Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.
Five decades ago, many leading jazz musicians were at a chaotic, crowded crossroads.
Some traditionally minded artists had staggered from the combination punches of the rise of rock music and the demise of live music at many nightclubs. As the ’60s were ending, their fortunes were beginning to improve.
For others—including vibist Gary Burton, pianist Herbie Hancock, and saxophonist Wayne Shorter—things were about to get much better, as the rise of jazz-rock fusion introduced them to young, White audiences.
While the ’60s had been relatively good years for free-jazz pioneers—such as saxophonists John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, and pianist Cecil Taylor—musicians like these who shunned any concessions to commercialism were looking for broader avenues of creative expression. Coltrane was actively searching for venues beyond smoky clubs and ways to create a more communal musical experience when he succumbed to liver cancer in 1967. By 1970, both Coleman and Taylor had stepped away from the traditional model of performance.
Coleman chose to invest the money he had earned from his decade of success in a two-story space on Prince Street in New York City’s SoHo district; an expenditure that would eventually pay huge dividends. He called the place Artists House, and settled in to compose and rehearse with a devoted group of acolytes.
For Taylor, the path led to academia—something more suited to his background as an alum of the New York College of Music and the New England Conservatory. He landed teaching jobs at the University of Wisconsin and Antioch College, composed broadly, and invested time in formalizing his unique approach to the keyboard. In 1973, at the age of 44, his academic work was rewarded with a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Since 1970, he had played a handful of solo concerts, but had eschewed performances with his trio, the Cecil Taylor Unit, and hadn’t recorded a major album since Conquistador! in 1966. Then, in the fall of 1973, Taylor’s manager contacted a Columbia University senior named Fred Seibert, who hosted a jazz program on WKCR—the university’s FM station—and owned a nascent record label named Oblivion Records. Taylor would be performing with an expanded version of the Unit at Town Hall in Midtown Manhattan on November 4. Would Seibert like to record the show?
The young man enlisted the help of some friends, and, having borrowed some stolen recording gear, captured the two-part debut of Taylor’s new quartet. Along with the long-standing Unit members, alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons and drummer Andrew Cyrille, the band included Sirone on bass.
The second part of the concert—a 16-minute solo piano piece and a 22-minute quartet performance—was mixed by Siebert’s crew and released in 1974 on Taylor’s own label, Unit Core Records, as a 2000-copy limited-edition LP entitled Spring of Two Blue-J’s. The album was well received, landing at the top of critic Gary Giddins’s best-of list for the year, and, along with Silent Tongues—a recording of Taylor’s solo appearance at the 1974 Montreux Jazz Festival—marked the pianist’s return to live performance.
Left in the original tape boxes was the entire first part of Taylor’s Town Hall show: an 88-minute, spirited rollercoaster ride, during which the pianist hardly paused for breath. After the concert, which barely made a blip in the city’s print media, that nonstop onslaught of improvisation posed a problem for Taylor’s team. Would the average jazz fan shell out the money for a single piece of music spread over four LP sides (a practice that was common in classical music)? Did the required fade-outs and fade-ins do an injustice to Taylor’s vision for the piece?
In the end, the decision was made to leave the tapes alone.
Digital technology opened new possibilities for making the performance available years ago, but it wasn’t until last summer that Seibert returned to mix the remaining music. The first part of the concert, which Taylor had called “Autumn/Parade,” has now been released by Oblivion for the first time. It’s only available as a digital download, which includes the tracks released as Spring of Two Blue-J’s in 1974.
The concept of digital technology enabling the release of a 48-year-old cornerstone performance started me thinking about the type of gear I was using in 1974. At the time, I was a year into university and just beginning a long, intensive dive into some foundational jazz recordings; a dive that would take me to Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Coleman’s Free Jazz, and Taylor’s Unit Structures, among others. On a student budget, my listening took place either in the music room of the student union building at Carleton University or at my friend Myles’s apartment. Either way, the amplification was courtesy of an old-school receiver.
It seemed appropriate, then, to explore The Complete, Legendary, Live Return Concert (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Oblivion Records) on the Emotiva BasX TA1 ($549, all prices in USD), which combines an analog tuner, DAC, phono preamp, and class-A/B amplifier in a sleek, contemporary form factor that measures 17″W × 2.6″H × 12.5″D. Over at SoundStage! Access, Dennis Burger did a thorough job of reviewing the reimagined stereo receiver, and concluded that it would be the receiver he’d recommend to anyone looking to build a starter system. Indeed, it’s tough to think of an integrated amp that does so much at this price point while delivering such a satisfying listening experience. High-resolution asynchronous USB input? Check. Onboard AptX HD–capable Bluetooth receiver? Check. Phono preamp that supports both moving-magnet (MM) and moving-coil (MC) cartridges? Check and check.
There’s a lot to admire about the TA1, including the adjustable ambient lighting on the front panel and the no-nonsense input selector, but the flimsy-feeling remote and plastic spiral-bound manual betray its humble roots. Thankfully, there’s nothing humble about the TA1’s performance.
I began my exploration by streaming digital files via Bluetooth from my MacBook Pro. I use Bluetooth for a lot of applications, and I appreciate it for things like my wireless trackpad and keyboard, but it continues to frustrate me for reliable music streaming. Although the sound quality of the Taylor performance seemed fine, my enjoyment was tempered by the occasional stutter. Did the problem reside in my laptop or the Emotiva receiver? The only thing more frustrating than having music interrupted is troubleshooting Bluetooth connectivity, so I quickly moved on.
Although I had the option of jacking straight from my computer to the USB input on the rear of the unit, I decided to take advantage of the fact that the Oblivion publicist had also sent me a copy of the music on CD. I ran an AudioQuest Forest cable from my NAD C 538 CD player to the coax input of the Emotiva and settled in to immerse myself in the 1974 performance through my reference Q Acoustics 3050i floorstanding speakers.
Evidenced by the dozen or so times I caught Taylor live, he was never one to begin slowly and build from there; rather, he was known to begin pummeling the keyboard before the audience was even seated, or step onto the stage with a series of deft dance moves, or announce himself by loudly declaiming some high-flown poetry. At Town Hall, he and Lyons began with a brief fanfare before breaking off into intertwining improvised lines—a gorgeous display of their telepathic rapport. Cyrille added explosive accents with some wire-brush flams. The new member, Sirone—an Atlanta-born musician previously known as Norris Jones—may have been feeling his way into the ensemble, although it’s also possible that Seibert didn’t quite have him miked to best advantage yet. (He sounded much clearer later in the performance.)
While Taylor unfurled passage after passage of flowing melodic and rhythmic ideas, Lyons aggressively shook out shorter ropes of notes—not unlike the way a dog would playfully thrash about an object clenched in its jaws.
Motific cells of various lengths continued to flow from Taylor and Lyons for well over 30 minutes, but the seams of the pianist’s concept were also in evidence. Occasionally, the band would throttle down, and it would be clear that Taylor was resting momentarily—usually on a rhythmic pattern in the bass register—before setting off again.
Although Taylor’s signature style is often considered to be rapid-fire, iron-fingered runs that cover the entire keyboard—and there’s a breathtaking example of that about an hour into this concert—the Unit could also slow things way down, into something approaching a meditative state. Above all, this was a band that could breathe like one, even when they were soloing quite independently.
Personally, I’ve always found the best way to take in a Taylor performance—especially one that continued nonstop for close to 90 minutes (long enough to take in a film!)—is to let it wash over you without expectation. He will take you places; some might seem uncomfortable, others will be sublime. The 88 minutes of “Autumn/Parade” are particularly cinematic and eventful, and it’s difficult to imagine any other pianist having the stamina to sustain this level of virtuosic intensity.
To understand Taylor’s ability to play muscular improvisations at length, it helps to appreciate that—despite having chosen the piano for self-expression—he was a dancer at heart. Thirty years after this Town Hall concert, he would still prowl the stage around his grand piano—part Noh performer, part Rum Tum Tugger from Cats. He was 78 the last time I saw him play, and he was still lithe and limber, with that incredible tensile strength in his forearms and fingers. At 44, he was in his prime.
With that being the case, it’s no surprise to hear him roaring back after the intermission with “Spring of Two Blue-J’s, Part 1,” spooling out the 16 minutes of soaring solo piano before the band joined him for another burst of joint improvisation. This ensemble piece is more clearly episodic than “Autumn/Parade,” with a central movement that paired Lyons, playing at the very top of the alto sax’s register, with the three other musicians, who swirled and swooped around him. From there, the band moved into a series of cascading flourishes, and the evening concluded with a ruminative bass solo.
Throughout both discs, the TA1 rendered everything with good clarity. Taylor’s piano sounded very tight, which allowed me to really appreciate some of his techniques, like the way he damped the strings on certain passages.
It was writer-photographer Valerie Wilmer who first noted that Taylor was foremost a percussionist, playing “88 tuned drums,” and the strident opposition to Taylor from some listeners has always made me think that they only focus on part of Wilmer’s statement. They hear someone who has the attack of a drummer, but they overlook the “tuned” part. Taylor was a lion at the keyboard because of the hours of practice he put in. While some of that practice time was spent the typical way—such as playing scales—Taylor also invested deeply in perfecting fingerings and extended techniques that allowed him to pull an unparalleled range of sounds from his piano.
Yes, Taylor’s world can seem daunting and exclusionary, but once you’re inside, the kaleidoscopic soundscape can be addictive.
With the tumult of the Town Hall concert still fresh in my head, I needed to hear more solo Cecil. So, I connected my Fluance RT83 turntable to the Emotiva receiver via an AudioQuest Wildcat cable and reached for my 1975 vinyl copy of Silent Tongues: Live at Montreux ’74 (Arista Records, Freedom AL1005). The TA1’s phono stage has a specified frequency response of 20Hz–20kHz regardless of cartridge type, a signal-to-noise ratio of >78dB (ref. 5mV, MM) and >58dB (ref. 0.5mV, MC), and gain of 44dB (MM) and 55dB (MC).
Unlike some live settings outside New York City, you can always count on hearing exceptional sound from anything recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival, even as early as 1974. The make and model of the piano are not noted, but it’s likely that Taylor—who preferred the 97-key Bösendorfer Concert Grand 290 Imperial—was playing a great instrument. If you’re not familiar with Taylor’s solo work in his prime, I’d recommend starting with Silent Tongues. Rather than a sprawling single composition like “Autumn/Parade,” his program at Montreux drew from a number of pieces—or parts of them—from his book of compositions, and the transition points are marked by applause.
Taylor’s agility and quicksilver mind are on full display throughout Silent Tongues, as is his ability to shift seamlessly from the swirling phantasms of the third movement, “Jitney,” to the angularity of the opening section of “Crossing.”
The Emotiva BasX TA1 delivered as promised, rendering my old LP with a level of detail that matched what it had done with the digital source material, and on a par with what I normally expect to hear with my NAD PP 2e phono stage.
Kitchen sink? Workhorse? Choose your analogy for this Emotiva receiver, it covers a lot of bases for its modest price.
. . . James Hale
Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.