It’s easy to make a match between kindred spirits, but creating a coherent whole out of near-polar opposites … well, that’s quite a bit tougher. The producers of the Texaco Jazzfest have an uncanny knack for pulling off the latter and nowhere was that ability more evident than in this bill pairing two decidedly disparate legends of modern jazz piano.
Abdullah Ibrahim and Cecil Taylor could be called the yin and yang — the Zen master and the unrestrained shaman of post-Monk jazz. Even in their seventh decades, the contemporaries haven’t stopped exploring the outer limits of their respective orbits, as both proved during hour-plus pieces showcased in this concert hall setting.
Ibrahim began his set with a stately, hymnlike theme that would repeat again and again throughout the evening, in keeping with his notion of “paths of progression.” From that vaguely Antebellum overture, Ibrahim gently extended the melodic web into meditations that took listeners on a journey from the cotton fields to the Cotton Club.
Although the tone was very low-key, Ibrahim’s trio — particularly feather-light drummer George Grey — did manage to inject a few lighter moments: While much of the set was akin to a chess match, those sharp blues vamps and cool, Ellingtonian runs were more like a game of hopscotch.
Avant-garde titan Taylor’s newest vehicle, on the other hand, had more in common with a walk on hot coals; a trying, bracing and ultimately rewarding venture prefaced by an audience-encircling barrage of taped chants. That ritualistic vibe was mirrored in Taylor’s dramatic technique, wherein swift flurries were delivered with Kabuki precision.
In Q’ah, Taylor’s main foil seems to be Dominic Duval, whose bowed basslines coiled sneakily through the measures, acting less as a rhythmic element than a canvas for the leader’s broad, expressionist strokes. The set was long on Taylor’s trademark physicality — palms and elbows flew with alacrity — but just as rich in the lyrical beauty that too often gets ignored.