Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Master Taylor and His Apprentice

The infamous Embraced, Cecil Taylor’s stylistically mismatched live duet recording with fellow piano legend Mary Lou Williams, is considered a train wreck by her fans. (For Taylor’s fans it is just good subversive fun.) So when Yosuke Yamashita likens an upcoming piano duet concert with Taylor to painting with Picasso and boxing with Ali, they are reasonable metaphors. However, unlike Williams, Yamashita is a free-oriented player who repeatedly credits Taylor’s influence on his musical development. As a result, they prove to be quite compatible in the February 2007 concert captured in director Yasuhiko Shirai’s documentary, 4 Hands: Cecil Taylor and Yosuke Yamashita in Concert, which received its American premiere last night at the Lincoln Center. (In lieu of a trailer, here is a link to Burning Piano, a 1973 short film of Yamashita playing a piano in flames.)

My biggest complaint about music documentaries is that they rarely have the confidence in their subjects to show a complete performance from start to finish. No such griping here, since Shirai shows their entire improvised concert, without interruptions or voice-overs. He also shows edited footage from their rehearsals and press conferences, and interview sequences with Yamashita, to provide context for the main event.

Interviewing Taylor however, is a bit of a challenge in any language. He seems to have a tendency to answer reporters’ questions with cryptic koans, if they are lucky, which makes it difficult for them to get their sound bites. At one point, he facetiously asks: “what is this, twenty questions and no answers?” Evidently, that actually works as a sound-bite for me.

Yamashita often refers to Taylor as his “master” and remembers with pride the praise he received from the legend at a Montreux Jazz Festival. Indeed, they clearly speak the same musical language. Although Taylor’s early sessions are surprisingly accessible (and compelling), he would develop an uncompromising style over time that does not offer a lot hooks for neophyte ears to hold on to. However, the concert dialogue between the two imposes a certain structure on Taylor that makes this a good entry point into his music.

Clearly, Yamashita was delighted with the results of the concert and Taylor must have been okay with it too. He attended the first screening last night, and even gave a direct answer to a question from the audience. When asked where the music he and Yamashita created that night came from, he rattled off diverse sources including “Wade in the Water,” Ellington’s “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” as well as the pulse of life on the streets of New York and Tokyo.

In Hands, Taylor is as passionate and percussive on the keys as ever. Though at times respectfully deferential to Taylor, Yamashita hangs with him quite well throughout. Painstakingly editing footage from eight cameras, Shirai crafted an excellent concert documentary. It deserves real distribution in the future, presenting Taylor and Yamashita’s music in a way that could actual stretch some ears not previously accustomed to the freer sounds of improvised music.