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Released in 1974, the Cecil Taylor Unit’s Spring of Two Blue-J’s captured the second set of a November 1973 concert at New York’s Town Hall, one that marked the pianist’s return to live performance after a long hiatus. One side of the album comprised a brilliant example of Taylor’s sui generis solo piano, while the other featured his quartet in all its exuberant, free-form glory. The recording of the first set of the evening, however, had never been commercially available until now.
Stuck at home during the pandemic, Fred Seibert, the original recording engineer for the concert, revisited the music that had so powerfully moved him nearly 50 years ago. Last summer, the TV-industry vet and indie cartoon producer taught himself to use the Garage Band program on his computer, edited the digitized files for the entire evening’s performance and readied them for streaming release. The Complete, Legendary, Live Return Concert at the Town Hall, NYC November 4, 1973 will be available in February at Oblivionrecords.co.
“As a listener, it drives me crazy when there are performances that are so long they have to be flipped over [to the next side of the record or to another CD] and faded down and faded up,” says Seibert, speaking via Zoom from his home in the Berkshires in December and explaining his rationale for a streaming-only release; after all, the previously unissued portion of the concert, titled “Autumn/Parade,” runs 88 continuous minutes. “So streaming really allows for the entire performance to be heard as it was, with no interruptions whatsoever.”
Seibert was a senior at Columbia, spending more time at the university’s radio station, WKCR, than pursuing his studies, when producer David Laura approached him about recording Taylor’s upcoming Town Hall concert with his quartet (alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, bassist Sirone and drummer Andrew Cyrille). Taylor had been largely absent from the concert stage as he dedicated himself to composing and to teaching gigs at the University of Wisconsin and Antioch College. Billed as a “return concert,” the event generated buzz — and some anxiety for Seibert, whose practical experience at that point had been a one-track, mono recording of blues legend Mississippi Fred McDowell.
“It was a big deal that someone of Cecil’s stature was performing,” Seibert says. “Coltrane had died a few years before. Ornette sporadically showed up; he had a loft in Soho, where he would perform on occasion. But to have one of the leaders of the free-jazz movement show up in person and do a major concert at Town Hall was a big deal for all of us as listeners and as fans. I was trepidatious … I had never really done a major live concert of an artist of the stature that Cecil and Jimmy and Andrew and Sirone were. And I was recording it on four-track and I had never recorded on multi-track.”
Seibert chooses not to reveal the source of the equipment — suffice to say, it was “sketchy” — that he and his roommate loaded onto a Checker cab and hauled to Town Hall. A capacity crowd of about 1,200 would fill the venue, and the 22-year-old engineer busied himself setting up the stage, too intimidated to even speak with the musicians. A more experienced hand might have mixed the sound differently — Cyrille, the last surviving member of the quartet, subsequently told Seibert that he had “buried” Lyons’ solos — but Seibert nonetheless captured the magic of the evening.
[caption id="attachment_43632" align="alignleft" width="1280"] Cecil Taylor[/caption]
“I was mixing it exactly the way that I personally heard [Taylor’s] performances,” he says, “which was kind of like throwing yourself under a waterfall, having all sounds come at you from 360 degrees, each frequency fighting for primacy in your ears. That’s how I heard Cecil and loved that quartet. But I felt bad that I didn’t actually understand it the way the musicians did.”
The new complete concert release allows Seibert to correct some of the mistakes of the past, as well as to present a previously unissued performance. Hearing “Autumn/Parade” gives listeners a privileged peek into a pivotal time in Taylor’s — and the free-jazz movement’s — development. “When you look at it historically, that concert was the beginning of taking Cecil seriously as an artist outside of the jazz universe,” Seibert says, relating that Taylor moved on from jazz clubs to concert halls.
Seibert bumped into Taylor, who died in 2018, in the 1980s, coming out of a movie theater showing the second Mad Max movie and raving about the film. He also shares a story about Taylor upbraiding a patron at a gala, who was going on at length about European composers, and wanting to know why she wasn’t talking to him about James Brown. A quintessential outsider — gay, Black, decidedly non-commercial — Taylor contained multitudes.
“I think one of the things about ‘Spring of Two Blue-J’s’ that made people sit up and notice was the beginning of the solo section, where [Taylor] does sound almost like he’s playing a European piano piece,” Seibert notes. “So the romance and the rage all sat in there. And I think that one of Cecil’s real contributions is understanding that there’s a complete continuum from edge to edge in all of these things.”
Photo of Cecil Taylor by Liza Stelle