One of a kind

Jazz byRichard Cook

A momentous occasion at the Barbican this weekend: a duo concert by the pianist Cecil Taylor and the drummer Max Roach, two of the surviving legends of jazz, lions from long ago who have seen off the vicissitudes of the jazz life and are - a little sadly, in their old age - honoured grandmasters. Roach was one of the drummers who lit the original flame of bebop in the 1940s, and he has been a distinguished player and group leader ever since. But it is the appearance of Taylor, who hasn't played here for many years, that is the real excitement.

Cecil Taylor is like nobody else in jazz. In a music that is peopled by mavericks and one-offs, Taylor is the supreme individualist. He began recording a little over 40 years ago with an album provocatively called Jazz Advance, and he has stayed at the forefront of the avant-garde ever since. His piano "style" is more of a complete language of his own. It has been exhaustively analysed by some of his critic-admirers - Taylor has always spawned a fanatical devotion among the few - yet to hear him at length, thunderous, overwhelming, washes away a forbidding reputation.

Playing solo, he can construct soliloquies which might last as long as an hour, each an improvisation with the weight and complexity of a dense, detailed composition. Like Art Tatum, he uses the keyboard as a grand, orchestral device. He sometimes works in blocks, a musical figure built up and examined over and over until it leads to another. He is a pianist who reminds one that the instrument is percussive ("88 tuned drums", in one oft-quoted remark), but he can coax a discrete, lyrical beauty at moments when one fears that there is nothing to come but sound and fury.

That quality of almost superhuman intensity was developed in his music of the 1960s, rarely recorded and, frankly, deeply unpopular, even with many of the listeners who took to the jazz of his fellow radical, Ornette Coleman. It would be convenient to say that audience and music caught up with him in the end, but Taylor still excites a measure of controversy and he has never compromised his art. He spent some years teaching, and there were periods when he did not record at all, but in the past 20 years he has made many records and there is scarcely one which is not bursting with his vivid, unrepeatable music.

One shouldn't try and deny the difficulty in Taylor's music. He is hard work, and he asks a lot of any listener. As emblematic as he is of so many aspects of the jazz tradition, some aver that he is no longer playing jazz at all. He has certainly moved far away from the conventional accents of even the free jazz of the 1960s, which is one reason why he has performed so successfully with European improvisers. The celebratory set of discs issued by the German label FMP, Cecil Taylor in Berlin '88, shows how readily the indigenous performers, unencumbered by American jazz tradition, took to Taylor's language.

Yet in some ways the world has grown closer to Taylor's art. His eclecticism, which so many artists labour after to prove their contemporaneity, is genuine. Fascinated by poetry and dance, he will often begin a concert with his own versifying - as singular as his pianism - or will approach the piano with feline, balletic steps. Brittle and unsmiling when he feels like being difficult, he can also be a charming, gossipy companion with the wittiest of tongues. It scarcely seems possible that this year he will be 70 years old, but as long as he is around, jazz will keep its mixture of hyper- intelligent art and visceral excitement fully intact.

Cecil Taylor and Max Roach play the Barbican (0171-638 8891) on 24 January

This article first appeared in the 22 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Goodbye to all that boiled cabbage

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis