By Lee Rice Epstein
Edwin (Eddie) Prévost recently wrote, “The personality, and quirkiness, of a jazz artist is an indicator. Just, jazz has become, in recent decades, formalised, there are now subtle, insidious, prescribed approaches on offer. Jazz has become more codified, and commodified: even if clothed within an artificial narrative of modernity… Certainly, it became the ‘go to’ music of the Western professional classes. Whole books would be devoted to significant exemplars, like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue or John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. Given such a cultural/market push, it should surprise no-one that newly emerging jazz musicians would find a postmodern response as the only viable market position to adopt. We return to alienation. We note the history and social trajectory of the inventors of jazz.”
The duo of Paul Abbott and Seymour Wright, under the name XT, has inherited the mantle of AMM, releasing some of the most forward-thinking, freely improvised music out there—way, way out there in many cases. Credits bill each as playing “actual & potential” drums (Abbott) and saxophone (Wright), and performances stack samples, loops, enhancements, and other layers over their rich, sharply honed improvisations. To pay tribute to the grand master of free jazz, Cecil Taylor, Abbott and Wright team up with the legendary Pat Thomas.
As a pianist, Thomas both is and is not like Taylor. Starting around 1979, Thomas constructed a unique set of improvisational languages—used in solo, duo, and small-group contexts—linked closely to Taylor through their mutual association with Tony Oxley. Recently, Thomas has played with Wright in the quartet Ahmed [Ahmed], another example of the postmodern response, revisiting another inventor of jazz, Ahmed Abdul-Malik. Just as Abbott and Wright use XT to (re-)invent the semantics of improvised jazz, Thomas’s music with Wright and Abbott deconstructs Taylor’s circa-1973 compositional approach by gradually pulling it apart into referential bits that obliquely recall Taylor, Lyons, and Cyrille without over-cleverly aping or outright quoting. “Attitudes of Preparation (Mountains, Oceans, Trees)” was recorded live in 2018, with the trio playing an extended improvisation inspired by and recontextualizing Taylor’s classic Akisakila, the Unit’s 1973 “comeback” performance. On the hour-and-a-half “Bulu Akisakila Kutala,” Taylor, Jimmy Lyons, and Andrew Cyrille’s first recorded performance together since 1969. Akisakila was the precursor to Taylor’s return to New York City . In revisiting this vital moment, Thomas, Abbott, and Wright begin by de-/re-contextualizing the spoken introduction into a syncopated loop, “drums, piano, sax, Unit,” a wind-up from which Wright immediately jumps into a Lyons -esque melody line.
Digitally, the live performance runs unbroken for over an hour, roughly equal to the length of the original “Busu Akisakila Kutala.” Although, “Attitudes of Preparation (Mountains, Oceans, Trees)” is something of an investigation and a questioning, of sorts. The group asks “Who was Cecil Taylor?” and also “What is improvised jazz after Cecil Taylor?” The answer is wickedly complex and eminently listenable. Scraps of interviews and written words from Taylor and a dozen others move to the forefront towards the second half of the performance. The samples play in conversation with Thomas, Abbott, and Wright’s improvisation, the answer to our questions sure to emerge from listeners’ re-experiencing the whole. On vinyl, the unbroken performance is cut into four sides, emphasizing different aspects of the night in a suite-like restructuring, yet another re-presentation of “Akisikala” itself. The cover consists of interviews from Taylor, Thomas, Abbott, and Wright, edited and assembled by Will Holder, who appropriately receives a credit on the album’s liner notes. The text serves as a fourth voice, adding a literary dimension to the aural experience, and providing listeners with more material to enjoy and explore.
As a recording, “Akisakila” / Attitudes of Preparation (Mountains, Oceans, Trees)
is undoubtedly in the running for album of the year. The trio’s music is deliriously engaging, frenetic and charged with a hot energy that burns brilliantly. Sidestepping all of Prévost’s warnings about “subtle, insidious, prescribed approaches,” XT and Thomas instead create something direct and uncommonly provoking, a must-own.
Available in digital and limited-edition vinyl