Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton

I’d never been to a jazz gig in my life. I’d never listened to much free jazz, or got into it at all. My friend Andrew wanted to go to this gig, part of the London Jazz Festival at the Royal Festival Hall, and I liked the odd early (totally unrepresentative, it turns out) Cecil Taylor number I’d heard, so I thought I’d give it a try. I wasn’t sure if I’d like it – I imagined sitting there thinking “This has been going on for hours. What the fuck are these people doing?”

Braxton’s quintet may have been the perfect way to convert and convince me. I didn’t have any idea what they were doing, but there was clearly communication, they were clearly playing together in some sense I can’t pin down, despite there never being much sense of their being in the same time or interested in tunes or anything like that. They had something that might have been sheet music, but I can’t see how what they were doing was at all susceptible to any kind of notation – I’d be interested in knowing what was on those sheets of paper. There was always plenty going on, people getting sounds out of their instruments that I’d never heard before, loads of detail to pay attention to – maybe it needed the live show, where you are concentrating wholly on what is happening on stage, rather than listening at home while doing other things, to make me get it. When they stopped I would have guessed that they had played 20 minutes, but it was 50 (and they came back for an encore too).

Then we had a while of Tony Oxley (I’ve not got great eyesight at distance, but from our box I thought he looked very like Jimmy Saville) on his own, on his unusual drum kit. Again, I couldn’t explain what he was doing, but it was far more varied than you’d think possible, and captivating. Next was a solo spot for trumpeter Bill Dixon, and in 10-15 minutes he played maybe three things that you could call musical notes, and otherwise just made absolutely extraordinary noises with an instrument I didn’t think had such a range. Next up was Cecil on his piano, and I thought he had a hell of an act to follow, but he outshone everything else. The pace, intensity, variety and attack of his playing, the first half hour or so especially, would be impressive from anyone, but from someone who’s been doing this for half a century it was incredible – the virtuosity was less surprising, but still dazzling. There wasn’t a moment when the next sound wasn’t a surprise. He was joined after 15 minutes or so by Dixon and Oxley, and while I couldn’t begin to say how or why it all worked together, it did. It was an astounding performance, varied and thrilling and utterly gripping.

I may not want to stand by this next week or month, but right now this feels like a major and important musical experience for me. Certainly I have a new and greatly expanded notion of the range of sounds you can make with trumpet, drums, even guitar, but more importantly of how musicians can work together. I don’t understand it at all, and can’t account for how it works, but it was a really extraordinary show.