CECIL TAYLOR ENSEMBLE

The Light of Corona
FMP CD 120

Keeping your attention fixated on the centre ring on this three-ring circus performance by a Cecil Taylor nonet is only a little more difficult than usual.

That’s because while the piano-as-ferocious-lion taming act of pianist Taylor is as riveting as always, distractions abound. There are acrobatic leaps and bounds on show from the horn section and a definite clown act arising from one member of the rhythm section.

The overriding impression you’re left with following this 1986 performance from Berlin however, is how Taylor’s seeming omnipotent power can bend any group of musicians to his will. Also, as with nearly every Taylor production over the past 40 years, the organization and output of the music on the CD are more singular than what you’d find in any other airing by a nine-piece band.

Divided between one massive — 52½-minute — track, unsurprisingly entitled “One”, and a nearly 23-minute encore called “Two”, each tune is organized differently. The second adds various other sounds to a full bore Taylor solo performance; while the first is more of an integrated orchestral showcase, like many of the pianist’s ensemble outings of the past few years.

Monkeyshines in the person of cellist Tristan Honsinger are the distinguishing —and disruptive — element in both these tracks. For the expatriate American cellist — who first recorded in trio format with the pianist in 1988 — clowns around enough instrumentally and vocally to make it appear that he’s second billed on the circus poster. For once Taylor’s distinctive vocal forays and unique keyboard runs come up against japes from someone who can create as quickly as the pianist can and spit out dadaistic vocalizations equally as bizarre as anything from Taylor’s mouth.

That’s another caution: stay away from this CD if you despise the pianist’s vocal exhortations. Not only do they appear infrequently throughout both tracks, but it also takes a good nine minutes of throat clutching, strangled mumbles from Taylor before the distinctive instrumental exposition kicks in.

This is where Honsinger distinguishes himself. Off-and-on sparkplug of Holland’s ICP Orchestras, he knows how to get noticed in a large group and in this one he plays Abbott to Taylor’s Costello — or is Barnum to his Bailey? His innate verbal theatrics allows him to act in his own psychodrama. Here he spews out unconnected words and phrases that entwine Taylor’s vocal pyrotechnics, at the same time as his cello’s swipes, pulls and double stopping makes their presence felt in the spaces left by the pianist’s full-frontal attack.

Acclaimed master of the solo piano recital since at least the early 1970s, Taylor uses arpeggio runs, key clipping and pressured overtone timbres exactly where he feels they’re needed. He shades different quadrants of the keyboard — extended with pedal pressure — at different times, but in no predictable order. Furthermore, on “One”, Honsinger’s arco cello glissandos and triple stops shadow him so closely it’s as if they’re Siamese twins in a midway sideshow display.

Not that the other musicians are idle either. Drummer Jackson Krall, who with bassist Dominic Duval was beginning his stint as the rhythm team in Taylor’s trio emphasizes ratacuses, roughs and rolls when needed, while the bassist becomes a circus strongman, pushing out sonorous four-string propulsion most of the time.

Together and alone, the five hornmen knit together an expansive big top full of exaggerated split tones and particular extended techniques. Somehow it also appears as if the three saxes are able to replicate bassoon and oboe tones as they slide sounds into the mix. Finnish soprano saxophonist Harri Sjöström, who would later become a fulltime members of Taylor’s quartet for a while, may be responsible for this fitting double-reed impersonation; or it may be alto and soprano saxophone man Chris Jonas, later in The Brooklyn Sax Quartet.

There’s no mistaking the serpentine filigree of tenor saxophone’s Elliott Levin, flute work. However, since Levin, who recorded with erstwhile Taylor associate Denis Charles is also a published poet, maybe part of the Bedlam glossolalia here comes from his vocal chords as well. Harsh sharpshooter blasts as well as the odd plunger shake characterize the contributions of trombonist Jeff Hoyer, who has also recorded with avant violinist Leroy Jenkins; while trumpeter Chris Matthay supplies a few bugle call-like showtime fanfares and occasionally a grace note.

Despite the apparent cacophony, every player appears to have his designated part down, and if you listen carefully, you’ll hear each negotiating a particular way through the thicket of mostly cello-bass onslaught. At the end, sharp, short flute squeals extend the melded polyphonic horn parts.

Before that happens Taylor has ranged all over the piano, sometimes investing his octave jumps, arpeggio emphasis and repetitive distinctive patterns with minute snatches of pseudo-stride and a contemporary music overlay.

“Two” — the encore? — begins with Taylor exploring the nooks and crannies of the back frame, escarpment, key bed, lyre and soundboard of his instrument, moving from delicate finger pressure to hard blacksmith’s smacks during its first five minutes. Abstrusely, Duval enters on the offbeat and then the horns create counterlines, reverberating off the piano man’s characteristic style. Staccato, Taylor may be pitch- sliding some of the time, but there’s also a blues underpinning that if slowed down and isolated could actually be hard bop. While all this is going on, Honsinger plays legato, and Krall’s cymbals splash. Finally, as the cellist’s output threatens to turn Continentally folksy, the other musicians turn vigorously passionate. Curses, cries and yells ring out from throats, underlined by the occasional drum roll, bass thump and flute whistle. Honsinger sounding out Dadistic syllables serves as the coda.

Welcome to the world of Cecil Taylor.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. One 2. Two

Personnel: Cecil Taylor (piano); Chris Matthay (trumpet); Jeff Hoyer (trombone); Chris Jonas (soprano and alto saxophones); Harri Sjöström (soprano saxophone); Elliott Levin (tenor saxophone, flute); Tristan Honsinger (cello); Dominic Duval (bass); Jackson Krall (drums)