image courtesy of the artist
by Jeff McCord
Maybe it’s because I was just reading an oral history of the HBO program The Wire, which took its time over five seasons telling an absorbing and complex story. Or maybe it’s just the frantic pace that has kicked off 2020. Whatever reason, the Friday performance by drummer Andrew Cyrille and his quartet (Ben Street on bass, David Virelles on keys and Bill Frisell on guitar) seemed to wash over the sold-out audience like a tonic. The eighty-year-old Cyrille, best known for his work with Cecil Taylor, is enjoying a late-career renaissance. Live musical performances are often about building to peak moments. Most seasoned performers, including those in the modern jazz world, learn tricks and techniques to incite and involve the audience. Yet Cyrille and quartet seemed completely uninterested in that. For the most part, tempos stayed in the medium range. There were no hair-raising solos. Even with monstrous talents like Virelles and Frisell on stage, everything felt in service to the music. Cyrille’s six minute-plus drum solo in tribute to Art Blakey was more about melodicism than flash. It took a couple of songs, including a frantic Coltrane-penned opener, to shake the rust off. But by the time the group hit its stride, on a transcendent reading of Julius Hemphill’s “The Painter”, it was clear what the evening held in store. Throughout the ninety-minute set, which included a mournful piece written by bassist Peter Dominguez about the indigenous Tsimsciam, a loose-limbed meditation by Cuban pianist Virelles translated as “Prayer”, and “Baby” a joyous Frisell composition, the band refrained from grandstanding. As a result, nothing drew attention away from the compositions (each of which Cyrille prefaced with lengthy contextual remarks). I was reminded of what Houston composer Pauline Oliveros termed “deep listening’. I found myself completely enveloped in the music. Of course, not everyone in the audience had the same feeling. There were numerous evacuees of the less patient between selections. And some of the season ticket holders didn’t show up at all. Jazz music, in these days of fewer recordings and sales, has become all about live performances. The magic happens on stage. There are no known recordings of this particular lineup of Cyrille’s quartet (well, by me, anyway). On nights like this, you want to capture this lightning-in-a-bottle and keep it with you, and plant all your absent music-loving friends in the empty seats. Instead, you’re left with fading memories. It’s always a sign you’ve been through something extraordinary when you’re sad that it has ended. I could have easily sat through another hour or two of this entrancing performance. Even slowed down and given room to breathe, music of this caliber can still leave you breathless.
Presented in partnership with KUTX’s Sunday Morning Jazz
(Andrew Cyrille returns to Austin on April 19th with Texas saxophonist Billy Harper at the North Door.)