroes are Gang Leaders, Stanley Crouch and Amiri Baraka. The subject of this column is a special work, “Akisakila”: Attitudes of Preparation (Mountains, Ocean, Trees) (Edition Gamut EG01) by the trio of Pat Thomas and XT, the duo of drummer Paul Abbott and alto saxophonist Seymour Wright. Documenting a performance from Café Oto in November 2018, just a few months after Taylor’s passing, it treats commemoration as a compound act, performance, yes, but also part library, and like much sustained collective improvisation, perhaps part séance. Addressing Cecil Taylor’s Akisakila as an instance of the force and complexity of history, even a wormhole through and out, “Akisakila” reconceives the totality of an individual work and the possibility of reimagining it. While we may not experience historical acts as presence, we might experience something that includes history, a netherworld in which loss and presence begin to dance. “Akisakila” resembles another of Thomas and Wright’s projects, أحمد [Ahmed], the collective quartet that is revisiting Ahmed Abdul-Malik’s melding of Middle Eastern music and jazz some sixty years ago.

Listen to Akisakila (Trio Records) by the Taylor trio with alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons and drummer Andrew Cyrille, recorded almost fifty years ago, on May 22, 1973, in Tokyo. It’s one of the great experiences available in recorded music, possessed of levels of density, dialogue and vision – band as centrifuge, electron microscope or particle accelerator – that are almost inconceivable, certainly indescribable, to be listened to, to be contemplated, to be experienced, certainly, but what might one say about it, how describe it, beyond experiencing it?

The two-LP trio recording Akisakila (there’s a complementary single LP of a solo concert as well) is a central recording of the most keenly attuned ensemble Taylor ever led, likely the finest technical band Taylor ever led, in terms of his fellow musicians’ abilities to interact with, and, to a degree, embrace and extend Taylor’s own music, Lyons emphasizing melodic arcs, inflecting Taylor’s own keyboard cascades with a certain piquant melancholy, while Andrew Cyrille matches and extends complex-compound rhythms. The ease, the energy and the intensity are declared in the opening instants, including Lyons throwing off a rapid, Charlie Parker-like, Woody Woodpecker call.

I heard that Taylor trio in concert more than once around then. I’ve only heard music as quantitatively and qualitatively rich on rare occasions; few musicians play at a similar level and such occasions are to be savored and celebrated. I’m not sure the refinement of compound detail has been surpassed in western improvised music. We might speculate about music of greater emotional depth or openness or visionary capacity, but there are already qualities, commentaries on and projections of larger cultural forms and forces alive in Taylor’s music, that defy containment or measure. His music is genuinely complex, after all, music of love and war, and there are sometimes Strategic Air Command levels of monitoring, contingency-planning and pre-emptivity going on in there, even in those performances where it might be least apparent.

While part of my mind starts to drift, seeking other comparably mind opening musics (say John Coltrane’s final quintet, Anthony Braxton’s Echo Echo Mirror House Music or Evan Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble), I’ll turn to the example in hand, “Akisakila”: Attitudes of Preparation (Mountains, Ocean, Trees) (Edition Gamut EG01) by that trio of Pat Thomas and the pre-existing duo of XT, identified precisely as Paul Abbott, playing real and imaginary drums, and Seymour Wright, on actual and potential saxophone. It’s work of an idiosyncratic power, an homage to the scale of Taylor’s Akasakila that embraces its time frame (between 75 and 82 minutes), its absence of interruption for reflection, its density and its intensity. It documents a tribute to Cecil Taylor at Café Oto on August 12, 2018, following Taylor’s death in April of that year. The performance is a meditation, not a transcription. As Wright explains, “We ‘prepared’ individually by listening to the ‘original’ double LP, before we came together to play – so in that sense we are deriving/remembering aspects of the original, together simultaneously. But we didn’t rehearse it or anything like that, and Paul and I also prepared the voices that appear throughout in advance.” (Note to author)

The original tribute included “Evie Ward [reading] poems for (and influenced by) Cecil Taylor and the late artist’s own writings” and “a discussion between Val Wilmer and Richard Williams on Taylor’s life and work.” In a special touch, “Cecil’s favorite drink - prosecco with a dump of lemon sorbet – [would] be served at the bar.” There’s something about that detail worth saving and savouring, adding another sense, taste, to the mix, and also a sense of Taylor to be sustained through the Thomas/XT trio’s performance. Perhaps the sorbet-laced prosecco is the invitation to séance.

 

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Each musician plays, in a sense, more furiously, more insistently, than the members of the Taylor trio (in some traditional sense, Lyons and Cyrille seemed more “musical,” more cultivated, than Taylor’s other post-1960 collaborators, at least until his European ensembles of the late-80s and forward). Lyons’ tone was essentially sweet, bittersweet perhaps, his style built on Bird’s liquid line, while Seymour Wright is more contorted, more vocalic, his vocabulary including honks, squawks, and squeals, often multiphonic, with runs delivered at lightning speed. If Lyons’ line is a mellifluous stream of lightly inflected events, Wright’s materials are chewed up and spat out at an astonishing rate. Similarly, Paul Abbott, who supplements his drumming with electronics, favors dense sounds, usually multiple, creating a thick, almost industrial background. Pat Thomas’s performance is virtuosic, but it’s essentially free, shifting unpredictably through patterns and densities, inspired by Taylor’s energy, but finding a looser form and his own expression. It’s hard to describe, but it isn’t monolithic. Around the 40-minute mark Wright is exploring strange industrial whimpers; just minutes later, he and Thomas switch to a pattern of pointillist pecking that’s almost a head, new elements of texture and design constantly emerging.

One conspicuous difference between the two works is the presence of the saxophonists. Lyons drops out of the 1973 performance for extended periods of time, at one point for around fifteen minutes, at another for twelve, ultimately leaving the final few minutes to Taylor and Cyrille, who play constantly for the entire performance. By contrast, Wright plays constantly through the first hour of the performance, as do Thomas and Abbott, until the music radically changes character at the hour mark.

Throughout the performance, which begins with a loop of a phrase from the introduction to the original Akisakila, there are periods when taped voices come to the fore for a few minutes, further thickening the sonic texture and creating a kind of musico-verbal collective conversation (The voices include Taylor, Lyons and Cyrille; the poets H.D. and Robert Duncan; and the comic actor Terry Thomas, among others).

At the hour mark, the character of the music, the voices and their textures change radically, and the act of homage becomes most explicit. Brief snippets of dialogue from the Taylor trio give way to a conversation between Taylor and pianist Eric Plaks discussing Taylor’s work, originally the prelude to an extended radio broadcast of Taylor recordings in 1995. The dialogue continues for the final fifteen minutes of the recording, accompanied by Pat Thomas, whose playing combines empathetic reflection, accompaniment and homage.

 

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While the liner note, to some a unique literary form, has suffered in recent decades, whether from diminishing literacy or the rise of the ubiquitous download, “Akisakila” not only restores it, but takes it to an exalted level. The gatefold jacket of the two-LP set presents a text resembling the compound layering processes of the music, or for that matter, life, consciousness, memory. Poet and typesetter Will Holder is a key contributor, credited with partial transcription and typesetting on the jacket, his name is included with those of the band on the Bandcamp page. The jacket that Holder has created may deserve awards; It certainly deserves to be read. The Bandcamp blurb mentions that it’s 13,331 words, which by rough reckoning is about a third the length of the original edition of William S. Burroughs’ Nova Express. Why would I pick that example? The vast liner note (four sides of a gatefold LP cover in tiny print) is, akin to Burroughs’ technique, a cut-up of texts relevant to Akisakila/ “Akisakila”, conversations among the bandmembers, statements by members of both trios from interviews, conversations, etc., laid out in 16 columns that might suggest a 19th century newspaper. Continuous text is indicated by its typeface (italicized, bold, etc.) but each line of text is usually discontinuous with what immediately follows or precedes it. It’s a radical disruption of our expectations for both continuity and coherence. The image above, the lower left corner of the fourth page, represents about 1/24th of the text.

Among the most immediately germane components is Pat Thomas’s discussion of Taylor’s piano technique and the building blocks of his music, pointing out, significantly, that transcriptions of Taylor’s playing never appear in collections of jazz piano styles. Near the outset, initially identified as a conversation between Thomas and Wright, a segment begins “Well [to prepare for the performance] I listen to the”; skip two lines and you have “recording again, reminding me how great a recording, how.” While much of it consists of this kind of spatially regular interwoven parts, the ultimate design might require hours to reconstitute into its components, which is, of course, not the point. Near the top of the second column, Wright begins, “I actually spent a lot of time in North-” only to find it continues on the same line in the third column, “Eastern Brazil anyway, in some of those small old”. It then continues across the next column, then to the following page, along the way starting another related thread, running across columns, about the work songs associated with harvesting cacao.

It cannot be read as a linear continuum; instead, it substitutes the ways we hear complex music. Presented with simultaneity, we shift from voice to voice, pick favorite lines. The next time we listen, our passage, our progress, will be different, we will catch other resonances, other relationships, new meanings. Eventually the threads come together, seemingly intuitively, but the intuition is ours. Perhaps it’s enough to consider that there are cacao work songs, without knowing much about them, just realizing that they are, somehow, some part of our world now. As with listening, especially close listening, especially with complex music, we cannot be in the same place at the same time, cannot remain there, cannot even find there. The experience is rich, immersive, substituting a panoply of voices and possibilities for the unitive presence of the self. One passes through difficulty to a psychic excitement to a kind of refreshing detachment. Like Taylor’s own music, like “Akasakila,” of which it’s an essential component, it’s a kind of brainwash, the positive kind, a liberation, with meaning examined, restored, and no alien reprogramming evident.

 

© 2022 Stuart Broomer

 

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