Dynamism Between Sorcerer and His Apprentice

by Nate Chinen, New York Times
July 17, 2008

The pianist Cecil Taylor began his first set at the Village Vanguard on Tuesday with a low, quiet rumble, as if testing the physical dimensions of his sound in the room. Then came an overlay of painterly daubs along the instrument’s brighter register. He allowed a few tense chords to resonate and decay and ventured some rippling, upsweeping arpeggios. By the time he plunged into his more exclamatory mode — the intense, two-handed roil that has long been his signature — he had already cast a powerful spell.

Mr. Taylor is eminently capable of mesmerizing with no accompaniment. For his first Village Vanguard engagement since 1997, though, the sorcerer has an apprentice: Tony Oxley, a British drummer whose history with Mr. Taylor goes back two decades. Their rapport was impressive, even if it had more to do with Mr. Oxley’s hair-trigger responsiveness than with any noticeable accommodation from Mr. Taylor.

That’s not to imply that Mr. Taylor operates at a stoic remove from his musical partners. Especially when paired off with a drummer, he can be acutely sensitive to dynamics. Not quite a decade ago, within the space of a year, he engaged in separate duo performances around New York with Mr. Oxley and the percussive legends Max Roach and Elvin Jones, who have since died. Each encounter felt momentous and utterly distinct from the others, for reasons that at least partly involved the direction of Mr. Taylor’s pianism.

Mr. Oxley is an obsessively texture-minded drummer, and he operates in this setting as a shadow rather than a foil. For much of the set he kept up a stir of cymbals and bells — his rig includes an orderly row of them — along with the occasional tap or trill on a tom-tom or bongo drum. Often he seized on a rhythmic idea of Mr. Taylor’s, before dissolving it into static. He was serenely undaunted by fluctuations in energy or pulse.

Of course the engine behind that ebb and flow was Mr. Taylor, who played the bulk of the set as one uninterrupted outpouring. Within that sprawl, there were passing glints of modernist harmony and blues tonality and many moments of imposing keyboard technique. There was also an overarching sense of structure, some of it apparently prescribed — Mr. Taylor referred to sheet music — and some of it more instinctual, or at least less compositional. At no point did it seem that he was trading rigor for charm.

The audience understood this. Its response to that long first piece was wildly celebratory. Mr. Taylor countered with a coda of sorts, comparatively brief and almost pastoral, with an elusive shimmer of Romantic harmony. It was beautiful, in a disarmingly straightforward fashion, and it earned a fresh wave of applause.

Performances continue through Sunday at the Village Vanguard, 178 Seventh Avenue South, West Village, (212) 255-4037, villagevanguard.com.