By Richard Harrington
NOT TO BELABOR the liner notes or the solid reputations of the two artists, but the fact that Cecil Taylor is the most percussive of jazz pianists and Max Roach is the most melodic of drummers is brought home in every one of the 80 minutes of "Historic Concerts." Recorded in 1979 and quickly assimilated into jazz legend, this encounter between two of the genre's seminal figures was improvisation at its most intense. Although they played together, the result could scarcely be described as dialogue: Even Roach defined it starkly as co-existence.
Taylor, the human tornado, is at his most inflexible, furiously hammering away at the piano as if he were more interested in the instrument's polyrhythmic possibilities than in any melodic or harmonic invention. Such an approach, particularly 80 minutes' worth of dense swirling structures punctuated by ringing arpeggios, may strike some as unrelenting (not to mention repetitive), but Taylor's technical command and emotional delivery somehow keep it from becoming overbearing. Still, it's as breathtaking as a kick to the stomach.
Roach, the most influential drummer of the last three decades, is the revelation in this, his first major sortie into free playing (his bebop roots certainly stand him in good stead). Using every rhythmic, timbral and dynamic nuance of his drum kit, Roach provides the shadings, the textures and thus the entry points into Taylor's thick tonal clusters. The pianist has a reputation for demanding a great deal not only from his audience but also from his collaborators. This time around, Roach reacted with astounding imagination and, more than once, wittily tossed back Taylor's convoluted ideas and expressions. In doing so, he kept the music heart-rooted and accessible.
CECIL TAYLOR & MAX ROACH -- "Historic Concerts" (Soul Note SN1100/1); Cecil Taylor appearing in a solo concert at Baird Auditorium on Friday at 8.