SUMMER RE-UP: Alone in Tokyo at 2:30 am

Originally posted 28 August 2007

Cecil Taylor
Venus : 1974

CT, piano.

It’s too late for a recording session, but fuck it. Wake the engineer. Tell the studio to make the necessary arrangements. He reminds Koinuma he’s not bringing the full band so it shouldn’t be such a big deal. They only need to prepare for a single piano and how long can that take? After all these time zone changes, the idea of a proper hour now strikes him as completely irrelevant anyhow.

He’s feeling… what? Not a burning sense of purpose, exactly. Not a joyous desire to catapult the keys off the piano or exorcise the demon of some new composition that keeps rattling inside his head. This mood is more diffuse. More, I guess you’d say, melancholy. Not that precise terminology is ever particularly helpful with emotions. He needs to translate the grey of feeling through the black and white keys, examine its contours, measure its span, reshape it according to his methodology. Then maybe it will begin to make sense.

He arrives straight from the club, a small place with mirrored walls near the Shinjuku district featuring waitresses in black cocktail dresses who handle the drinks with translucent surgical gloves. A health code regulation or new fetish chic? Nobody seemed to understand the question. The weeknight club crowd was mostly circumspect and listened intently, but something was missing. Some context for his music. Is that their fault or his? Hard to keep it straight sometimes.

It’s now just him and the engineer, some kid with long greasy hair named Sugano Okihiko. The studio doesn’t rouse their best people in the middle of the night, presumably, not for him anyway. But as it turns out, everything is prepped immaculately. He sits at the piano and exhales deeply. Something’s not right. He asks Sugano to dim the lights. That’s better. He wants to really feel the lateness, maybe even the utter aloneness. He rakes his fingers across the keys a few times, nods at the kid, and then begins…

* * * * * * * * * *

In the canon of Cecil Taylor’s solo recordings, this gem from the early 70s has been overlooked. It may not have the visceral fireworks of Silent Tongues, the swirling hypnotic command of Indent, or the formidable architectontic structures of Garden, but it offers something much rarer.

Solo is undiluted Cecil, but with an unusual meditative quality to his playing, making it easier to follow his thoughts and luxuriate in the lyricism. There are hints of stately sadness mixed with complete mastery that remind us of the portrait painted in the Smog tune “Prince Alone in the Studio.”

In the words of Greg Tate: “Solo has Debussyan decorum and Chopinesque restraint going for it, Ellingtonian sweep and Monkish symmetry. Not to mention a calm-in-motion akin to Akido that may say much about being black and by yourself in Japan at 2:30 in the morning making music that does not speak for itself alone.”

The fact that Cecil’s music resonates beyond itself is crucial. But it’s not always easy to hear. Tate lays it out:

In Cecil’s music as in poetry, the game of allusion is played to give spiritual and historical resonance to a language of self-invention. This game playing nourishes both the poet’s iconoclasm and his faith in holy tradition — two character traits essential to any people whose artists must invoke release, revolt, and remembrance to survive a culture dedicated to the disposable.

Only here is where the responsibility of black artists to tradition becomes trickiest. Because for any black person to get over in this country the way Mahalia Jackson sang about getting over, they have to learn to play the game without fouling out. And then even learn the handy trick of going out of bounds to bring the ball back into home court. To my mind, this is what black avant garde music is all about — and in this league Cecil Taylor’s got my vote for MVP in any season.

So these tracks offer a snapshot of our man in jazz on the far edges of the commercial scene, recorded on May 29, 1973, in the nether-hours of a Tokyo morning, alone with a music whose imaginative possibilities reverberate so many years on.

* * * * * * * * * *

The quotes come from Greg Tate’s essential but sadly out-of-print Flyboy in the Buttermilk. Do yourself a favor and score a used copy while you can.

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