Cecil Taylor, octogenarian free-jazz originator and pianist nonpareil, played an hour-long solo set Friday night alongside fellow keyboardist George Cables at the Society of Ethical Culture as a part of the ongoing JVC Jazz Festival. The pairing, despite the unquestionable pedigree of the musicians featured, seemed a little arbitrary in its juxtaposition of sonic philosophies. The magnificent, Ruby Slipper-red Steinway dropped center-stage might as well have been the sole link, instrumentally or ideologically, between the players.
Mr. Cables, a post-bop elder statesman in his own right, divulged a lyrical, almost confessional series of tunes devoted to family members and friends. Humbly gorgeous, expertly delivered, the mostly self-penned numbers managed to develop the wistful resonances of their blues-basis into an enduring, almost historical poignancy. Cables excels in crafting phrases that while familiar, never come off as derivative or tried, managing to take a luxuriously expressionistic vantage from the keys while simultaneously damming any undercurrent of schmaltzy histrionics via the relaxed virtuosity of his stylings.
Mr. Taylor, dressed in dino-print polyester, wind pants and eskimo socks, might, under different circumstances and expectations, have been the psychotic anathema to Cable’s cooling performance. After reciting a poem explaining the basic organizational language of music, Taylor preceded sit down at the piano, disorganize it, and recombine the shattered phonemes into something approaching an avant-garde Babel. It’s been said that Taylor plays the keys for the percussion instrument it really is, but that prognosis leans a bit too heavily on the musician’s dynamics (really loud) while denying the harmonic complexity, the exploitation of the unique tonal possibilities of the piano that really define the berserk genius of his method. For the onlooker, its a visceral sensation akin to watching a master chemist mix poison in front of you. There is a well of intelligence behind the red-ring danger of these chords, a third element beyond the improvisor and his ivories that one senses could, in less authoritative hands, detonate catastrophically at any point.
As for what, exactly, he played: Multicolored papers covered with drawn-in boxes rested atop the keys like some inscrutable score, but as Taylor turned the sheets as his performance progressed it became clear that their meaning more inspirational than instructional. I might be wrong, but it seemed like the pianist played variations on a single, fractured theme for the entirety of the session, gradually mapping the terra incognito of his initial phrases into an improvised atlas of warping textures, techniques and tensions. The audience clapped when it could, but the emphasis was all on Taylor’s hands, tearing up and down the board with calligraphic abandon. At this point, it hardly mattered that the evening’s bill made no sense: for sixty minutes, we found ourselves lodged squarely in Cecil’s cerebrum, finding peace in the brain fever, solitude in the solipsism.