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Beholding the Brilliance

Without doubt, the fifth annual Solos and Duos series offered an opportunity to hear the voices of musical innovators whose focus is honed to an edge of unsurpassed acuity. Cecil Taylor, the duo of Joe Morris and Daniel Levin, and Joe McPhee were the performers. UMass Amherst was the venue.

Cecil Taylor

Writing about Cecil Taylor is like trying to translate the Rosetta Stone. His iconoclastic history precedes him. Mapping Taylor’s artistry through listening is next to impossible unless one listens openly and with no preconceptions. Only then can the listener ascertain the fluidity of the musical line as it rises out of the sound’s restlessness.

Taylor’s music maintains the discrete nature of his ideas. His motivation lends itself to building conceptual relationships between his hand movements, no matter how different or how similar they are. His playing showed how his hands shift between opposing gestures. They traveled from simply laid out notes to large resonant chords. The sounds varied from hard to soft and wavy. He spread his fingers out widely and planted them firmly on the keys in rapid motion, here and there, then there and here, spanning the entire keyboard. He moved his hands together in perfect symmetry out from the center of the keyboard and back again in block chords or in runs. His hands ascended slowly up the keyboard in search of a dynamic and then back down the keyboard, perfectly balancing loud to soft. He seldom repeated phrases. He rolled the back of his hand across an octave’s worth of keys or flatly pressed a larger group of keys with his forearm. The music had no noticeable counterpoint within it. Every gesture was a nugget of energy and contributed equally in the shaping of an entire composition. There was no cacophony. There were no complicated figures. It seemed that he explored every tonal value available on the keyboard.

The evolution of each piece Taylor performed could have eluded me because the ideas were disintegrated, but the point is that the music is dis-integrated, not as in falling apart but as in one musical concept existing next to another.

Joe Morris and Daniel Levin

The second concert featured the duo of Joe Morris on acoustic steel string guitar and Daniel Levin on cello. The two musicians sat beside each other at the front of the stage. They were so close together that they sometimes touched. Their connection was nearly cellular. The compositions were by Morris, the first dedicated to Jimmy Lyons.

Repetition and gesture distinction pervaded this performance. The drive and insistence of the playing kept me on a metaphorical edge of my seat. The music was quick and arduous. The colors of each instrument gleamed through occasionally in terms of accentuation instead of glorification. Morris was intent on creating the least amount of sound with the most refined movement, which often resulted in cascades of superb abstractions. Every sound he produced emanated from the tiniest fingering; both hands stayed primarily at the center of his guitar. The tolerance for change was extremely small; the limitations on the sound were purposely narrow. Levin echoed Morris’s imperative. He often tickled the strings in the same way Morris did. But to widen the scope, he rocked and scraped his bow. Its application to the strings was stiff. His fingers moved rapidly up and down the neck of the instrument to change the pitches. He stepped out of the implied boundaries when he bowed deep and lush tones or patted the strings with his hand or scrubbed them with his knuckles. Levin’s body language was opened. Morris’s was closed. No harmony or lyricism prevailed. There was only concurrence. The two created sound that was complementary, contrary and coincidental.

The music relaxed and fell into a rhythmic groove towards the end of the concert. Levin treated the cello like a bass and Morris approached the guitar strings within a looser more tuneful weaving. Yet, retrieved from that looseness was a continuous, unyielding musical line, which was as breathtaking as the relentless meditation on these two instruments which came before.

Joe McPhee

The series ended with a solo performance from Joe McPhee. He played the soprano sax, pocket trumpet and the tenor. Tapping the valves of each horn and blowing air through each mouthpiece carved out the musical space he was entering and shaped his eventual embouchure for sound. The ranges and capacities of each instrument became his landscape.

With the soprano, McPhee used tremolos and inexact sequence repetitions to climb to a sonorous plateau where he would change direction. He pressed through note after note, sometimes nasally, sometimes squealing, to reach a new plateau of arpeggios only to change direction again. There, he found single note phrasings and then the melody. He drew elegant sound-pictures that curved, swirled, scattered, split and were replete with ostinatos. Mellifluous pure tones expanded a melody line of his writing into dynamic improvisation. He sang through the reed. His voice was entangled in the tones. And then only air through the sax remained. Another short soprano piece magnified his tenacity with arpeggiation, where changing the way he held open the valves changed the tone and the sublime was a salient destination.

McPhee handled his pocket trumpet as a vehicle for molding the least amount of sound with the most physical attention. His lips at the mouthpiece, right-hand fingers on the valves and his left hand acting as a mute formed an interaction of air and hardly audible pitch. Action filled the brief improvisation, which expressed more about absence of sound than sound itself.

Finally, on the tenor, McPhee enunciated gracefully gorgeous, rich, often bluesy phrasings to paint an atmosphere of homage and reverence. The purity and hugeness of his tone was unwavering. He mixed vibratos with larger chordal statements and rippling arpeggios. The repetitions of melodic phrases shifted slightly in construction. The more he played, the more pronounced were the avenues of deconstruction and rebuilding. Even though its coherence at first evaded my ears, the more alert I was, the more the music’s formalized nature became clear and identifiable as one of his early compositions. Surges of one-two-three tones continued to spring off his touch. The music evolved with magnificent roundness and depth. It became gentler; it became Motherless Child. He opened up and landed peak after peak, chorus after chorus. A single melodic phrase that began the piece re-entered. A radiant vibrato introduced a last crystalline tone. His voice overlapped the tone. The piece was done.

When McPhee reached a pinnacle in one of his improvisations on soprano sax, he was facing away from the audience towards the wall to his left. As he played, he arched his back, bent his knees slightly and directed his horn toward the ceiling. His eyes were closed. His silhouette was dark. His horn sparkled in the light. Shrillness pierced the air. McPhee was unfolding his passion to extol those musicians who have left the earth in body but whose presence is eternally transformed through their music.

It is these stellar moments that we will remember and carry with us. It is these moments that describe the backbone of cultural and personal history, of artistic commitment and perseverance. This is the music that bonds us to the spirits of others. This is the music that is timeless.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Cecil Taylor, Joe Morris and Daniel Levin, Joe McPhee
  • Concert Date: September 26, October 26, November 29
  • Subtitle: The Fifth Annual Solos and Duos Series
  • Venue: Bowker Auditorium and Bezanson Recital Hall, University of Massachusetts
  • City State Country: Amherst, Massachusetts
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