Monday, 30 July 2007

The Great Silence

Today, I thought I'd post a review of a fairly obscure spaghetti western made in 1968, directed by Sergio Corbucci, 'The Great Silence.' It was released on DVD a few years ago, so should be fairly easy to get hold of, boasts a fine score by Ennio Morriconne (perhaps one of his best), and is a cut above your average Italian western. More detailed thoughts continue below the picture...

The setting – a bleak, snowy Utah in the 1840s.

The characters – a corrupt ‘justice of the peace’ who controls the town. A beautiful widow seeking revenge for her husband’s murder. A lone gunman whose speed on the draw is renowned throughout the state. And a group of bounty killers hunting down others for profit.

So far, so very standard spaghetti western. But this is no ordinary western, spaghetti or otherwise, and, while parts of it are stilted and the technical competence is sometimes lacking, it’s probably the bleakest and most thought-provoking film in the genre you’ll see for quite a while.

Certain elements immediately mark it out– the bleak, wintry setting (which was also employed in Andre de Toth’s excellent ‘Day of the Outlaw’ from 1959, starring Burl Ives and Robert Ryan), and the fact that the widow is a negress (played by newcomer Vonetta McGee, a striking actress who’d started out in experimental theatre and been involved in social activism, before going on to act in low-budget European movies, and then carve out a career of sorts in the 70s Hollywood Blaxpoitation boom). Tying in with this, there are a number of oblique references to racism (the villain, Tigrero/Loco, comments, “what times we live in - black’s worth as much as a white man”), something that perhaps raises connections with the so-called ‘political spaghettis’ being made by directors like Damiano Damiani (‘A Bullet for a General’). The fact that the hero, the lone gunman, is a mute who speaks not a word and makes no sound for the entire film, takes the spaghetti western tendency to work through expressive, stylised facial expressions to an extreme level (though the actor, Jean-Louis Trintignant, makes it seem very unforced, and allows us to actually care about the character, conveying a mournful vulnerability as well as hard-nosed brutality – hard to see Clint Eastwood pulling off the same trick.)

The ending sees bounty killers shoot down the crippled hero before massacring a saloon full of men, women, and children, and riding off with the assertion that it’s all been done according to the law (the people they’ve killed are all outlaws – wrongfully so, but still outlaws). It’s exceptionally bleak, as if to say, this was the old west, this is what your nation was built on, this is what passed for justice – in other words, taking a similarly dark outlook to ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’ (one of the rare American westerns to take a less than rosy look at the nineteenth century American west – rare, that is, before the spate of heavy-handed 1970s films which drew parallels between the treatment of the native American Indians and the war in Vietnam – ‘Little Big Man’, ‘Soldier Blue’).

But it’s not just the Americans’ view of their own history which it’s subverting – after all, dig a bit deeper, and you’ll find serious problems being raised earlier on – by Ford in ‘The Searchers’, for instance – in other words, it’s not as if all American westerns took a rose-tinted view of their own history. Ford had even made ‘Cheyenne Autumn’ in 1964, four years before Corbucci’s film, where he portrayed the sufferings of the native inhabitants (and, earlier than that, 1950’s ‘Broken Arrow’ marked an important, if somewhat romanticised, sympathetic portrayal of Indians as far more than murdering savages). No, ‘The Great Silence’ is as much a response to other Italian westerns as it is to American ones. Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy showed the west as a brutal, desolate place, where women were virtually absent and killing and money were many people’s sole motives. The villains in his films were clearly villains, characterised by their hysterical, cackling laughter, their drug-induced reveries, their sadism, and the fact that they were accompanied by a dozen or so accomplices. Yet the heroes only seemed to be heroes, perhaps, because the baroque extravagances of the villains were so repulsive. At the beginning of ‘For a Few Dollars More’, a man riding a horse, seen in the distance, is killed by a long-range rifle shot – we don’t know who he is, whether he’s a good or a bad man – he’s little more than a dot on the horizon – but the fact is, he’s just been murdered. Then we read the screen-card: “where life had no value, death, sometimes, had its price. That is why the bounty killers appeared.” It turns out that these bounty killers are the ‘heroes’ of the film, and presumably one of them has just committed the act we have just witnessed. Bounty hunters had figured in American westerns before (‘The Bounty Hunter’, a fairly innocuous effort starring Randolph Scott, came out in 1954), but the fact remains that these are professionals who kill people for money – unlike sheriffs, who act out of a civic duty, a responsibility to the community that arises out of their position as representatives of justice in action – they’re not really very nice people. Leone softens the impact of this in several ways: (1) by showing how corrupt and inept the lawmen, who should be dealing with these criminals, are (Monco: Tell me, isn't sheriff supposed to be courageous, loyal and, above all, honest? Sherrif of White Rocks: Yeah, that he is. [Monco takes badge off of the sheriff's vest, and gives it to some town folks] Monco: Think you people need a new sheriff). (2) By giving his killers motives (Lee Van Cleef’s Colonel Mortimer in ‘For a Few Dollars More’ wants revenge for the rape and murder of his sister). Or (3) by making a joke out of it, as in the closing exchange of the same film:
Monco (Clint Eastwood): [counting reward sums of outlaws he just killed] Ten thousand... twelve thousand... fifteen... sixteen... seventeen... twenty-two. Twenty-two?
[An outlaw comes from behind, Monco turns and shoots him dead]
Monco: ...Twenty-seven.
Col. Douglas Mortimer: Any trouble, boy?
Monco: No, old man. Thought I was having trouble with my adding. It's all right now.

In ‘The Great Silence’, however, director Sergio Corbucci takes the idea that bounty killers must, by the nature of the job they have chosen to do, have some moral deficiencies, and runs with it – Klaus Kinki (a spaghetti western stalwart, always liable to turn in a scene-stealing psychotic performance, who, incidentally, features in ‘For a Few Dollars More’ as one of the ‘heavies’ in El Indio’s gang), murders and glares his way through the film, his intense blue eyes giving him a look of utter menace. Along with his cronies, he takes the place of the bandits who were the villains in Leone’s films – indeed, here, the starving bandits we meet, hiding up in the hills, are unjustly outlawed men waiting for an amnesty from the governor, and living in terror of the bounty killers who want to kill them for the reward before they are pardoned. In a way, they are similar to Leone’s characters – calculating, quick-draw gunmen who take advantage of the brutal climate they find themselves in for monetary gain – but they are so coldly inhuman that Eastwood and co. seem lovable in comparison. While the hero, Silence, who works against the bounty hunters, is also, partly, in it for money, asking $1000 dollars of Vonnetta McGee’s widow in order to kill Loco, he sticks to certain codes of conduct, such as protecting the innocent, and only shooting in self-defence (he forces his opponent to draw first).

Pehaps the most important thing about this film is that it moves far beyond the moral murkiness of Leone’s trilogy towards a serious examination of the moral implications of such a brutal society as that of the old west. Leone gleefully blasts away all the old myths, but his stylised vision is maybe less ‘realistic’ than one might think – less well-rounded than Corbucci’s ‘Silence’, touching on less complex issues, though, as film-making, it’s perhaps more competent (and more entertaining). The title card at the end of the film, proclaiming the historical basis of the story (something I’m unable to substantiate), adds a note of gravitas lacking from the Dollars trilogy, and the hopeless sacrificial death of Silence actually plays out a cliché familiar from ‘Shane’ - ‘a man’s-gotta-do-what-a-man’s-gotta-do’ – rather than the more superficial, monetary motivations of Clint Eastwood’s character. As Howard Hughes (not the tycoon!) puts it in the Pocket Essentials Spaghetti Western guide, “the nihilistic finale lives long in the memory – a moment when a man has to do what a man has to do, over love, the odds, and reasonable logic.” A damn sight more thought-provoking and moving than counting up the money you’ve earned by blasting away a dozen heavies and driving off happily into the sunset.

This is not an entirely successful film– Corbucci’s response to Leone indulges in many of the same clichés that the other director had established with his trilogy: the stylised shootouts, confrontations, silences, and so on. Its interest lies more in the ideas it presents than the way it presents them – though it is certainly a cut above many other spaghettis, and the snowy landscapes, coupled with Ennio Morricone’s wonderful score and some good performances, ensure that it’s very watchable.

While it may not be the greatest movie, we need more films like this – films that take us out of our comfort zone, that give us enough generic points of reference to lull us into some sense of security, but in the end will not allow us the easy resolution we expect, and make us question the very basis of the generic values and elements that made us want to see the film in the first place.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Evan Parker and Squarepusher Live, 16/07/2007

The weekend after the historic meeting between Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor at the Royal Festival Hall, another intriguing pair was scheduled to perform at the South Bank, this time at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. And, while one of them, Evan Parker, was, like Braxton and Taylor, a veteran of the avant-garde jazz/improv scene, his playing partner, Tom Jenkinson (a.k.a. Squarepusher), was a far more ‘mainstream’ musician, though one with a highly subversive aesthetic. Along with Richard D. James (Aphex Twin), he’s sometimes lumped into the ‘drill n’ bass’ or I.D.M. (‘Intelligent Dance Music’) bracket – for those unfamiliar with the terminology, it basically means that he produces electronic music with enough beats and bleeps to keep any raver happy (and “dancing around like a chicken on fire”, in Jenkinson’s own words), but with plenty of dissonance, noise, and a dash of experimentation. Most importantly in relation to this particular collaboration, there’s also a pronounced jazz influence, especially in his virtuosic bass playing, which he shows off from time to time – though he’s got more in common with fusion-meister Jaco Pastorius than with free music bassists like William Parker or Sirone.

All in all, an unlikely pairing – whose idea was it? Maybe Jenkinson saw what Spring Heel Jack (, have been getting up to in recent years and thought he’d like to dip his toe into the waters too – maybe Parker, who’s worked with SHJ, was interested in finding common ground with another musician coming from the electronic/dance music scene. But this was probably more than just a random collaboration (both men would seem to have enough integrity not to be thrown into something out of media hype – and in any case, this didn’t get too much attention in the press, though the hall was packed on the night). There is, though you might be hard-pressed to find it on first listen, a certain affinity between their musics, in intention if not execution: Tim O’ Neil ( draws a parallel between Jenkinson’s ‘Ultravisitor’, which he sees as an unsuccessful, “schizophrenic” attempt to fuse electronic and acoustic sounds, and Parker’s ‘Memory/Vision’, which “bridge(s) the gap in a more intuitive manner…encourag(ing) the spontaneity of real-time interaction on the parts of both the electronic and acoustic portions of the composition.”

Anyway, encouraged to go out of curiosity as much as a hope that anything genuinely interesting could be achieved (though of course I was hoping for that too), I made my way to the QEH. I can’t say I got full value for money (when you include transport to and from London) – this was a pretty short concert, clocking in at around 70 minutes – and nothing revelatory happened to suggest that this is a collaboration with that much mileage in it, but it was intriguing enough nonetheless. Part of the problem was that Jenkinson restricted himself to the electric bass, discarding the electronics he normally deploys, which could have found common ground with Parker’s own experiments in this direction, such as with his electro-acoustic ensemble. And, despite the fact that this was billed on the strength of being an unusual collaboration, they only actually played together for about 20 minutes: the first half was Jenkinson solo (playing four pieces in a 36 minute set), the second half Parker solo (a 20 minute circular-breathing showcase on soprano), then the two playing together (with Parker switching to tenor). Even though they received rapturous applause (coming from the Squarepusher fanatics, I somehow suspect, considering the fact that there were loud screams whenever he finished playing), they only came out for an extra bow at the end – no encore. I read a rumour somewhere on the internet that Warp Records was recording and videotaping the concert, so maybe you’ll be able to hear some portion of this music in a couple of months – and maybe they’ll work together a bit more in the studio (hopefully with electronics), but, on the night, I felt a bit short-changed, though it was certainly no disaster. Here are some more detailed thoughts on the music.

Though often linked with Aphex Twin, Jenkinson seems somewhat milder, less perversely weird, though he is liable to antagonize the audience (“I’m very into abusing the audience, whatever,” as he told one interview), and is a pretty reclusive figure. On this occasion, he was businesslike – no showmanship, just a man with a bass guitar walking out onto a near-empty stage, acknowledging the raucous cheers of the audience with a gentle wave. Dressed in an open-necked shirt and suit trousers (virtually the same attire as Evan Parker – smart-casual, professional but not stuffy), he proceeded to play, standing still for the most part, occasionally taking a few paces to the side before returning to his original position.

His opening improvisation was lyrical and guitar-like, as was much of his playing in the first set – in a similar vein to ‘Everyday I Love’, the beautiful short piece that closes ‘Ultravisitor.’ Of course, there were elements of Pastorius – how could there not be? – but it was less flashy and less ‘jazzy’ in its idiom, more introspective than Pastorius, an effect complemented by the subdued blue on-stage lighting. Jenkinson exploited the deep, resonant tone of the bass, but played his (fretted) instrument with more emphasis on chords than horn-like lines and runs. The mood was mostly one of gentle lyricism (in contrast to the harsh hyperactivity of something like ‘My Red Hot Car’, his best-known track), but there were louder sections, where, amplified by the sound engineers, he produced some loud and aggressive hard plucking sounds.

In the second piece, he alternated between bursts of loud, rock-inflected playing and lyrical meanderings. By this stage, I was beginning to have a problem – there was a lack of any real sense of development; instead, all we were getting was little snippets which didn’t coalesce very coherently (James Lincoln Collier makes a similar criticism of Miles Davis’ playing in his book ‘The Making of Jazz’). At one point, a song-like invention lead on to a more evocative, flowing passage that would have been at home on a film soundtrack. On the third piece, a muted opening saw more pronounced elements of jazz creep in, along with passages that reminded me of classical acoustic guitar music, before he went for a more prolonged virtuoso section, slapping the body and strings of the bass with relish to draw out some deep, throbbing, and sometimes very aggressive sounds.

Overall, however, it felt like that sort of music that might appeal to musicians for its technical prowess (and you have to hand it to him, he is a very good bass player technically) but lacks heart, or a clear sense of direction – to put it in it simply, noodling. Little bursts of his Pastorius stylings on records may be nice, but hearing him unadorned in this context made me realize how they need the innovative soundscapes he conjures up with electronics and beats to make them really work.

So, after a disappointing first set, I was expecting a lot more from the second half. Evan Parker duly obliged, delivering the sort of performance that has become almost routine for him now (I don’t mean to suggest that it was a routine performance –far from it, it was extraordinary and compelling, and he does it as well now as he ever has). Using circular breathing techniques, whereby the performer inhales through the noise, while air stored in the cheeks is exhaled, through the mouth, into the reed of the instrument, he is able to avoid the usual pause-driven nature of the solo, and instead create mesmeric instant compositions which paint a compelling musical landscape. Constant coils of motion are interspersed seamlessly with high-pitched squeaks, reminiscent of seabirds circling over the rolling, endless beauty of the sea (a somewhat pedestrian and clichéd comparison, maybe, but one that really stood out in my mind at the time). He’s developed a way of playing like two men, creating two parallel lines which are played in such close temporal relation that they seem to occur simultaneously. His left hand maintains a circular run, while his right hypnotically punches out a counterpoint, and the shrill bird-cries (harmonics?) pepper the mixture to add what is essentially a third line, which becomes more and more unearthly as he continues, now evoking flutes, violins, bird calls of course, but above all, he is playing SOUNDS – and sound is what Parker and many other free improvisers are interested in above all. About fifteen minutes in, I realize that he’s been playing the same motifs for several minutes – producing a similar effect, now I come to think of it, to Terry Riley’s classic minimalist works like ‘A Rainbow in Curved Air’ or ‘Morning Corona’ ( I suddenly notice the feeling of a dance – is Parker playing Eastern European dance themes in the middle of the swirling vortex of sound? Even if that was just an auditory illusion, his improvisation did echo that moment when spinning dancers become whirls of colour only, moving so fast that their form becomes indecipherable and they appear as abstractions.

It was hard to see any similarity between this and the Squarepusher solo set, apart from the fact that they had been performed by two men standing on the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, improvising solo and sharing the same bill. How would they interact? They seemed to be coming from completely different places – Jenkinson technically superb, showing off his chops in fast-fingered runs up and down the bass as well as playing lyrically, yet never really developing his fragments into a seamless whole, while Parker created music of great fixity, change occurring incrementally, imperceptibly, in a piece that felt static (in a good way) despite the constant motion. There were no pauses or discontinuities – just one wave of sound rolling round and round on itself and revising itself before going round again.

But here it was, the event round which the whole concert essentially revolved – the meeting of Squarepusher and Evan Parker. Jenkinson came back on stage (as usual, to tumultuous audience reaction), and Parker switched from soprano to tenor sax. As they began, the bassist concentrated on busy rumblings beneath Parker’s tenor chatterings, both creating a hyperactive, spidery, twitching dialogue. They seemed to be interacting well; Jenkinson initiated a crescendo motif, to which Parker responded, before taking that into a more hyperactive feel, which the bassist picked up on. He didn’t seem overawed by Parker, which could easily have happened, considering his newness to the field of free improv, where Parker’s attained near-venerated status – instead, the older man spurred him on to be much more adventurous and coherent than in his solo set, adapting to the rigorous demands of this style of music-making with aplomb. You could see him watching his partner, listening for the right moment to drop out and come back in again, what to play to complement the saxophone line, to create a separate line that was still in dialogue with the other yet had an independence of its own, that didn’t solely on being complementary, on playing a supporting role (though if anyone could be said to have taken the lead, it was Parker). Certain stylistic tics showed Jenkinson’s background – he would tend to play very fast repeated motifs beneath Parker’s more abstract avant-gardisms, for example – but the music nevertheless had a natural ebb and flow to it, moving from hyperactivity to sparse moments where Parker’s breathy sax floated over Jenkinson’s clanging, bell-like bass. It all fitted Jenkisnon’s left-field image – near the end, he went crazy, hands going up and down the bass in a mad circular motion – but he didn’t subordinate artistic integrity to wanky, hollow ‘freakiness’, and, as a result, this was compelling listening. Consequently, the applause when they finished, as so often happens in improv, quietly, after going through some gorgeous high, rippling, watery sounds, was well deserved.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton at the Royal Festival Hall, 08/07/07:Some Thoughts

"Given Taylor’s holy role as the eternal outer curve of the avant-garde, it isn’t his function to make things easy. When we can listen to him with half an ear, he’s lost."
Gary Giddins

Sunday 8th July, 2007. On a day that Roger Federer was taken to five sets by Rafael Nadal in the final of the Wimbledon tennis championship, eventually winning through to equal Bjorn Borg’s record of five successive Wimbledon titles, musical history was also being made. For the first time ever, two giants of improvised music, pianist Cecil Taylor and saxophonist Anthony Braxton, were playing together for the first time, in a quartet with bassist William Parker and percussionist Tony Oxley, at the newly refurbished Royal Festival Hall. Like Al Pacino and Robert de Niro, two doyens of the crime film genre who appeared in similar films and appealed to a similar audience, their meeting, when it came, took on the air of a momentous occasion even before it happened. And, like Pacino and De Niro’s shared screen time in Michael Mann’s epic drama ‘Heat’, it turned out to be well worth the wait.

The Royal Festival Hall might seem like an odd location, and, indeed, I’ve read comments along the lines that it would have been better to give the group a week-long residency in a small club, rather than a one-off gig in a prestigious concert hall. Yet Taylor’s leading collaborator Jimmy Lyons commented thirty years ago, “I think the music is to a point now where the nightclub can’t handle it…It has to be pushed culturally as it is an advanced music; I don’t think it can be appreciated right in” (quoted in Valerie Wilmer’s ‘As Serious As Your Life’). Perhaps the concert hall is actually Taylor’s natural home, a sign that he has gained the prestige his music deserves – certainly, just as with Ornette Coleman, who performed at the RFH the next evening, it was a long way from his beginnings, where his music was constantly misunderstood, where other musicians would refuse to play with him, and where critical reaction was frequently hostile in the extreme. After all, wherever Taylor plays, he remains resolutely himself, making no concessions to popular taste or critical demand: he plays what he feels, and now he has the status to offer him some security, he has even more freedom to pursue his own unique path.

Aside from the choice of venue, questions remained about the music itself. How would Taylor’s extrovert, flamboyant, no-holds-barred virtuosity sit with Braxton’s more acerbic voicings? Would they attempt to find some sort of meeting ground, or would each man go his own way, leaving an unresolved tension that, while superficially exciting, would also be extremely frustrating for both musicians and audience?

As it happened, these questions would not be answered until the second set. I sat down in my £35 seat (the combination of high tickets prices and travel costs meant that this was an expensive evening), and I have to admit that my heart sank when Polar Bear were announced as the opening act - I was expecting a marathon Cecil session! A quintet led by big-haired drummer Seb Rochford, with bassist Tom Herbert, tenor saxophonists Pete Wareham and Mark Lockheart, and electronics man Leafcutter John, their CD ('Held on the tips of fingers') is tolerable, but a bit too smart and vacuous for its own good. I did enjoy some of the stuff they were doing (Leafcutter John's 'solo' with squeaky balloons and some of the double-sax soloing 'freakouts'), but there are 2 fundamental problems with their music: (1) too often it veers towards empty, slick, groove-based material (tight, arranged, soulless) - though admittedly there is a strain of melancholy introspection which is quite attractive, if left somewhat underdeveloped (it was most present in the first two pieces they played). The line-up is interesting (two saxes, bass, drums, electronics - no chordal instrument), and the use of electronics could have made a difference, but in the end not that much was done with them, as regards texture - they tended to be used as either 'weird' noises or for repeating loops/grooves as the background to some of the more 'far out' stuff. Which leads me to point (2) - though I found myself caught up in some of the 'skronk' solos by Pete Wareham in particular (echoes, however brief, of techniques used by Evan Parker and John Butcher, flitted through his playing), in the end (this was something brought into sharper focus by seeing Cecil afterwards), these avant-garde elements were being used in a fairly empty way - not as a logical, coherent, complete means of expression, a vocabulary with validity in its own right as emotionally fulfilling music, but as a device to seem 'far out' and a bit edgy. As if worrying that an audience might not approve of 'random loud noises' – that they might leave the building or something – there was always some sort of steady, repetitious pulse behind the 'out' sections (either bass, drums, or electronics). Strange considering that most of the audience had come to see two of the most challenging avant-garde musicians of the past fifty years...

And so on to Cecil...I'd been scribbling down notes (impressions, criticisms, etc) in the first half, and continued to in the second, albeit more haphazardly and frenziedly, as Cecil's music is so flexible, metamorphoses from one thing to another with such quicksilver speed, that you have to work fast to capture something you particularly liked! From those, and from what I remember, as well as some views from hindsight, here is what you might call a 'review'...

The performance can be divided into three main sections. Firstly, a duet between Tony Oxley and Taylor, consisting of two pieces (possibly with a composed piano part and improvised accompaniment on drums). Secondly, a bass solo from William Parker. Thirdly, the entire group took the stage. This dividing up of resources ensures both a variety of texture and a chance for all the musicians to showcase their abilities (if being a trifle pernickety I could say that Parker needed his solo feature, as you could barely hear him in the quartet music!).

There was an element of ritual from the start (though it wasn't that apparent late on): a poem reading by Taylor over loudspeakers (whether spoken offstage or pre-recorded was unclear) accompanied Tony Oxley as he wandered over to the drum set, his white hair glowing in the dim lighting, and sat down. It was like some sort of avant-garde play - this performative aspect is very important in a lot of the free music of the 60s and 70s (think Archie Shepp with his late 60s ‘marching band’ phase and pieces like 'Mama Rose', or Coltrane's callisthenics, or the Art Ensemble of Chicago, most notably), and also in Taylor's music. This connects to the African roots he emphasised, as well as to an almost surreal imagination, even mischievousness. Though humour is not the first thing people tend to mention when he plays, I think there is a kind of child-like joy in the sheer uninhibited nature of his work at times - particularly the record he did with the Italian Instabile Orchestra ('The Owner of the Riverbank'), of which there is a wonderful video clip on youtube ( Anyway, Taylor duly capered onstage, shaking some handbells, like a shaman, or an elf...and sat down at the piano, and began to play.

The Taylor and Oxley duo left me somewhat unsatisfied. Taylor appeared to be playing composed music (he had a number of sheets of paper on the piano, presumably a score, and, when the first piece finished, he shuffled them around and pulled out another piece) - even if he wasn't, even if it was improvised, it lacked the fire and invention of his best work. It had the mournfulness that permeates all his music at certain points, but also a Debussy-ian sound to it, even traces of Romanticism. A certain phrase he played seemed directly reminiscent of 'L'Isle Joyeuse.' There was perhaps too much concentration on the middle register of the piano, and on repeated phrases (in a way that approached banality). The thought flashed through my mind that maybe it was the music of an old man, operating at a more subdued ('mellower'?) level than his previous work, which didn't bode well for the rest of the concert (happily, I was to be proved wrong). Even the fleet-fingered right-hand runs up the piano seemed more like Impressionistic excursions than white-hot flourishes.

Taylor and Oxley played two pieces, lasting in total about half an hour or 40 minutes (I forget exactly). They left the stage, and on came William Parker, a large, hulking figure (from a distance, a bit reminiscent of Mingus in build) dressed in a baseball cap and flamboyant multicoloured shirt. Hunching over his instrument, he gave a virtouso showcase of technical dexterity with a real sense of ebb and flow, of structure and emotional logic, even though this was total improvisation (albeit he probably mulled over his plan of action beforehand). Alternating plucked, forcefully rhythmic bursts with bowed passages exploring high, cello-like sonorities and harmonics, sliding from song-like melody to buzz-saw helicopter imitation to a sad, almost pitiful whine, hinting at a middle-Eastern cadence at one point, turning cavernous, playing with dynamics, fading in and out on an obsessively repeated figure, before ending it all with final plucked notes drifting away like a death knell...

What with the restrained nature of the Taylor/Oxley duo and the inevitable echoes of classical music you seem to get in a bass solo, you could be forgiven for thinking that this was a concert of modern classical music (though of course generic boundaries should not be too much of an issue when assessing Taylor - they are far more likely to end up as a stumbling block than an aid). With the final section, though, jazz elements came far more to the fore, in the main because of Braxton's presence. A shudder of excitement as Braxton finally comes onstage (having briefly appeared earlier to position his five or so saxophones), the eccentric professor with his scraggy necktie. Electronics seem to be used (Oxley?), though these are thankfully kept to a minimum. The atmosphere is hushed, expectant. Cecil creeps, elf-like, to the piano, and, hearing the sinister, primal sound of Braxton's contrabass clarinet, elects to pluck the piano strings rather than striking the keys. A cautious start - the musicians feeling their way, the music emerging gradually, the tension building as Braxton punctuates his subterranean rumblings with high pitched squeals, a chiaroscuro technique of extreme contrasts, while Parker bows away and Oxley flitters round the drum set. The contrabass clarinet is, one senses, somewhat unwieldy as a solo voice, yet for sound colour, for texture, it serves a valuable function.

As they feel their way, it strikes me what a disparate bunch of people these are, yet how they manage to interact so naturally, to create a unified sound pattern - Taylor, small, nimble, twitching, forever active, inquisitive; Parker hulking over the bass, his face obscured by his baseball cap, tearing up and down the bass with his fingers or gently gliding his bow over the strings; Oxley white-haired, inscrutable, barely moving, apart from his hands, which are engaged in a kind of circular dance round his drum kit; Braxton, only half his face visible behind the enormous instrument he's playing, eyes closed in an agony of concentration. That's the real glory of free improvisation, I suppose - the fact that individuals can create something that's both convincing as a whole, as a unit (hence the name Taylor used for his bands, the 'Cecil Taylor Unit'), and as a statement of their individual personalities and styles. A truly democratic music that doesn't sacrifice emotional content for such ideals, but puts them into practice with often extraordinary results.

The opening section of rumblings, enquiries, hesitancies, evolves into something more energised - Braxton switches to sopranino sax, inclining his head over to one side as Taylor moves from inside the piano to begin striking the keys, clearly inspired by the pianist's inventions as his runs begin to mimic Taylor's unstoppable note-flows. His playing becomes panic-stricken - a deranged, dying bird's screams as it flutters to death...or something more capricious than that, something even joyfully anarchic, impossible to pigeonhole - Oxley grins, his face finally betraying expression; Taylor looks over at him - a shared moment that betrays the high level of interaction these two have (which was somehow near-absent in their opening duo).

Braxton's moved on to alto - he never spends that long with one instrument, realising the nature of this music, which is of constant change, the possibility to go in any direction (or several at once...) without sacrificing flow or structure. It also shows how aware he is of texture, of the sound canvas the group is producing, and of how he can vary and alter this. He waits there, holding the instrument, eyes closed, nodding and shaking his head from side to side, immersed in what Taylor and the others are creating, waiting for the right moment to enter the fray. When he does, he produces a throaty, hard, almost baritone-like tone. A high-pitched whistling sound from an unknown source - electronics manipulated by Oxley, perhaps (these are often a feature of his solo performances). Braxton is now on soprano and the mood changes to one of introspection, Parker bowing instead of plucking his bass, Braxton's keening, melodic playing bringing out Taylor's innate melancholy lyricism.

He moves back to alto and the interaction between him and Taylor becomes clear, as he picks up on a melodic fragment tossed into the melting pot by the pianist one of his busy runs, expands on it and transforms it into something lyrical. Cecil insists on dialoguing with him, or beneath him - yet, as always, it's as much a dialogue with himself as with the other man, right and left hand existing as independent units, the left hand liberated from the supporting, chordal role it traditionally played in jazz, all part of Cecil's new conception of the soloist. Joe Zawinul's comment about Weather Report - "we always solo and we never solo" - could apply here, albeit in a slightly different way: in a sense, everyone is soloing at once, yet they are connecting to produce a convincing whole, and there is never a feel of egotism or showing-off flashy virtuosity. Taylor and Braxton are trilling; Braxton seems on the verge of playing a line from one of the standards he interprets in solo recitals - say, 'Round Midnight'. How this could be considered 'intellectual', 'forbidding' playing should be a mystery to anyone hearing this man play.

Slight reservations remain in my mind, impressive though this is – a feeling that Taylor and Braxton are interacting on an almost superficial level, focussing on call and response and exchanging motifs, rather than the more organic interaction of Taylor and Jimmy Lyons. It's hard to tell, and it's essentially subjective anyway - what's for sure is that even an inferior Taylor performance (by his standards), one that lacks that certain something his greatest work has, blows Polar Bear's first half set out of the water. This is truly on the edge - unpredictable, full of possibilities, of which only a few can be realised in one evening. A comment Elvin Jones once made about John Coltrane is relevant to this gig - it's like these men are sitting on a mountain of ideas and several flake off every few seconds.

After a more boisterous passage, the music quietens again - preparation, as it turns out, for the final assault. Oxley taps his drum, diminuendo...shhh, shhh, shhh...Patterns have started to emerge, fitting into the ritualistic element introduced by Taylor's and Oxley's initial entrances on stage: Braxton and Taylor throw lines and melodies at each other, the rhythm section going full pelt, before subsiding into calmer lyricism, Oxley dropping out, then surging up again as Braxton pauses, wipes his face with a large blue handkerchief, picks up a different instrument, stands there listening, then re-enters, his choice of notes both being shaped by and shaping the flow of the music...Maybe this is a system they worked out beforehand, backstage, in discussion, maybe it's more intuitive than that - whatever the case, it's utterly convincing, the music progressing like the rising and falling of the ocean tide.

Taylor suddenly solo - yes, yes, yes, he's found something - Braxton's nodding, bobbing, he knows it too - Parker plucks for his life. Oxley knows it - he's grinning, his hands moving more than ever, as if they have a life of their own. Taylor's runs won't stop, Braxton jumps into the stream of inspiration, his fingers fast, fierce, flinging off notes and sounds and colours...Whatever my reservations about what's come before, now I know, and they know that they've finally hit something, a sustained period of brilliance rather than the mere flashes seen previously - Braxton's circular breathing assault, the rhythm section boiling into a frenzy, Taylor inspired, his hands flying up and down the piano at near-superhuman speed....

Taylor ends it all with a short, sharp, dissonant chord. Inside me, a feeling both of elation at having witnessed such great music-making, and of regret at the fact that it was over. On the evidence of these last few minutes, if not the performance as a whole, the standing ovation the group received was well deserved - and where else in the world today could you find such music of such unadulterated sublimity, apart from under the fingers of Mr Cecil Taylor and Mr Anthony Braxton?