Jazz: Getting older the Taylor way

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Max Roach and Cecil Taylor

Barbican, EC2

Kenny Wheeler

Bristol St George's Brandon Hill

At the Barbican last Sunday night the venerable old drummer Max Roach had just come to the end of a short but intensely rhythmic solo set. Rising from his stool, he bowed nobly to the tumultuous applause and then announced his partner for the evening's concert, Cecil Taylor. More applause followed, but Taylor didn't. Roach tried again. "Cecil Taylor!", he said. From somewhere in the depths of the building you heard a kind of rattling-gourd sound, but there was still no sign of Cecil. Looking a little nonplussed, Roach went off to look for him. Just as he disappeared through the folds of the black stage curtain, Taylor emerged at last, like a naughty child (he's 68) playing hide and seek with his older brother (aged 74).

Although as a pianist Taylor is famous for being just about as avant- garde as you can get, it's when it comes to questions of clothing that he really stands in advance of public taste. Wearing what looked like a purple frilly nightie over matching baggy silk trousers of the type worn by odalisques in paintings by Ingres, with a woolly hat on his head and - the final touch - multi-coloured slipper-socks on his feet, Taylor was a walking sartorial crime. The Steinway stood there on the stage, steeling itself for his attentions, but he had no intention of playing it, at least not yet. First, there was poetry and dance to get out of the way. He'd been declaiming verse since emerging from the curtain, but it wasn't easy to hear what he was saying. "Against the neurological volatile toxic", was the first clear line, and that didn't help much. The dancing was, if anything, even more eccentric: bunny-hops, strange Michael Jackson-type moon-walks; even a spot of Eighties body popping. At last, after what seemed an age, Taylor sat down at the piano.

Once Taylor begins to play, all the self-conscious eccentricity he so assiduously cultivates can be forgiven. Though he normally pounds at the keys as if he's trying to smash them to smithereens, in this short solo set his touch was almost tender, like a deconstruction of Debussy's "Clair de Lune". While free jazz may have become something to frighten the children with if they're being unusually fractious, when it's played by a master there's really no difficulty at all: Taylor sounded exactly like the genius he so obviously thinks himself to be.

After the interval Roach joined him for a duet, and the two of them bashed away for almost an hour. On the one hand, it was great, with Roach staring intently as his partner all the while in order to take the pulse of the constantly shifting metre. On the other, there was a feeling that they remained imprisoned in their own respective sound-worlds throughout, with Taylor doing his thing to the max while Roach, despite appearing to hang on every note, was really playing the same bebop licks he invented accompanying Charlie Parker in the 1940s. Although the music remained uncompromisingly abstract, there still wasn't any difficulty; it just went on too long.

The trumpeter Kenny Wheeler has done his share of free improvising over the years, but he has come out the other side with an enhanced regard for the good old-fashioned virtues of a proper tune. His album from 1997, Angel Song (ECM), was a marvel, and last week's Contemporary Music Network tour did it proud. In the converted church of St George's Brandon Hill in Bristol on Wednesday, the performance of the musicians - Wheeler on flugelhorn, John Abercrombie on guitar, Dave Holland on double-bass, and the veteran cool-schooler Lee Konitz on alto saxophone - was sublime. It's an alternative tradition to the furiously sprung rhythms of Taylor and Roach, but it remains, in its own way, equally free. Sadly, Wheeler didn't dance, but by the end of the concert you felt that you had died and gone to heaven all the same.