On a whim a few months ago, I googled “Cecil Taylor Tickets”. It was by some divine miracle that I got the last ticket to his solo concert celebrating his 83rd birthday at the fantastic Issue Project Room in Brooklyn’s downtown. As soon as the ticket was in my possession, I treated the concert as a responsibility. I’ve read about his historical suggestions to his audiences that they prepare themselves for one of his concerts, but my reasons for preparing were far removed from that suggestion. I merely knew that I didn’t want to waste an encounter with one of the greatest musical forces of the century.
I don’t think that there is any artist on the planet that is at once as technically brilliant and expressive as Cecil Taylor(the common argument is Keith Jarrett, and I’m not in a position to argue that, especially due to my massive bias towards Cecil). On one hand, he was and still is, one of the most proficient pianists in recorded history. Any kind of listening will reveal a master pianist, capable of any dynamic and combination of dynamics, completely unafraid of changing register at a split-second notice. His independence is at times mind blowing, and he is capable of creating textures that no ordinary pianist could achieve (a classical friend of mine called it filibustering. It sounded legit, so I’ve used that word to explain Cecil’s fiery attacks on the keyboard) through pure technique and determination.
However, he’s also one of the most honest and expressive pianists I’ve ever seen or heard. Watching him, one gets the sense of utmost connection to the instrument, and an awareness of his own musical self. His is one of the most intensely personal sounds there is, unmistakable in any scenario.
As soon as he struck a note on the piano, it was made obvious to me that there were no barriers keeping us from his musical intention. The music seemed to flow out of him, coming on in waves of intense sound and unsettling silence. Never once did he hesitate or lament a note choice. Although his pieces were often hurricanes of sound, every note was perfectly articulated and clear, and his dynamics were more developed than any I’ve ever seen, not only in the vast contrast between the two extremes(I’ve never heard that much sound come out of a piano. Not even close), but in the fluidity with which he moved between the volumes. For years I practiced an exercise that challenged me to play 42 notes(I have no idea why it was 42…) with even dynamics increases and decreases, up and down. Watching Cecil in action made me realize just how much more precision one can have.
When songs ended, they did with absolute finality, although he had more music to play than he ended up playing, suggesting that each song’s length was variable. Sneaking a glance at the music, it looked like nothing more than working papers, ideas, complex and simple, scrawled out on manuscript paper, with no formal compositional element present(on paper at least). I was actually surprised to see him use music at all. Trying to link the last tune with the sheet that I saw on the stand after the set, was fruitless; I couldn’t make any connection between the two.
As the concert was for his 83rd birthday, his technical prowess was that much more awe-inspiring. Listening back to some of my favorite records, especially the ones from the early 60s, New York R&B and Jumpin’ Punkins, I heard technical flights on the level of Tatum and Hofmann. Truly amazing precision, coupled with that ever-relaxed feeling of unbridled musical creation. Hearing him live at 83, I can say that if his technique has diminished, I don’t have ears good enough to hear it. His variety of touch is amazing, he can bring out inner voices from unbelievably dense and complex voicings, and can play lightning quick up and down the keyboard at any speed, regardless of register, and still maintain a pure singing sound(or an incredibly crude and jarring one, if he likes). Without once looking at the keys, he is able to grab massive awkward chords in contrary motion at both extremes of the keyboard. He is truly astounding.
But again, I must stress the free flow of musical ideas and feelings coming from this man. There no thought, nothing pre-concieved, only pure improvised music. Picasso said “I paint the world not how it is, but as I see it.” Hearing the world through Cecil’s ears, even for one hour, was an unbelievable experience that should not be missed by anyone who cares about true spontaneity, the piano, or a unique artistic soul.
A moment if I may.
Everyone who wants to remove Cecil Taylor (and countless others) from the pantheon of Jazz history needs to listen to some music. Those two albums I’ve named above include Clark Terry, Steve Lacy, Andrew Cyrille, Roswell Rudd, Archie Schepp, and Buell Neidlinger, and unlike the often-cited Coltrane Time or Hard Driving Jazz, he fits into the ensemble like a glove. Anyone who thinks he lacks Jazz history should listen to his playing on “Jumpin’ Punkins” or “Things ‘Aint What They Used To Be”. Anyone who questions his Jazz feel should listen to “Rick Kick Shaw” (Powell) or “Bemsha Swing” (Monk). Anyone who questions his company should listen to his duet with Mary Lou Williams or Max Roach. And anyone who doubts his influence should listen to Coltrane playing anything past Ascension, or Jaki Byard, not to mention anything AACM related.
I also think people doubting his acceptance in this day and age is strange as well. The Café Bohemia alternated him with Mingus for years in the mid 50s, when his music must have sounded twice as avant-garde as it sounds now, when Monk was barely acceptable. Andrew Cyrille remembers going down to hear them back to back in Greenwich in ’56 and being blown away. The Five Spot may not have been as nice to Cecil, but they certainly gave him a long standing chance, and as a result he got on record (more than one could say about Herbie Nichols in any meaningful way, and he’s undoubtedly a Jazz musician, although maybe these same people disagree), and the rest is history.
I know at least one educated person for whom it doesn’t completely make sense(to me) to dislike Cecil and eliminate him from the Jazz tradition. I hope that it’s a matter of semantics rather than a genuine disbelief that he doesn’t belong. As a gay black man growing up in the 30s and 40s, I imagine he’s had enough of that.
And past that, I think it’s safe to give him 5 stars in the realm of pianism, at least.
“You must surrender whatever preconceptions you have about music if you’re really interested in it.” —Cecil Taylor