Jazz: The older they come, the harder they play

CECIL TAYLOR/ MAX ROACH BARBICAN HALL LONDON

NOBODY SAID it would be easy; and if they had, who'd have believed them? At the age of 69, and after almost 50 years in the business, pianist Cecil Taylor remains controversial. He doesn't play tunes. In fact, he isn't tempted by even the most esoteric rules of tonality; he doesn't play to any orthodox metre; and (this separates the fans from the sceptics) he plays with his fists, elbows and forearms, in addition to his fingers. You know all this, but you still can't prepare for the onslaught that is Cecil Taylor at the grand piano.

Max Roach couldn't. Without doubt the all-time greatest innovator on drums, Roach played in Charlie Parker's modern jazz laboratory (with Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, and the like), and has also proved himself a tidy and intelligent solution to the problems of jazz's increasing fragmentation into freedom, whenever one has been needed. He opened the first set with a witty and warm-hearted waltz rooted around a pattern on bass-drum and hi-hat. It sounded like a soundtrack awaiting its silent movie, and endorsed the cliche about Roach. Most 75-year-olds are content to celebrate the fact that they possess all four limbs, never mind using them independently to create this kind of polyrhythmic chicanery.

And then Taylor came on stage... or the sound of him did. He began his performance offstage, reading his free-associative poetry into a microphone while the audience stared at the grand piano, the drum kit... and each other. When he appeared, he continued to recite, accompanying the text with what looked like a hybrid of voguing and classical ballet. Where the satire ends and the serious business of creation begins is never clear with Taylor, unless you're prepared to close your eyes.

For when he did finally sit at the piano, he could still have been sending up the creative process if the music hadn't been so subtle and sublime. Taylor plucks notes like ripe cherries. Gnome-like, he crouches close to the keys and rattles around in fitful bursts, moving between ferocious, two-fisted crescendos and delicate, exotic counterpoint.

The second set featured both musicians working together in a partnership that has delighted avant-garde jazz fans since their first collaboration in 1979. For the first 15 minutes, Roach seemed mostly to be responding to Taylor's lead - understandable considering the charismatic force of this diminutive giant - but a rare kind of organic growth quickly liberated the music. Whether Taylor, Roach, or anyone in the audience knew exactly what was being said, is debatable - but a language was certainly being spoken.

Occasionally, older jazz musicians get standing ovations for merely being alive (no mean feat in this business). Taylor and Roach got theirs for making some of the most provocative and rousing music the Barbican Hall has heard in ages.

Linton Chiswick

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