RIP CECIL TAYLOR
The Man Who Embraced the Sea
by Gary Gomes
The passing of Cecil Taylor on April 5, 2018 marked the end of an amazing career and a the passing of a man who forever changed the face of jazz, and who had a worldwide impact on music. I read several obituaries in international publications, and although in the obituaries, Taylor was considered an outsider, a member of the "avant garde," there was, as at the time of Ornette Coleman's passing, coverage from around the earth. Despite efforts (some accidental, some deliberate) to ignore Taylor and Coleman or deny them their place in music history, those efforts have failed.
I first learned of Cecil Taylor's existence from an unlikely source--the list of people who influenced the Mothers of Invention on Freak Out. Zappa once stated, in an early interview, that anyone who wanted to learn to play piano should listen to Cecil Taylor (anyone who wanted to play guitar should listen to Wes Montgomery). Taylor was influencing popular music both in and out of plain sight. Along with his profound influence on jazz, he also exerted a considerable influence on certain rock keyboard players, including players like Mike Ratledge, Keith Emerson, Don Preston (the Mothers), and Mike Garson (heard on early '70's Bowie) among others.
Taylor's evolution as a player came in stages. His '50's recordings are more economical, superficially (very superficially) sounding like a more abstract version of Monk, but with more space than his later work. It was in the early to mid-'60's that his sweeping, arcing pummeling tidal wave approach developed. Among his major contributions to expanding musical resources were the use of tone clusters, the use of the piano as a percussion instrument (which it how it was originally classified) and the use of rhythm as a pulse or a wave, rather than in a strict bar format, inspiring pianists as diverse as Dave Burrell, Sam Rivers, Burton Green, Dollar Brand, Keith Tippett, Stan Tracey, Irene Schweitzer from Switzerland, Alexander von Schlippenbach from Germany, Fred Van Hove from Belgium, and other pianists from around the world. Taylor's technique was formidable (perhaps the most formidable in improvised music) was founded on conservatory training and an 8 hour practice regimen daily.
The late great bassist Buel Neidlinger once referred to Taylor and Zappa as the only two musical geniuses with which he worked, and Neidlinger also claimed he heard Taylor produce ten different kinds of attacks on the piano keys with his two hands-meaning he produced ten different levels on intensity and volume through each finger. The late Derek Bailey did the same thing with the guitar. so it is little wonder Taylor played with Bailey in the '80's and later.
Taylor always credited his musical influences as jazz artists, including Ellington, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, perhaps much to the chagrin of those who heard Bartok, Stravinsky or Schoenberg in his playing and also to the chagrin of traditional jazz musicians and critics who could not find swing or blues in his playing. But swing and blues components were always there- they were just restated as new language. But Taylor did indicate that he was not concerned about using European sources, as Ellington and other earlier jazz composers had done.
The very first Taylor recording I heard was Conquistador! The opening riff is a flat out blues lick, repeated several times, but with a a rhythmic push that skyrocketed the rhythm. Taylor leaned on the blues just as much as Hendrix did, but took it in unconventional directions. His work had much more emotional punch than any contemporary classical composers. He was interested in contemporary Western classical music, but was not fond of Cage's acolytes (there's no fucking blood) or Stockhausen's disciples (marching around like stormtroopers and ordering the Americans around while the Americans had better technology).
(For a really excellent overview of Taylor, Coleman, and others, see A.B. Spellman's Black Music: Four Lives)
Taylor actually did receive some popular exposure and was positively viewed from a critical perspective into the late 1980's. In the 1970's, he was invited to play at the White House during the Carter presidency, and Carter was so awe struck that he ran after Taylor after his performance. The president, a pianist himself, publicly stated he wished he could play piano like Taylor. He also received U.S. Council of the Arts Award in the 1970's and a $50,000 grant from Japan just a few years ago.
Taylor's musical history is phenomenal. His early recordings with Dennis Charles, Earl Griffiths and later, Archie Shepp, Steve Lacy and Roswell Rudd are fantastic. He recorded a date with John Coltrane and Albert Ayler played with him as well. From 1962-1986, he formed perhaps his most memorable collaboration with Jimmy Lyons which only ended when Jimmy Lyons passed away in 1986. His percussion partners ranged from the free form Sunny Murray to the disciplined and virtuosic Andrew Cyrille and Marc Edwards to the funk-driven Ronald Shannon Jackson. His bass players included the free bowing of Alan Silva and Henry Grimes. Sam Rivers also played with Taylor for about a year. He collaborated with Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Mary Lou Williams and the Art Ensemble of Chicago among others.
He also played with musicians from Europe and Asia, starting in the late 1970's, including Peter Brotzmann, Han Bennink, Derek Bailey, and in a more or less semi-permanent capacity, Tony Oxley, who mixed in virtuosic drumming with Cageian indeterminacy. He also managed to engage in big band recordings of his work, initially in a breathtaking work called "Communications 11" which was the featured piece in Mike Mantler's Jazz Composer's Orchestra recording on JCOA records. It is a mind numbing piece- a sort of concerto for piano, drums and orchestra, the orchestration built around Taylor's playing (Taylor was, along with Mantler, Carla Bley, Bill Dixon, a founder of the Jazz Composers Guild). Taylor later went on to record with an large university ensemble and several subsequent orchestra settings on Black Saint records and other labels.
Taylor kept up a rigorous playing schedule for most of his life, and he threw all of his energy into his playing. Having seen him play live six times, I can attest to this. I would say his most intimidating work took place between 1972 and 1975, but his intensity never wavered, even as he progressed into his 80's, although he cancelled gigs for health reasons starting about 8 years ago.
Even those who disliked Taylor's spiky, relentless style acknowledged his immense technical command of his instrument. His detractors--and there were many, ranging from Steely Dan to Wynton Marsalis--never seemed to grasp that the concept of swing, chord progressions, and movement could change and evolve. Taylor once noted, in a Perfect Sound Forever interview that tehnique was more than mastery of an instrument; it also meant evolving an individual style, which eluded academic players who hewed close to traditonal form in a specific time frame, like Marsalis.
Taylor was called a constructivist, and I once found elements of his work akin to structuralism in his music. Basically, this meant that Taylor would develop completely new structures basically on the fly. His intense practice schedule meant that he could evoke any chord he wished- including chord clusters, parallel descending and ascending lines of great speed and complexity, and could go from tender to ferocious (on one occasion I saw him, the piano tuner was removing what appeared to be a broken bass piano string) at the slightest notice. I have seen Taylor performances in which about a third of the audience left, but the remainder of the audience was stunned. The density of his playing could be daunting to those not familiar with it- but would reward those brave enough to stay and endure it. Taylor concerts were never easy listening and they often upset people, but they would always stimulate too. His style only somewhat mellowed with the use of a Bosendorfer piano, which had extra bass notes. He usually wore track suits when he played, and as a small man, he would often bob up and down on the piano bench as he reached for handfuls of notes in the extreme registers of the piano.
In the mid-1970's, Taylor often attempted to integrate a little dance (as Monk had) and poetry into his performances. Although some fans were ambivalent about these extras, Taylor had, by that time been in the public eye for 20 plus years-- these were small interludes prior to the immersion in the sea of notes to follow.
As Taylor grew and evolved, often times after the '60's he would record more and more for European and Japanese record labels save for a small period in which he issued records under his own label (Unit Core). Some of these recordings are among Taylor's finest, best recorded work, as he was given artistic freedom to record what he liked.
There was a brief period in his life during which Taylor taught at a university. Tthis happened quite a bit in the 1970's. Trumpeter Bill Dixon taught at Bennington, Archie Shepp, Reggie Workman, Max Roach and Jaki Byard taught at the University of Massachusetts system, and Taylor at Antioch and University of Wisconsin. There was a story that he once flunked an entire class because they did not take the material seriously.
The title of this tribute piece came from jazz critic Albert Murray, a vocal critic of Taylor's. Murray was a curious and atypical critic who was an excellent writer but who possessed some rather rigid conceptions of aesthetics--he did not keep up with current recordings (sort of a requirement for a critic), and postulated that since jazz is already free, the efforts of Taylor were like trying to embrace the sea and "you can't embrace the sea." But I don't think that Murray is correct in either his assessment of what Taylor was trying to do. Taylor created worlds in his playing--and the waves of sound he produced was the sea.
In the end, Cecil Taylor opened up a range of performance that people are still exploring. He was a one of a kind performer who built a unique style of improvisation, as separate from bebop as he was from Coltrane, Coleman, Sun Ra, and everyone with whom he collaborated, but still within the tradition of jazz. The latter assertion will be debated for years, but to these ears, Taylor was clearly in the tradition. A tradition does not ossify at one stage and get repeated endlessly. Taylor understood this and moved forward; he could do nothing else and stay true to himself.
Hail, Cecil Taylor. Irreplaceable, innovative and individual--
he stood where few dared to go and retained impeccable integrity.
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