REVIEW BY: Michael Broyles
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/26/2010
When Russian composer Igor Stravinsky premiered his now-famous “The Rite Of Spring” in Paris in 1913, the audience rioted. By some accounts, the fighting, arguing, and chaos lasted throughout the performance. Listening to the “Rite Of Spring,” one may understand why: it is a tense, dark, and often violent work that creates a significant break between the romantic and modern period.
Think of what musings Stravinsky went through privately to create such a work! I imagine years of solo improvisation, editing, and structural ponderings. Outside previously published compositions, we have little, if any, record of Stravinsky’s slow development of what became his signature sound. What was his original idea for “Rite Of Spring”? What did he throw away? Luckily, the transition from swung jazz forms (hot jazz, bebop, cool jazz, etc.) into free jazz, which takes on modern classical form and phrasing while embracing African and African-American aesthetics, is well documented. The Cecil Taylor Quartet’s Looking Ahead! gives great insight into this transition as Taylor’s movement from bebop pianist to eccentric avante-improviser becomes apparent.
Throughout this difficult but important album, one can hear a struggle. Taylor had not yet become confident in his new sound. His revolting piano spasms seem distasteful and accidental. He also had not yet developed the clear execution of violence and tension he became known for. He was like Stravinsky spending years molding a harsh, biting tone, except Taylor’s transitional phases were recorded. Vibraphonist Earl Griffith sounds too traditional to match Taylor’s erratic improvisation and chord offerings. Bassist Buell Neidlinger and drummer Dennis Charles seem unsure of how to react to Taylor’s musical bursts. As a rhythm section, they attempt to maintain a laid-back swing feel as Taylor stays on top of the beat, sometimes even rushing. These are not musicians creating purposeful tension by pushing then pulling their phrases; these are musicians playing the same music at different tempos.
This disconnect is apparent in four out of the six songs on Looking Ahead!: “Luyah! The Glorious Step,” “Of What,” “Wallering,” and “Toll.” “Excursion on Wobbly Road” sounds the most cohesive, but this may have to do with its tempo. When playing swing, the swinging become less apparent as tempo increases. Hence, the disparity between Taylor and his quartet also becomes less apparent. “African Violets” is a beautiful, thoughtful ballad sounding more like the Modern Jazz Quartet than the Cecil Taylor Quartet. While this song is not an example of “looking ahead,” it is the best tune on the album.
It is unfair to label Looking Ahead! as merely a mediocre album. It is also an important one. It provides a distinct connection from where Cecil Taylor came from and where he was heading. The album indicates that Taylor knew he was in transition. He had not fully realized what his contribution would be, but he truly was “looking ahead.” And much like a musicologist stumbling upon Stravinsky’s preliminary versions of “Rite Of Spring,” Looking Ahead! should be treasured as an important historical document.