In the midst of the blossoming of the free-jazz scene, pianist Cecil Taylor
probably represented better than anyone else the non-jazz aspect of the
Many of the innovations of the 1960s were pioneered by his records.
His fusion of exuberance and atonality was particularly influential.
A graduate from the New England Conservatory of Music (1951-1955), where he had studied contemporary classical music, Taylor developed a radical improvising
style at the piano that indulged in tone clusters, percussive attacks and
irregular polyrhythmic patterns, a very "physical" style that required a manic
energy during lengthy and frenzied performances,
a somewhat "cacophonous" style that relished both atonal and tonal passages.
The dynamic range of his improvisations was virtually infinite.
His maturation took place via Charge 'Em Blues, off Jazz Advance (december 1955), for his first quartet, featuring soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, bassist Buell Neidlinger and drummer Dennis Charles,
the convoluted, tonally ambiguous Tune 2 off At Newport (july 1956) for the same quartet,
Toll (the blueprint for many of his classics),
Of What and Excursion on a Wobbly Rail, off Looking Ahead (june 1958), with Lacy replaced by vibraphonist Earl Griffith,
Little Lees and Matie's Trophies, off Love for Sale (april 1959), with trumpeter Ted Curson, saxophonist Bill Barron and the usual rhythm section,
Air and E.B., off The World of Cecil Taylor (october 1960),
featuring Archie Shepp on tenor saxophone and the same rhythm section,
the abstract Cell Walk For Celeste, off New York City R&B (january 1961), also for the quartet of Taylor, Shepp, Charles and Neidlinger (to whom the album was credited),
Mixed, off Gil Evans' Into The Hot (october 1961), featuring the brand new line-up of altoist Jimmy Lyons, tenorist Archie Shepp, bassist Henry Grimes, drummer Sunny Murray, trumpeter Ted Curson and trombonist Roswell Rudd.
These albums were still anchored to the song format and wasted time on other people's material when Taylor's own compositions were so much superior; but
occasionally the pianist and his cohorts launched into strident, torrential
jamming that obliterated the history of jazz.
Taylor's group was much bolder in their live performances, when they indulged in lengthy improvisations in front of an audience that still thought of jazz as light entertainment.
Taylor's compositions at their best were wildly irregular and casually nonchalant at the same time. They were bold contradictions. Sometimes dramatic and sometimes sarcastic, they straddled the line between being and not being.
At the same time, pieces such as Tune 2, Toll, Air, Cell Walk For Celeste and Mixed displayed the formalist concern typical of classical music.
Taylor and Coltrane recorded together only the sessions of Stereo Drive (october 1958), also known as Hard Driving Jazz and Coltrane Time, in a quintet with trumpeter Kenny Dorham.
Taylor's first major statement came with the live trio performances of
Nefertiti the Beautiful One Has Come (november 1962), featuring
Jimmy Lyons on alto and Sunny Murray on drums (the Unit), two ideal complements for
Taylor's explosive style. These lengthy and complex jams,
Trance, Lena, Nefertiti The Beautiful One Has Come and the 21-minute colossus D Trad That's What,
were as uncompromising as Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz (1960) and
John Coltrane's Impressions (1961).
In fact, they were so uncompromising that very few people listened to them.
Basically, the ambiguity that was one of the two sides of Taylor's early music
acquired a life of its own, progressively cannibalizing the other side.
In parallel the piano's role kept expanding, at times sounding like Taylor
wanted to play the entire orchestra on just one hyper-active instrument (and maybe simultaneously).
It took three years for Taylor to release another album, and it presented
a larger ensemble and an even wilder sound, as violent as garage-rock,
bordering on hysteria: Unit Structures (may 1966) featured (mostly) a septet with Lyons, Eddie Gale Stevens on trumpet, Ken McIntyre on alto sax, oboe and bass clarinet, two bassists (Henry Grimes and Alan Silva) and Andrew Cyrille on drums.
These pieces (or, better, "structures") were conceived as sequences of polyphonic events rather than, say, series of variations on a theme.
Nonetheless, Unit Structure, Enter Evening and Steps were highly structured compositions, and therein lied Taylor's uniqueness:
his "free jazz" was also "free" of the melodrama that permeated Coltrane's and
Coleman's music. Despite all the furor, Taylor's music always sounded firmly
under the control of a cold intelligence.
Cyrille's drumming was less abstract than Murray, more integrated with the other players, but Silva now played the "decorative" role that Murray used to play.
The sextet of Conquistador (october 1966), featuring Bill Dixon on trumpet, Lyons, and the same three-piece rhythm section, pushed the experiment to its limits in two shockingly abrasive and expressionistic side-long jams, Conquistador and With. Their sheer size challenged the balance between disintegration and integration, looseness and cohesiveness, that constituted the soul of the previous "structures". The flow of enigmatic sounds had become a puzzle to be reconstructed.
A quartet of Taylor, Lyons, Silva and Cyrille recorded Student Studies: (november 1966), containing the 27-minute Student Studies, the 20-minute Amplitude and the 12-minute Niggle Feuigle, that stepped back a bit from the edge, emphasizing the structure behind the chaos, the "jazz" soul hidden under the apparently dissolute dissonance.
However, Taylor's music was still underappreciated and he had to spend the
next seven years virtually in exile.
During this period Taylor composed/improvised some of his most daring music:
the four-movement Praxis (july 1968) for solo piano, released in 1982,
the six-movement Second Act Of A (july 1969), for a quartet with Lyons, Cyrille and soprano saxophonist Sam Rivers,
the three-movement Indent (march 1973) for solo piano, released on Mysteries,
the 81-minute Bulu Akisakila Kutala (may 1973) for a trio with Lyons and Cyrille, released on Akisakila (1973),
Solo (May 1973), his first collection of solo-piano pieces, presented Taylor's "layering" technique in its most sophisticated version. The organized improvisations of Choral of Voice, Lono, Asapk in Ame and especially Indent were emblematic of the process of cooperation and competition of events operating at different levels.
Spring of Two Blue J's (november 1973) contained two versions of the piece, one solo and one for a quartet with Lyons, Cyrille and bassist Sirone. The solo version delivered his most emotional outpour yet.
This period culminated in the five loud and noisy movements of the live solo-piano suite Silent Tongues (july 1974): Abyss, Petals & Filaments (combined into one 18-minute track), Jitney (18 minutes), Crossing (18 minutes divided into two tracks) and After all (ten minutes).
This album was a compendium of Taylor's aesthetic, secreting an unlikely synthesis of the irrational and the rational that had been the contradicting pillars of his music. Its range of moods defied the laws of psychoanalysis.
The sound was emblematic of his brilliant exuberance but was soon surpassed
in intensity by at least two (clearly much more improvised) performances:
the 62-minute Streams and Chorus of Seed (june 1976), released on Dark To Themselves, for a quintet with Lyons, trumpeter Raphe Malik, drummer Marc Edwards and tenor saxophonist David Ware,
and the 76-minute solo-piano Air Above Mountains (august 1976).
Here the music was meant to exhaust the performer, to last until it had drained every gram of psychological and physical energy out of the performer.
But these live juggernauts also marked the end of the "underground" period
and the beginning of a three-year artistic bonanza.
A sextet of Taylor, Lyons, trumpeter Raphe Malik, violinist Ramsey Ameen, bassist Norris "Sirone" Jones and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson delivered the
more structured and variegated jams of Cecil Taylor Unit (april 1978): the 14-minute Idut, the 14-minute Serdab, the 30-minute Holiday En Masque,
and the 57-minute 3 Phasis (april 1978).
A similar sextet with Lyons, Ameen, Alan Silva on bass and cello and both Jerome Cooper and Sunny Murray on drums, recorded the 69-minute Is it the Brewing Luminous (february 1980).
Despite the monumental proportions, this music was less magniloquent and
less mysterious than the music of the 1960s.
Live In The Black Forest (june 1978) contains two lengthy compositions, The Eel Pot and Sperichill On Calling, performed by a sextet including Jimmy Lyons (alto sax), Raphe Malik (trumpet), Ramsey Ameen (violin), Sirone (bass) and Ronald Shannon Jackson (drums).
Starting with the quartet effort Calling it the 8th (november 1981), featuring
Lyons, bassist William Parker and drummer Rashid Bakr (all of them doubling on voice),
and the solos
Fly Fly Fly Fly Fly (september 1980), containing
the ten-minute Rocks Sub Amba and the nine-minute The Stele Stolen And Broken Is Reclaimed, and
Garden (november 1981) and
Garden 2nd Set (november 1981),
Taylor increased the production values to emphasize the nuances of his playing, adopted a jazzier style and added his poetry to the music (not a welcomed addition).
A new prolific phase of his career yielded recordings for ensemble, such as
Winged Serpent (october 1984) and
the 48-minute Legba Crossing (july 1988);
for solo piano, such as For Olim (april 1986), containing the 18-minute title-track, the 71-minute title-track of Erzulie Maketh Scent (july 1988) and and the 72-minute The Tree of Life (march 1991), perhaps the most austere of his life;
and for small groups, such as Olu Iwa (april 1986), containing the 48-minute B Ee Ba Nganga Ban'a Eee for piano, trombone, tenor sax and rhythm section, and the 27-minute Olu Iwa for piano and rhythm section, the precursor of his many piano and drums duets, as well as
the 61-minute The Hearth (june 1988), for a trio with saxophonist Evan Parker and cellist Tristan Honsinger, and
Looking (november 1989) and Celebrated Blazons (june 1990) for the trio with bassist William Parker and drummer Tony Oxley.
The best fusion of his visceral and romantic sides was perhaps achieved on Always A Pleasure (april 1993), a live workshop (Longineu Parsons on trumpet, Harri Sjoestroem on soprano sax, Charles Gayle on tenor sax, Tristan Honsinger on cello, Sirone on bass, Rashid Bakr on drums).
All The Notes (february 2000) contains three improvisations with Dominic Duval on bass and Jackson Krall on drums.
Other live albums included:
the ten-disc box-set 2 Ts For A Lovely T (september 1990),
featuring bassist William Parker and drummer Tony Oxley;
Willisau Concert (september 2000), a solo performance;
Almeda (november 1996), with
Tristan Honsinger on cello, Dominic Duval on double bass, Jackson Krall
on drums, Chris Matthay on trumpet, Jeff Hoyer on trombone,
Chris Jonas on alto, Harri Sjöström on soprano and Elliot Levin
CT: The Dance Project (july 1990) in
a trio with bassist William Parker and percussionist Masashi
the trio of Cecil Taylor/ Bill Dixon/ Tony Oxley (may 2002);
Ailanthus/Altissima (Bilateral Dimensions Of 2 Root Songs) (recorded in 2008) with drummer Tony Oxley.
The Last Dance Vol. 1 & 2 (spring 2003) was a collaboration with bassist Dominic Duval.
Taylor represented everything that Coleman stood against: he had studied
composition (Coleman was illiterate) and he was inspired by atonal music
(Coleman harked back to older black music). Coleman approached dance music
from the viewpoint of the disco. Taylor's music was frequently compared (by
himself) to classical ballet. Even the mood was opposite: Taylor's music was
an atomic bomb compared to Coleman's passion.
Cecil Taylor and Pauline Oliveros collaborated on the live Solo Duo Poetry (october 2008) - Independent, 2012).
A quintet with Jimmy Lyons (alto sax), David Ware (tenor sax), Raphe Malik (trumpet) and Marc Edwards (drums), recorded the live Michigan State University April 15th 1976 (april 1976), including the 14-minute Petals and the 32-minute three-movement suite Wavelets.
Cecil Taylor died in 2018 at the age of 89.
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