Friday, 30 September 2011

School's Out - Student Studies With Cecil Taylor

The closest I’ve ever been to attending a university: Cecil Taylor’s ‘Student Studies’ album on Affinity (vinyl, double, in perfect nick, still).
   Whilst at secondary school I studied girls, music, clothes, football, and nothing much else.
   What course would my life have taken if I’d passed my 11-plus and gone to the Latin school next door (the irony - placing The Achievers next to The Losers!)? A career is one thing, but what about culture?
   Class and culture were bound up back then. Today, less so, I suspect. As a kiddo from a council house I had to love soul, reggae and even rock. The posh kids were on another track, long ones, consisting of tales of topographic oceans and King Arthur to the sounds of intricate fretwork and Wagnerian synthesizers, probably. How do I know? Well, what are the chances they were moon stomping to Toots & The Maytals or shuffling their loafers to Motown tunes?
   If I’d been with the posh kids, would I have dropped Kool & The Gang for King Crimson? We weren’t into Prog, or educational progress.
   I may have smoked dope instead of downing pints of snakebite, and lived in flared jeans rather than adopting the shifting styles of the street.
   ‘Cecil Taylor is very educational!’ declare the Jazz Elite, who like to think they’ve studied a subject that is profound, and beyond most people. Perhaps they’re right; I may have said as much myself in the past. If CT is a ‘subject’, he’s akin to Latin, or double Dutch, to most ears. ‘Jazz Is The Teacher, Funk Is The Preacher’, sang James Blood Ulmer in 1980. Right there he summed up the extent of both my learning, and my religious experience.
   What does Jazz teach anyone? You tell me.
   What can we learn from ‘Student Studies’? That CT was a musical maverick, unique visionary, genre of one, sonic explorer of the eighty-eights – yes.
   ‘What goes into an improvisation is what goes into one’s preparation,’ he once said, ‘then allowing the prepared senses to execute at the highest level devoid of psychological or logical interference.’ Devoid of those, we listeners may also benefit when it comes to listening to CT. Free your mind and pleasure will follow.
   From Slade in the 70s to CT a decade later, I took a long, strange musical journey. If the earlier phase was logical, what came later also had its logic (from Funk to Jazz-Funk then Jazz). Then I learnt to abandon preconceived notions of what music ‘should’ be by listening to the likes of CT, Archie Shepp, Pharaoh Sanders, Ornette Coleman and the rest.
   Most music comes pre-packaged with a logical mindset relating dancing, dreaming, crying, whatever; this music does too, if you heed the scare stories about ‘Free Jazz’ (labels can be shackles, can’t they?). But whilst wall of noise wailing by the tenor titans frightens off most people, CT’s piano-playing may be more approachable, dare I say, as long as you forget notions of logic, harmony, etc.
   Yet there is a kind of logic to this music, the illogical kind, or the kind that CT creates as he constructs and executes the music. Listening again, I now adopt a Zen-like approach, I let go, and let it go. Here are four men (CT, Jimmy Lyons on alto sax, Alan Silva on bass, and Andrew Cyrille on drums), making music, making sounds. That’s it. I keep the volume down and let them get on with it.
   The record as time capsule delivers them to me all the way from Paris in 1966. It strikes me as a fantastic thing that this is possible. Equally fantastic is the fact that nothing they do sounds that old, and neither is it contemporary. It’s beyond time.
   CT’s debut album in ’56 was called ‘Jazz Advance’, and he did advance Jazz, beyond recognition. It was a warning, but no-one could know at the time. He would continue to advance through many lean periods, but finally reach the point where, today, he’s regarded as a kind of institution, a member of the Intellectual Musical Appreciation Society’s hall of fame.
   You don’t need to be ‘educated’ to listen to Cecil Taylor. I’ve learnt that much.

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