Cecil Taylor Quartet
Qu'a: Live at the Iridium Vol. 1
(Cadence Jazz)

Veteran pianist Cecil Taylor has a reputation for playing with the kind of relentless power and energy that can at times be overwhelming. As a result, for more than four decades his pioneering improvisational concepts, which often involve stacking a barrage of tones and rhythms with a towering intensity, have drawn a wide range of reactions from jazz fans of varying temperaments.

Daring concertgoers who've been riveted to each full-fisted crash on the keyboard have been rewarded with transcendent musical experiences rivaling few in contemporary performance. More conventional jazzheads, perhaps impressed by the artist's awesome technique, are often put off by the music's full-on force, instead of being swept away. The most timid listeners have been known to flee the room from sheer emotional drain. And even staunch avant-gardists have criticized recent Taylor shows for their monotonous lack of dynamic variation. It's true that in an effort to reach what the pianist calls "a state of the highest elevation ... a conjugation of spirit," he occasionally neglects the audience's attention span. But that's not always the case.

Recorded this spring at the Iridium nightclub in New York City, Qu'a is the first stateside recording of Taylor's contemporary work in years, and a testament to his enduring distinction as one of jazz's boldest explorers. Accompanied by his regular rhythm section of Dominic Duval (bass) and Jackson Krall (drums), plus soprano saxophonist Harri Sjsstrsm, the pianist proves that he's still in peak form at the age of 69.

The album's hourlong title track is arranged with a remarkable spaciousness that in no way undermines the music's constant forward momentum. Sjsstrsm is silent for nearly half the proceedings, and when he does contribute, it's often as tasteful timbral embellishment to Taylor's elaborate harmonic scaffold. Krall and Duval also take their cues from the pianist: Rather than driving the music from the bottom end, the drummer augments the leader's percussive keyboard movements with a rhythmic splatter of cymbals, while the bassist completes the pianist's melodic fragments with uncanny intuition.

Quite a few breathtaking solo sections underscore Taylor's shamanistic ambitions and his underrecognized, lyrical sixth sense. As if the music were playing him (rather than the other way around), he flows with its strange organic logic, from torrential tonal clusters -- often sounding more like an African percussionist than a jazz pianist -- to quiet, melodic ruminations. Plenty of dynamic ebb and flow maintains listener interest throughout. This is the Cecil Taylor all jazz fans should know.

-- Sam Prestianni

Whitney Houston
My Love Is Your Love

Although she never really disappeared from public view, Whitney Houston's My Love Is Your Love marks a comeback of sorts. For her first non-soundtrack recording in eight years, she consolidates some important changes in her style. Apart from the power ballads that showcased her commanding voice, Houston always owed her reputation to perky pop hits like "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)" and "How Will I Know," and often it seemed as though the funk and grit of the R&B and hip hop that followed were a deliberate response to Houston's pristine, almost soulless sound. As a rebuttal, Houston's contributions to 1996's The Preacher's Wife soundtrack found her singing gospel tracks with down-home abandon. Some of her secular tunes hinted at a move toward a hip-hop soul sound.

She continues in this direction on My Love. The album features collaborations with producers and singers like Wyclef Jean, Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott, and Rodney Jerkins (producer of the Brandy-Monica duet "The Boy Is Mine"), but the star-studded affair was originally meant to be a greatest-hits package sweetened with "When You Believe," Houston's duet with Mariah Carey for the soundtrack of The Prince of Egypt. The record that did result was done in barely six weeks, and while there are telltale signs of rush (both of Elliott's tracks are uncharacteristically lean), there's a lot of polish for such quick work. On a cover of Stevie Wonder's "I Was Made to Love Her," Houston reverses the song's gender (lest the rumor mill go crazy, since her marriage to Bobby Brown always raised eyebrows), and sings it with poise and vehemence. She's similarly amped on the Jean-produced title track, but her duet with Carey is, surprisingly, one of the weakest songs. Both women spend most of the song staying out of each other's way, which misses the point, but Houston's other vocal collaboration, "Heartbreak Hotel," which features Kelly Price and Faith Evans, works well.

Her new associates have inspired her: Save for Dianne Warren's "I Learned From the Best," Houston's singing on the mall-fodder pop tracks is less committed than on the songs by her youthful guests. In addition to being Houston's most rhythmically aggressive work, My Love is also her most revealing -- at least by her reclusive standards. In interviews, she's come off as brittle and angry, and songs like "In My Business" and "It's Not Right But It's Okay" reflect these feelings. What she doesn't do -- in contrast to her new associates -- is explain where she's coming from. Whether it's drinking Cristal and driving fancy cars or studying spirituality, most current pop stars are very open about their lives, but Houston is still restrained. It is as if Houston wants to change, yet still preserve the ivory tower privilege accorded by her manufactured stardom in the '80s. She's opened up some, but she's still not open.

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