Pioneers keep walking the trail

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It is somehow fitting that the first major jazz concerts at the buffed-up and acoustically pristine concert hall should feature, on consecutive nights, the two surviving musicians most responsible for wresting jazz from the night club to the arthouse. Pianist Cecil Taylor and multi-instrumentalist Ornette Coleman – along with saxophonist John Coltrane – swept aside jazz convention in the late 1950s and ushered in what was to become the unfettered liberation of free jazz. But aside from labels – avant-garde/ free-form – and searching to extend the boundaries of jazz improvisation, this triptych of iconoclasts had little in common.

Coleman and Taylor missed out on an orthodox jazz apprenticeship, and seemed determined to reject harmonic convention from the outset. But their solutions, like their backgrounds, could not have been more different. Taylor’s polyrhythmic clusters came from an Afrocentric reading of contemporary European composition and his austere expressionism from academe. Coleman’s self-taught lyricism was a product of Texas rhythm and blues and years rehearsing in a friend’s garage. No wonder that Taylor and Coleman, for all their mutual emphasis on spontaneity and harmonic freedom, have never actually played together. Even now, a full half-century after their first recordings, their paths remain mutually exclusive.

There was a time when Taylor’s music came with a health warning – not for the faint-hearted – and the techniques themselves seemed shocking. But nowadays the ebbs and flows of spontaneous improvisation have their own orthodoxies, and the sight of a nimble 77-year-old dancing towards a concert grand like a shaman, with sampled snippets of myth and poetry as accompaniment, was par for the course.

Taylor’s gig, on the first of these two nights, was billed as a first meeting with multi-reedsman Anthony Braxton. It opened as a slightly on-the-leash duet with Taylor’s regular drummer Tony Oxley. From a foundation of a simple middle-register melody, he built a complex edifice of magisterial chords, with Oxley shadowing – perhaps a little too closely – his every move. Next came a deeply melancholic solo spot from bassist William Parker.

Finally, the full quartet and the full exhilarating intensity of the Taylor experience. Taylor’s idiosyncratic virtuosity and razor-sharp intellect impel musicians to play to their limits. Parker using two bows, Braxton’s whirlwind circular breathing and Oxley’s multi-pulsed clatter were all grist to Taylor’s technical mill. In continuous performance, they created a multitude of textures, from growling contra-bass clarinet and fluty sopranino sax, to the final, fingers-blazing assault.

While Taylor started with the fragment of an idea, Coleman’s opening fusillade was a classic, if abstract, bebop melody. From this pre-set starting point, he spun an endless stream of pure melody, soaring over an anarchic rumble of two basses, bass guitar and the strong pulse of his drummer son Denardo. The music flowed freely, but roles and destinations were clearly marked. Charnett Moffett and Tony Falanga on acoustic bass bowed sonorously or walked firmly, swapping at will, while Al MacDowell provided a counterpoint in the upper register of his bass guitar. Impressive, out-of-nowhere endings were tightly argued.

Coleman is a melodic genius, whose ethereal ballads, frenetic modernism and abstract smears have a Bach-like clarity of design – a beautifully bowed cello cantata was one starting point. Most, though, were recent material, and only the bluesy “Turnaround” and the timeless ballad “Lonely Woman” – an ovation-demanded encore – were from his early recordings. Like Taylor, he refuses to rest on his laurels, and the effect is life-affirming.
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