Drummer Andrew Cyrille, bassist William Parker, and flugelhornist Enrico Rava have all performed with the late Cecil Taylor, though at different times. Now, these three musicians have united to pay homage to the mighty pianist on 2 Blues for Cecil, but it’s a curious tribute. For one thing, there is no piano. Secondly, it sounds nothing like Cecil Taylor’s music. Where Taylor would put every ounce of his energy into challenging his band and his listeners with rapidly confounding passages that likely utilized all 12 tones of the western scale, the trio of Cyrille, Parker, and Rava are taking things slow. And yep, a few times, they even play the blues.
Cyrille and Rava both turn 83 this year. Having just turned 70, Parker is the spring chicken of this little ensemble. When you add it up, that’s a lot of experience in the music business. So when the press release for 2 Blues for Cecil states that the material “draws on all the experiences, separate and shared, of its members”, you know that this well runs deep. Of the ten tracks, five are individual compositions, and one is the old standard “My Funny Valentine”. The four remaining songs are collectively composed improvisations that carry some of the longest run times. Over the course of an hour and ten minutes of music, 36 of those minutes were recorded off the cuff. That’s not bad for a trio playing together for the first time.
2 Blues for Cecil starts with one of these improvisations. After feeling his way through the start with a breathy flutter tongue, Rava starts to play a melody that someone might have sat down and composed. Then he’s off to other places, gently flying over the rhythm section with a great deal of grace. Even his 16th-note runs sound careful. Cyrille keeps an obtuse groove moving without resorting to a generic beat. The companion track “Improvisation No. 2” begins with just Rava and Parker tentatively wading into shallow water together before Cyrille announces his arrival with gentle taps on the toms. All this tension never sees its boiling point, though, meaning that these guys know not to spoil a good thing. Similarly, “Blues for Cecil No. 2” is far too slow and sleazy to be associated with anything too contemporary. “Blues for Cecil No. 1” makes up for it with a performance from Rava that sounds like it could have come from Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew sessions.
Of the two pieces written by Cyrille, “Enrava Melody” is the one that gives Rava yet more chances to soar. “Top, Bottom and What’s in the Middle” is strangely ambitious with its extended solo passages and an ending that sounds like it was ad-libbed. Rava’s oddly-titled “Ballerina” recalls the freer side of post-bop jazz from the 1960s, while his “Overboard” sounds like a tom-driven vehicle for a flugelhorn solo. Parker’s only contribution is “Machu Picchu”, a disjointed groover made from plenty of push and pull between him and Cyrille.
All told, it’s strange to end 2 Blues for Cecil with a standard, let alone one as old as “My Funny Valentine”. But similar to Miles Davis’ reading of the same tune, this one won’t cause you to jump out of your chair and shout “Show tune!” The trio of Cyrille, Parker, and Rava give it the same bluesy treatment as the previously mentioned improvisations. And if you think Taylor himself wouldn’t have approved of such a coda, Parker disagrees. “He was not avant-garde; he was a human being who loves life and music,” he states in the liner notes. “He would not be boxed in by the music world’s value system that asks artists to conform to their standards.” By that yardstick, Cecil should be smiling right about now.