It’s (unofficially) Cecil Taylor month in New York’s jazz world

Cecil Taylor. (Michael Hoefner, via wikimedia commons.)
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In New York’s jazz world, May is unofficially Cecil Taylor month.

Next week, the 83-year-old avant-garde pianist is scheduled to play two different solo concerts —one each at Harlem Stage and Brooklyn’s Issue Project Room—which will be his first performances in his hometown since 2009.

And while both of those dates have already sold out, a variety of other celebratory events have been scheduled around the margins of Taylor’s reemergence, suggesting that theaters and promoters and individuals were just waiting for an opportunity to celebrate the musician.

That activity includes a new-to-surface recording of Taylor’s late-90’s large ensemble, issued by the jazz website and label Destination Out. On May 22nd, Anthology Film Archives, in its welcome role as the visual accompanist to any experimental “happening” in another quadrant of the city’s artistic community, will also present a night of rare Taylor concert footage, with the maestro in attendance.

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And last night, a quartet of artists—three pianists and the poet Amiri Baraka—kicked off New York’s “month of Taylor” with a tribute concert at Harlem Stage, in a program that will largely repeat this evening.

Yet, for reasons beyond the mere celebration of Taylor—something that is always welcome—this month’s inter-borough programming is important for other reasons.

The demographic breakdown of the near-capacity crowd that attended the Harlem Stage event last night was gratifyingly balanced: young and old, male and female, and multi-ethnic. Looking at that audience, you’d hardly know that a great portion of New York’s “creative class” had been hotly debating of late the racial implications of the HBO comedy “Girls,” and what that show’s near-unanimous whiteness might be (even accidentally) implying about the current racial makeup of the city’s artistically-inclined population.

Everyone at Harlem Stage—regardless of generation or background—was aware that Taylor’s work shook the world starting in the 1950s, and that his contributions reverberate even still, at a time when the master is less frequently active. The presence of Baraka, too, served as a reminder that a progressive creative culture has been part of the city’s essential makeup for some time.

Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn, who made up the “youth” half of the program, were well known to anyone who follows the contemporary jazz calendar. (The former’s band recently was in residency at Birdland, while the latter’s main group recently occupied the Village Vanguard for a week.) And Iyer is perhaps familiar even to those who don’t follow the scene in any dedicated way, thanks to his covers of M.I.A. and Michael Jackson, and his NPR stamp-of-approval. In any case, both of their respective debts to Taylor were rendered clearly on Tuesday’s concert, in which each pianist played solos and duos in tribute to Taylor, along with Amina Claudine Myers—a first-generation member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. When not looking on from off-stage with a beaming appreciation for the pianists, Baraka recited his poem "Play Dat," at the concert’s midway point, supported with playing and vocalizations from Myers. At 10 dollars a head, tickets were an almost obscene bargain.

During the evening’s first half, each pianist took turns playing a mini solo set. Taborn’s innovative percussive effects—grooves on top of grooves that are perverting still other grooves—seemed, as ever, directly inspired by Taylor’s pianism (memorably described as the sound of “eighty-eight tuned drums” being played at once). Taborn’s most striking solo moment was built around a slightly irregular stomp of ascending cluster-chords that rose from the low end, around which the pianist spun fleet, whimsical phrases with his right hand. Meantime, Iyer’s often-gentler attack also bore traces of Taylor’s influence—particularly the open spaces in which the younger pianist let strange timbral effects hang in the air, the better to be appreciated. Myers was, as ever, her own thing—more songlike throughout, as befit her own legacy of choral compositions (she was also the assistant musical director for Ain’t Misbehavin’, before its Broadway production).

Iyer and Taborn have played as a duo in town before, and their joint performances after the intermission on Tuesday were interesting in familiar ways. But each player was pushed into more unfamiliar territory when joining Myers, whose bluesier, Gospel-like improvisations introduced a thrilling tension, in which there was movement between experimental voicings and a more vernacular tradition, raising the metaphorical question of the relationship between the mainstream and the marginalized.

That question, and the answer that jazz has historically provided, was what made Baraka’s inclusion in the program so inspired. He has performed “Play Dat”—a poem originally in tribute to pianists John Hicks and Hilton Ruiz—in public before, and as recently as last year at Le Poisson Rouge. But Myers’ accompaniment here—gentle comping that rose in intensity throughout, and eventually included some of her abstract vocalizations—moved Baraka’s recitation into a more musical idiom. By the end, Baraka was swinging freely between moments of pitch-matching with Myers, and then sliding back down into the register of speech.

In a manner thematically reminiscent of Langston Hughes’s “Jazzonia” (if stylistically much different), Baraka’s poem speaks to the frenzy of discovery and possibility provided to the culture by jazz. (Hughes is shouted out in "Play Dat," too, when the poet suggests that the music, properly played, becomes a moment "when Langston was hooked up with Beethoven.")

The music’s power, according to Baraka, is both derived from and made to accompany the forward march of civil rights, in lines like:

for those we trust, for those who took a bus ... and used profanity at the inanity
the insanity
would cuss for the whole of us.

But in this poem, jazz is not a closed system, either—and has in its toolkit an incantatory passion that might even make some new converts, as in the moment where Baraka pleads with the practitioners of what he calls the “Afro-Latin-raggedy-tabla-moan” to “let it be so hip even bad Bush could be smoked.”

The leftist politics are foregrounded for a counterculture figure of such long standing, naturally—but the invitation to another part of America is still present, just as it is in New York, all month long.