The Wire’s publisher zooms in on one bad riff as a way of entering the late pianist’s musical universe
“That’s just a bad riff,” announced Diamanda Galás during an Invisible Jukebox interview in The Wire 153. It sounds like the High Priestess of Gothic melodrama might have been responding to a particularly amplified moment of metal monomania, that hyper-tense combination of drive and stasis, momentum and repetition that defines the baddest riffs of all time. In fact, Diamanda was commenting on a moment that occurs in “Second Pleasure”, a track on Always A Pleasure, a release on the German FMP label that documents a 1993 Berlin performance by The Cecil Taylor Ensemble.
Diamanda might have once been labelled a Satanist by Cecil Taylor himself, but she knew one thing for sure: that when it came to getting a handle on Cecil's music, which at first glance could appear monumental, grandiloquent, self-aggrandizing and full of hubris, the devil really was in the detail.
“Second Pleasure” is not a track per se (although it’s marked out on the CD issue by PQ edits), but a five minute section in a continuous 70 minute performance. It begins with Cecil rolling a bass figure, that bad riff, under the fingers of his left hand, feeling it out, applying sensual pressure at all the significant points, keys yielding to the touch; then with both hands he slides it up through the registers, amplifying the intensity with increasingly urgent motion, before tying it off by hitting a sequence of blue-hued notes with laser precision, but injecting them with just enough harmonic ambiguity to keep you suspended in the heightened eroticism of the moment.
It’s a process that takes just three seconds to unfold, and Cecil repeats it numerous times over the next five minutes, each time mutating and expanding the original phrase with variations in attack, sonority, note choice and timing until it has been transformed into a long unbroken line that is sent flying through the upper registers – which makes this particular passage a ripe one for study for anyone interested in getting their heads around Cecil’s developmental approach to improvisation.
That's one way into Cecil Taylor's music. Another is to consider the fact that by the time of the recording of Always A Pleasure, the pianist must have played this phrase, this bad riff, hundreds of times before: it appears on most of his records from 1966’s Student Studies onwards.
As with Ornette Coleman, that other historically imbued radical actor of 20th century black American music, Cecil Taylor’s music was partly an art of quotation and recontextualisation, or cut and paste. His improvisations drew from a vast library of fragments – favourite phrases, motifs, licks and riffs; intervals, inversions and voicings – which he summoned forth into the here and now each time he soloed, reconfiguring and recombining them, impacting them into one another at great speed and with immense force. This is why listening to a Cecil Taylor performance can bring forth sensations of déjà vu (historical echoes) and future shock (revolutionary statements) simultaneously. In an ongoing act of vernacular surrealism, the familiar was made strange again by being rendered in utterly new conjunctions.
But to get back to that bad riff, and to expand on Cecil’s own description of a single struck note, it is a whole continent, a world in itself. And peering through its molten liquid surface, down into fathomless depths below, we can just catch sight of Alvin Alley’s limbs describing arcs and parabolas through space, while James Baldwin recites tactile homoerotica, and Roll ’Em Pete Johnson vibrates the air with sustained low end pressure. It is, in other words, the world Cecil Taylor’s music made condensed into a moment; a world he created (had to create, in fact) for want of any existing world generous or expansive enough to accommodate him whole.
It was Cecil’s world, but we can all still live in it.