02. 3 Phasis 9:17
03. 3 Phasis 11:52
04. 3 Phasis 11:55
05. 3 Phasis 13:06
Recorded in April 1978 at Columbia Recording Studios, 30th Street, New York, NY.
Alto Saxophone – Jimmy Lyons
Bass – Sirone
Drums – Ronald Shannon Jackson
Piano – Cecil Taylor
Trumpet – Raphé Malik
Violin – Ramsey Ameen
In the 1960s, pianist Cecil Taylor formed and recorded a variety of groups—trios, quartets and expanded ensembles were heard on albums like Nefertiti, The Beautiful One Has Come, Unit Structures, Conquistador! and Student Studies, as well as the early sessions for the Candid label later released as The World of Cecil Taylor, Air, Jumpin’ Punkins, New York City R&B and Cell Walk for Celeste. The blare of horns against the thunder of his piano and various rhythm sections’ lurching, sprinting attempts to keep up was wildly exciting. But in the decade that followed, Taylor seemed less interested in organizing bands than in hitting as hard and at as great a length as possible. The early 1970s found him recording and performing solo much more often than as the leader of a group—Indent, Solo, Silent Tongues and Air Above Mountains (all among his greatest works) are all unaccompanied piano performances, while Akisakila, Spring of Two Blue J’s, and Dark to Themselves each feature bands of varying size (a trio, a quartet and a quintet, respectively). These groups were undoubtedly assembled with care and rigorously rehearsed prior to the gigs documented on the albums, but it seems clear Taylor wasn’t interested in leading an ensemble at that time.
In 1978, though, he not only formed a band, he took it into the recording studio (something he hadn’t done since Conquistador!, a dozen years earlier) and on a European tour. The Cecil Taylor Unit of spring and summer 1978 is not only one of the pianist’s most vital ensembles, it’s also unique in its instrumentation, and its development of a collective identity makes it a rarity among his groups. The four releases by this sextet—its self-titled debut; 3 Phasis; and the live albums Live in the Black Forest and One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye—are among my favorite Cecil Taylor albums, and the subject of this essay.
The group consisted of Taylor; alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, his creative foil from 1962 to his death in 1986; trumpeter Raphé Malik; violinist Ramsey Ameen; bassist Sirone; and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson. Malik, originally from Massachusetts, had played with Frank Wright and the Art Ensemble of Chicago in Paris in the late 1960s, during the great free jazz migration from the US to France that gave the BYG label the majority of its catalog. He met Taylor in the early 1970s, and first appeared on 1976’s Dark to Themselves, alongside Lyons, tenor saxophonist David S. Ware and drummer Marc Edwards. Sirone, born Norris Jones, was from Atlanta, and arrived in New York just in time for the first flowering of the free jazz scene; he recorded with many major players within that milieu, including Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders and Marion Brown, for sessions on ESP-Disk and Impulse!, and was one of the three co-founders, along with Leroy Jenkins and Jerome Cooper, of the violin-bass-drums trio the Revolutionary Ensemble. Jackson, a transplanted Texan, was another highly regarded player on the New York out-jazz scene; prior to joining Taylor’s group, he had backed Albert Ayler and been the original drummer for Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time—he can be heard on Dancing in Your Head and Body Meta. Ramsey Ameen is the odd man out in the band. He made his recorded debut with the group’s April 1978 studio sessions, which yielded both the self-titled album and 3 Phasis, and seems to have retired from music sometime in the 1980s. And yet his contributions to this group are crucial, serving as a bridge between avant-garde jazz and 20th Century chamber music. Indeed, if you choose to view bridging that distance as the ultimate purpose and greatest success of this band, as I do, then Ameen is the indispensable man, the one without whom the whole project would collapse.
The second album by this group, 3 Phasis, was recorded on the final day of the sessions, and the issued take is the final one (of six), a performance that ran beyond the scheduled time and into overtime. According to the album notes by jazz critic Gary Giddins, the earlier versions all ran in the 20-30 minute range. The issued performance is a marathon, even an endurance test, at 57:17, but not a moment of that is wasted on vamping, casting about for inspiration, or anything but the most intense playing of which the group members are capable.
The piece begins with solo piano, but again the strings are the first instruments to join the fray. Ameen and Sirone come in bowing, with Lyons’ alto saxophone keening romantic ballad melodies, Malik’s trumpet squalling in a less florid, more sardonic way than on the previous album…and Jackson announcing his arrival with tremendous, rolling-thunder assertiveness.
The horns keep dropping out, though, and the piece becomes chamber music with drums. Passages of violin and piano, or violin and bass, Ameen jabbing sharply into the airspace between himself and Taylor with shrieks of the bow not unlike Bernard Herrmann’s famous score for Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Psycho. Ameen adds more than classical filigree to this music, though. He’s also prepared to be a hillbilly fiddler when the occasion calls for it, conjuring the spirit of African-American string bands (violin, banjo, upright bass) with a single raucous phrase behind the horns.
Giddins was present at the recording, and wrote the liner notes to the album. He describes the recording engineer’s panic as the take that was eventually released runs longer and longer, finally coming to a halt just shy of the one-hour mark (and consequently nudging the limits of 33 1/3 rpm vinyl’s storage capacity).
“Previous takes had averaged twenty to thirty minutes and seemed to get tighter each time,” Giddins writes. “The fifth take produced a splendid array of dynamics and a rollicking dance exuberance, but saxophonist Jimmy Lyons was dissatisfied with his solo, and there was a general feeling that an earlier take had been more successful. Taylor decided to work on some of the other pieces, and it wasn’t until midnight that they returned to the suite. From the first notes, there was an excitement in the studio, an electricity, and after about twenty minutes producer Sam Parkins said, ‘This is the best yet by far. If Jimmy Lyons holds up in the shuffle, I don’t care how long it goes.’ Later Parkins noted, ‘This is more of a piano concerto than the others.’ A significant difference between this and earlier versions was that Sirone, the bassist, who had previously played mostly against the rhythm, now fell into a steady 4/4 shuffle meter (heard in the second half). Taylor conducted the music from the piano without eye contact, as the others stood poised. Lyons, awaiting his entrance, lit a cigarette. Then the shuffle started: Taylor instigated a rocking stomp with chords in both hands; Sirone bore down on the time; drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson alternated between mallets and sticks; Lyons steamed through like a train. After about forty minutes, Parkins exulted, ‘We’ve got a record now!’—but ten minutes later he was worried about whether Taylor would stop in time: ‘I hope he stops pretty soon, because I’d hate to cut this. I’ve never been to anything like this before, have you?’ Taylor punched out a riff, his hands leaping as fast and deft as a cheetah, his arms almost akimbo. Everyone was eyeing the clock nervously and with giddy excitement. And then, nearing fifty-seven minutes, just short of the maximum playing time for a long-playing album, Taylor began to wind down for a dramatic finish. Observers burst into the studio with excited praise, and the laconic Taylor was heard to say, ‘Well, you know we knew it was good, too.’”