Sunday 29 April 2018

"...And not Goodbye": Cecil Taylor (Part 2 -- Taylor as Poet)

Taylor with Joanne Kyger and I think Alice Notley in the background, Naropa, 1994

Spencer Richards: You don’t consider yourself a professional musician?
Cecil Taylor: I would hope never to be a professional musician.
SR: How would you classify yourself?
CT: Ha, ha, ha. I’ve always tried to be a poet more than anything else. I mean, professional musicians die.

Taylor’s music has been a consistent example for poets, its energies provoking formal analogies or historical meditations, its dancing between registers read as a politicised model of aesthetics (what Fred Moten calls “a politics that improvises resistance”). Probably the earliest example is Drive Suite, a multi-sectioned pamphlet written either by Harold Carrington or Ray Bremser from a New Jersey prison; since then, there’s Clark Coolidge’s Comes Through in the Call Hold, a long piece which seems only to have been published in elusive snippets; Thulani Davis’ masterful “CT’s Variation” and “CT at the Five Spot”; Ntozake Shange (“many stories of mine seep out of the chords of Cecil taylor’s solos […] the piano as battering ram, rebel shout, the fresh cicatrix of fast life in a black space”); and the recent work of Fred Moten, whose 2014 book, The Feel Trio, is named after Taylor’s trio with Oxley and William Parker, and whose piece on Taylor’s poetry record Chinampas is virtually the only critical piece of any length to have been published on Taylor’s own poetry.

But Taylor was himself a hard-to-classify, quixotic, performative, frustrating, inspiring, brilliant poet. Part of the thriving artistic scene of early-to-mid-1960s New York, Taylor was a collaborator with dancers, poets and theatre-makers, playing music for Jack Gelber’s experimental production of The Connection – and apparently frustrating the play’s producers, who wanted a small amount of be-bop as background sound, rather than the hour-long improvisations Taylor insisted on developing in order to exacerbate and extend the play’s drama – and performing with dancer Freddie Herko for the Judson Dance Theatre. He was also friend – sometimes somewhat fractiously – with Amiri Baraka, whom he first met in 1957, and of whom he speaks with a kind of cautious respect in the mid-90s interview with Chris Funkhouser about his poetry for Nathaniel Mackey's magazine Hambonea vital text for this aspect of his work. (Late on, Taylor and Baraka would collaborate in a series of duo performances entitled “Diction and Contra-Diction”.) Taylor later recalled:

I began to write poems when I was corresponding with a French poet whom I was in love with in 1962. I then became involved in the movement of burgeoning poets who did poetry readings at the clubs throughout the East Village and Greenwich Village. Sometimes Roi and I would be put on the same bill, and he and I would argue about who should go on first. The shows would have both poetry readers and jazz musicians […] was there when Roi wrote his play “Slave Ship.”

Taylor appears to have been closer to Diane Di Prima, with whom Baraka co-edited legendary underground little magazine The Floating Bear (Taylor operated the mimeograph machine on a kitchen table). Di Prima recalls:

Cecil would say ‘Do you want to come over, I want to practice all afternoon.’ And again, where cool worked, I wasn’t going to come in and chat or anything, I was going to come over with my notebook and scribble.

In the Hambone interview, Taylor further recalls his formative encounters with Bob Kaufman, nowadays primarily emembered as a “black Beat” (and perhaps inventor of the term “beatnik”), but in fact a genuine American surrealist who appears to have been a formative poetic influence on Taylor.

I spent time with Kaufman. One night, boy, I was at this building that was on First Avenue and First Street. It was a sort of triangular shaped building, and Ginsberg, [Peter] Orlovsky, Le Roi Jones and Kaufman and myself were in this room. And I just stood there. And there was no question in my mind who the force was in that room. […] 
When I met him, he came to the Five Spot one night I was working there, said “You’ve gotta come with me after you finish work.” I said, “Look, Bob, I started working at quarter after nine, I won’t be finished until four o’clock, I can’t do this.” So he said, “Yes you will,” and he came at four o’clock and he took me over to what is now Soho, and he read poems to me until about quarter after one the next afternoon. And I remember walking out of that loft completely energized--I hate that word--but completely transformed.

Most notably, Taylor was early on a member of neglected African-American poets’ collective the Umbra Workshop, alongside fellow musician Archie Shepp (who was in his group at the time), and writers like Ishmael Reed, Lorenzo Thomas, Calvin Hernton, David Henderson, N.H. Pritchard, and many others. (My book on this is forthcoming later in the year, though sadly doesn’t feature much on Taylor’s activities in this regard, which remain basically undocumented).

Yet, though he attended Umbra’s workshops, Taylor is not listed as one of the group’s members, nor did his work appear in the pages of the group’s magazine. Neither is Taylor present in other anthologies of the time that published Umbra member’s work; his first published appearance appears to be in a short-lived jazz magazine called Sounds and Fury in 1965, but he never appears in any of the usual venues for Black Arts Movement poetry, whether anthologies or magazines. Partly, this may be to do with the fact that Taylor increasingly spent time in Europe, in frustration at his lack of success within the systematically exploitative world of jazz clubs and festival circuits sketched out with such clarity in the chapter on Taylor in poet A.B. Spellman’s Four Lives in the Bebop Business (republished as Four Jazz Lives). After the spate of early recordings in which he negotiates from be-bop to free jazz, the only release we find until 1966 is a live, November 1962 date from the Café Montmartre in Copenhagen – later reissued as Nefertiti, The Beautiful One Has Come. Though Taylor was active in New York, where he was involved with the Jazz Composers’ Guild, he did not release another album as a leader until Unit Structures, before heading to Paris to work on his developing conception of ensemble as “Unit” with Jimmy Lyons and Andrew Cyrille. As detailed in the previous post, these years were relatively quiet ones, in recording terms at least, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that he began to really hit the big-time, if that’s what it could be called. Both musically and poetically, Taylor was not always an easy fit. Baraka writes highly of Taylor’s work in a review of Into the Hot, and Taylor is included alongside Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, and Pharoah Sanders as part of the “changing same” continuum of free jazz and R&B: but, for Baraka, writing with a kind of respectful suspicion, Taylor’s approach is more “Western” than theirs. (For his part, Taylor criticised Stockhausen and David Tudor for the aridity of their music.)

Cecil Taylor is also secular. He is very much an artist. His references determinedly Western and modern, contemporary in the most Western sense. One hears Europe and the influence of French poets on America and the world of “pure art” in Cecil’s total approach to his playing […] Even though Cecil is close to what’s been called Third Stream, an “integrated” Western modernism, he is always hotter, sassier and newer than that music. But the Black artist is most often always hip to European art, often at his jeopardy.

Partly, one suspects that Taylor’s sexuality might have been in an issue in his exclusion from the macho aesthetic exemplified in certain strands of Baraka’s work – despite his own militancy, his outspoken politics, his insistence on the beauty and specificity of black art (see this panel discussion:, See Benjamin Piekut’s useful piece on sexuality and the Jazz Composer’s Guild here: As Peter Kowald later put it:

But Cecil, since the early '60s—or since we've known him [in Europe], which was the early '60s—always had that special feature about him. He kept it up, and then—he's a black homosexual; and this music somehow for long has been a very male music, somehow. It still is, in many ways, mostly, I mean the '60s music, let's say; now it's changed, but the '60s music was really a male music, and there was this very special man who was a black homosexual […] So, it is strong; he kept it up really strong, and built it up into his system.

Taylor’s published poems are: ‘Scroll No.1’ and ‘Scroll No.2’, first published in the obscure, small-run jazz magazine Sounds and Fury in 1965, and reprinted as the liner notes to Indent in 1977; ‘Soul Being’s Gravity a Focal Point Touched Anoints the Darkened Heart’ and ‘Rain’ in the same magazine; ‘Sound Structure of Subculture Becoming Major Breath/Naked Fire Gesture’, published as the liner notes to Unit Structures in 1966; ‘The Musician’, first published as part of the liner notes to the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra album Communications in 1968 and subsequently in Franklin Rosemont's journal Arsenal / Surrealist Subversion in 1976; ‘Aqoueh-R-Oyo’, published as liner notes to Spring of Two Blue-J’s in 1973, and republished as liner notes to Air Above Mountains in 1976; also in Spring of Two Blue-J’s, a holograph reproduction of a poem described as an excerpt from ‘Word Placement’, and dedicated to Ben Webster; ‘Da’, in the liner notes to Dark to Themselves, 1976; ‘Choir’ and ‘Langage’, in the liner notes to Embraced (1978) ; ‘Garden’, first published in the anthology Moment’s Notice in 1993, but, judging from its style and thematic concerns, probably written in the 1970s; and holograph reproductions of poetry by Taylor in Alianthus / Altissima (2009). Other, more fugitive texts include a short, untitled poem included as part of Taylor’s contribution to a panel discussion for the October 1967 issue of Arts/Canada on “black” in art with Michael Snow, Ad Reinhart, Aldo Tambellini and others (the transcription may include lineation errors); a short poem from 1983, also untitled, quoted in Whitney Balliett’s 1986 New Yorker feature on Taylor; prose-poetic liner notes to the trio album with Bill Dixon and Tony Oxley from 2002; and two poems from 2008, ‘heat in room’ and ‘exstasis’, briefly posted on the now-defunct Cecil Taylor Art Corporation website. This is a substantial collection of work, and anecdotes from Taylor and others indicate that there may be many more manuscripts, from which a book could and perhaps should be made. [A provisional biblio-discography is embedded at the bottom of this post -- scroll down!]

Unit Structures

'Sound Structure of Subculture Becoming Major Breath/Naked Fire Gesture', published as liner notes to Unit Structures (1966)

Probably still the best-known published instance of Taylor’s poetry – and one of the earliest – is the liner notes to Unit Structures: a prose-poetic piece entitled “Sound Structure of Subculture Becoming Major Breath/Naked Fire Gesture” which completely destroys the format of many liner notes that were prevalent (particular for Blue Note) at the time – dry technical analyses, spiced with anecdotes and interviews with musicians – and which is still probably his greatest poem. Like many of his pieces, it is at once a statement of ethics, aesthetics, and musicological systems; all of these and far more. Outlining three “areas” which correspond to the sections of the pieces performed on the album, Taylor’s musical conception is spatial, geographic, constantly diving between metaphors to describe the music which themselves become musical metaphors to describe other art forms, sometimes breaking into unexpected rhyme, and echoing Charles Olson’s projective verse, its insistence on the intermeshing of “content” and “form”, the correlatives between time and space, the kinaesthetic in opposition to the fixity of poetic metre, musical notation, the West’s division and measurement of time. Here is how it begins.

The first level or statement of three an opening field of question, how large it ought or ought not to be. From Anacrusis to Plain patterns and possibility converge, mountain sides to dry rock beds, a fountain spread before prairie, form is possibility; content, quality and change growth in addition to direction found. 3rd part is area where intuition and given material mix group interaction. Simultaneous invention heard which these words describe. The paths of harmonic and melodic light, give architecture sound structures acts creating flight.

Listen to this “Sound Structure” again towards its conclusion, ending with the unexpectedly moving and intimate echo of the recently-deceased Bud Powell, Billie Holiday’s floating, gloved armed floating through as a reclaimed instance of that “naked fire gesture” (not suffering passivity), against the fever pitch of the West’s body-mind enclosure.

Rhythm is life the space of time danced thru. As a gesture Jazz became: Billie’s right arm bent at breast moving as light touch. Last moments, late father no use to sit and sigh the pastors have left us gone home to die. End to slave trade in sweet meats and rum […] 
Call quiet leaves to choir, a set ritual song cycle in tongues the heat Harlem long ages past rested glory from. Background for breath rippling with knighted tongue enshrouding teeth. Yoruba memoir other mesh in voices mother tongue at bridge scattering Black […]  
Where are you Bud? . . . Lightning . . . now a lone rain falling thru doors empty of room—Jazz Naked Fire Gesture, Dancing protoplasm Absorbs.

All Taylor’s subsequent poetic concerns are here: the distant echo of West African histories, the sufferings and resistances of recent African-American history, the material-spiritual figuration of what is done to bodies and lives, and their gestures in response. Hardly the conventional idea of “jazz poetry”, this is something far more complex than mere imitation or tribute. While Taylor’s poetry predominantly concerns music (and such music as is named “jazz” in particular), he insists on seeing this as part of a holistic conception of which the music is simply an encapsulation – a part.

“manifestations of black energy”: Taylor and Politics

'Scroll No.1' and 'Scroll No.2' (first published in 1965, here in republication as liner notes to Indent)

Taylor’s poetry is almost never focused on a lyric I – what more would one expect, given the ex-static giving over of self to ensemble of his music (what he calls “ecstatic compression of time’s energy”) – but on history, mythology, broad and vast registers from science, space, the spirit in matter and matter in the spirit – the intangible records of tangible history, the broken continuum, to use Fred Moten’s phrase, in the break. Taylor’s poetry is, as a concept, inherently political, a theory of ensemble, improvisation, a vision of the social body radically different from that of the West’s ensemble. This is not the agitational work characteristic of Black Arts Movement poetics – or, say, of Archie Shepp’s occasional recitations (“On this Night”, “The Wedding”, Malcolm, Malcolm - Semper Malcolm”, “Mama Rose” et al). Taylor’s concerns, while politicised, are more consciously esoteric, with mythic frameworks not so much instrumentalised toward political ends, but embraced, as we’ll see, as part of a performative, ritual conception. Nonetheless, Taylor’s earliest poems in particular contain a number of pointed political references. In the Hambone interview, years later, Taylor wryly noted:

When the hosannas of democracy blare the loudest, it’s when personal options--in terms of choices--become the narrowest. It’s at that point that the poet really sees the dimension of the work that is possible.

‘Scroll No.2’, first published in 1965, is a scathing, extended critique of these betrayed promises of democracy, and the performances they inspire on the part of the “black bourgeoisie”.

Nation’s lost diplomacy
lost nation’s duplicity
Demagogic democracy
Damned dutiful
Darned cloth
blue serge        white shirt
one someone        shirt floptic
tank bat and “yeah bo”
I’ma Senatah!
You just sing dance unseen
                  food maker
                  lost nobles
                  chewed spit’n
                  grits shit and
                  molasses hot smellin’
                  teeth toothless
                  hyeena smile 
’Ah is so happy
Youse mah master
ooh ooh ooh
The poem ends with a punning denunciation, in which the “calcimimed” (whitewashed) miming of whiteness becomes internalised as the final stage of the heartbeat (a contraction) which speaks in polygot – here figured negatively as double-consciousness, double-speak.

calcimined mimes
ejaculate polyglot
Dry cell of money
has locked the minds
and cauterized hearts

Tayor’s poem critiques the myth of assimilation by which what are seen as minstrel performances go directly against what he calls in a panel 1967 discussion for the journal arts/Canada “the knowing, of black dignity” found in the cultural forms that the black bourgeoisie disparage in their quest for inclusion within the racist, capitalist structure of white American “democracy”.

Taylor’s longest poem, ‘Garden’ was first published in Nathaniel Mackey’s anthology of jazz poetries, Moment’s Notice in 1993, but, from its thematic and formal concerns, appears to have been written in the 1970s. The piece stands out from most of the other pieces in not being a ‘jazz poem’ in any conventional sense (though it references musical figures like Don Cherry, Tadd Dameron, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin). It’s pretty hard to encompass what it’s about, or to quote form it in a representative way – I re-read it again, in one sitting, after hearing of Taylor’s death, and it still slides away. The poem traverses a wide territory: wrenching accounts of the Middle Passage; satirical sections on the black bourgeoisie (“Skinny Skelton, Pucci Gucci accoutrement / —is what they slink about in rapping, drinking / etc etc etc etc”); oblique reminiscences of touring in Europe (“training Stuttgart to Paree”); celebrations of the music of Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Don Cherry, as part of a continuing stratum of black creative energy; and accounts of African ritual practices that assume a celebratory and participatory tone, rather than that of historical or anthropological difference. Veering between time zones, often in the space of a single line, the poem combines accounts of the musician’s life and of music with addresses to the history of racial servitude, the growing black consciousness of the 1960s and 1970s, and ritual. About a third of the way into the poem, a meditation on the Middle Passage leads to a kind of cinematic cross-fade, crossing time and space, into current deep-sea drilling (environmental despoliation) and intramural violence.

fielded in theft hull dimension dam’d
bow of Middle Passage, plural choice
depth grist incarnate slime theft ravaged
men arranging murder on rock bed
slinking oil, dropping elevators for gold
crushing, mutilating—fine, fine than is
the ‘art’ produced by a vision old crook’d tooth
of eternal witch, broom hard in open puss,
mother killing sons, daughters, fathers,
blinded by greed, mother or both, brothers
doin’ in brothers—yeh yeh—dig that
Vision—its continuance—a contrast…

These lines are perhaps the most directly political in the poem; their counterweights are found in a kind of pastoral vision, full of detailed descriptions of West African ritual, through the performances of musicians Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Don Cherry, Tadd Dameron, Sunny Murray, and boxers Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali and Jack Johnson, and allusions to Black Power. Here, Aretha’s totemic anthem calls across to field and plough, both as index of chattel slavery in American plantations and agricultural work in African fields, associated with ritual practices.

             […] black rights
cradling impossible flight . . .

Witness, witness across field heritage spoke
alliances conquer’d. Respect Respect
             there is the ritual witness respect
all seeking augmentation force living
Respect the field witness the plow augment
      principle purpose of sacrifice, propitiation
      gift, presence, at water its flat face
      mirror polarize seeking will oracle’s
                Respect Respect
                Aretha aires
                absolute absolum
                Aretha absolute
                Witness sweet inspiration
                absolute gentleness

For Taylor, the theft of bodies during the era of chattel slavery is paralleled and extended by the cultural theft perpetrated on African-American artistic forms: forms which arose as resistant reactions to slavery and which have, often unacknowledged, informed most of the main forms of modern American culture, while being consistently demeaned, misunderstood and mocked. Yet, as in the Unit Structures liners, physical gestures or “stances” are posted against economic exploitation. The bodies of workers and artists, forced to perform and conform to the rhythms of labour, nonetheless convert or challenge them into resistant potential.

Right on, Right on
how stances continue
defy exterior commerce
deaths, to mountain exhalt
Right, then, initiate going
on, Right, Right, Right on

These lines from ‘Garden’ recall Taylor’s insistence on politicising the term ‘black’ within an aesthetic context during a heated discussion with Ad Reinhardt in a 1967 issue of the journal arts/ canada, soon after the SNCC had published its Black Power position paper. Picking up on the fashionable vogue the term ‘black power’ has taken, Taylor agues that, long before this:

The black artists have been in existence. Black— the black way of life—is an integral part of the American experience—the dance, for instance, the slop, Lindy hop, applejack, Watusi. Or the language, the spirit of the black in the language—“hip,” “Daddy,” “crazy,” and “what’s happening,” “dig.” These are manifestations of black energy, of black power, if you will.

“…everything that you do”: Ritual and Performance

Taylor reciting the poem 'Star-Step' in the film Imagine the Sound (1981)

Taylor’s “black energy” tends to manifest more in accounts of West African ritual and its relation to the modern-day improvising musical ensemble than in the more directly political passages that characterized contemporaneous Black Arts Movement work. Importantly, such energy derives its power from its incorporation into his artistic practice as a whole. While much Black Arts work increasingly made use of an oral dimension – whether in rhythmic or sung recitations, or the combination of poetry with speeches, performances, dance and music – Taylor above all is the artist for whom poetry was inseparable from all the other facets of his artistic practice. As he told interviewer Bill Smith in 1981:

It seems to what music is, is…everything that you do […] What one tries to do is think of all the things that have been interesting to you, and once you make the commitment to, you know, poetry, then all of those areas that are germane to your existence as a specialist in music means that you see all of art as a potential harvesting area, and you busy yourself about getting as much of it as you can, and using it whenever the situation allows you to do so. (Imagine the Sound, 1981)

It seems impossible to track exactly, but Taylor appears to have begun reciting poems as part of his performances in the early 1970s. ‘Scroll No. 1’ appears, nearly ten years after its initial publication, as part of this performance with the peak Lyons / Cyrille Unit in Chateauvallon in 1974.

It was also around the time that the poems began to appear more frequently as liner notes to Taylor’s albums – which was, in fact, almost exclusively their publication venue. Both Taylor’s poetry and his artistic practice as a whole was increasingly based on an immersion into ritual practices associated predominantly with voodoo, and, alter, ancient Egyptian and Aztec mythology, based on his apparently encyclopaedic knowledge of world religion. Taylor had founded his own label, Unit Core, of which the 1973 Spring of Two Blue-J’s was one of only two releases (the other being Mysteries, later re-issued by Arista Freedom as Indent). The sleeve to this record published a combination of typeset and holograph poems: the important “Aquoueh R-Oyo” in typescript, and a holographic reproduction of a longer worked called “Word Placement”, dedicated to the recently-deceased Ben Webster.

'Aqoueh-R-Oyo' and 'Word Placement' from the liner notes to Spring of Two Blue-J's (1973)

Theorizing the musical ensemble once more, Taylor presents a kind of universalism which places human life alongside animal and plant life, anticipating what would be called today “eco-poetics”:

to then become forces moving
as part of the Universe: recognizant
of earth (ground) animal, plant, sky
as energy factors within our

Spring of Two Blue-J’s also contains announcements of forthcoming works, including Mysteries, an imminent, full-length manuscript to which ‘Word Placement’ was an ‘adjunct’, concerning Taylor’s research into voodoo, dance, spirituality. In the Hambone interview, Taylor responds to Chris Funkhouser’s question about the manuscript with a casualness that goes some way as to indicating why no serious edition of his poetry has yet appeared.

It was never published. I never did anything about it. It’s over there in the closet there […] It was kind of beginning of something, and had a lot to do with voodoo. Had a lot to do with beginning with George Balanchine’s conception of movement. Had a lot to do with the beginning of the emergence of the Kabuki and the Bunraku, and the Azuma kabuki. Also, it had to do with the battle that was going down with the bebop musicians who felt that their conception of swing was being violated, which is funny, cause they couldn’t dance anyhow.

Perhaps the manuscript still exists somewhere amongst his papers; who knows what will happen to that now. Numerous sources attest that Taylor had piles and piles of poetry manuscripts all around his flat, some of which appeared in the 2016 Whitney Museum show; but, like his reluctance to sign record contracts or to frame himself in the expected routes, Taylor was not interested in carving out a conventional “literary” career. A letter from Gertrude Stein scholar (and Taylor devotee) Ulla E. Dydo to Steve Dickison in the Taylor edition of Shuffle Boil argues that:

Cecil’s poetry is not like any other poetry that can be reproduced, printed, and read with the eyes or performed out loud. It is a different form, a hybrid. Printing it reduces it down to something else, and in that sense destroys it. Though you can call it a score, it is not music. It is not painting, decorative art, or photography and cannot be a visual stand-alone. To print it, even in facsimile, is to violate and falsify what it is.

Certainly, his use of hand-written manuscripts in performance was part of the charged theatricality of recitation – Taylor treating them as something like a score for performance, as inscrutable as the idiosyncratic system of notation he developed, glimpsed in videos of performances, and more like the loose instructions of early medieval notation than the full-blown systematic rigidity of the European tradition (every single nuance catalogued and processed through the symbol on the page). While some reports saw his readings in particular as more akin to sound poetry, it should be stressed that this work is densely referential, immersed in the ritual practices it both describes and enacts: a practice in equal parts spiritual, aesthetic and political. Though focused principally on West African ritual and on Haitain voodoo, such work also draws on ancient Egyptian and Aztec civilization, Japanese dance, modern scientific discourse, and on Native American beliefs (Taylor was himself of Native American ancestry).

Taylor does not just write about ritual, and while he does not seek to recreate it per se, oral references to it abound in increasingly ritualized performance settings. From the 1970s on, Taylor’s poems were delivered almost exclusively in the context of musical performances, often combined with dance – pirouetting, crouching, stalking, swivelling onto the stage from the wings, holding a sheaf of musical and poetic notation on sheets of loose paper, reciting the names of voodoo or Egyptian gods, lines emerging in repetition and a kind of sprechstimme – squawking, scratching, rasping, sometimes in strange tones of parody, verging on the edge of hilarity (I remember in particular a kind of upper-class English accent which completely undercuts a line of pseudo-academese). These would function as extended preludes to the moment the music fans were waiting for, when he would first sit down at the piano and strike a densely clanging low note to begin. In his recent Cecil obit, Richard Scheinen describes these as a mode of “tuning-up”, something like spiritual exercises or “tuning-up”, somewhere between a warm-up, a ritual and a recital. Bearing in mind that these poems were often kinds of music theory, their presence as part of concerts makes perfect sense: they enact an aesthetic, an ethos, with a ritual function, descriptions of performance that were in themselves performed. We might also liken their function in his concerts as something akin to Ornette Coleman’s use of violin and trumpet – designed to extend the parameters of what was permissible from the performer, and to insist on the breadth of interest, the auto-didactic polymathism, what was permitted as part of a ‘jazz’ performance. Commenting on Coleman’s then-recent adoption of the violin, Taylor is quoted in Spellman’s Four Lives thus:

Cats said to me, ‘Well, you know Ornette really doesn’t know much about the violin: I said, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Well, he couldn’t play like Heifetz!’ We got back into that thing I thought I’d left at the U.N. back in 1958. Like, in spite of Heifetz’ great technique, he has never come up with a sound like Ornette. He has never played the music that Ornette plays on the violin.

Like Coleman’s violin, Taylor’s use of poetry in his performances functioned as something of a playful fuck-you to both poetry and jazz fans. Even the most hostile critics would have to acknowledge that Taylor’s pianistic technique is completely formidable; but his poetry functions along slightly different lines. To be sure, as indicated by the quotations with which we began, many poets look favourably on his work. Tracie Morris considers him “a poet first”; he read with Kamau Brathwaite at Naropa in 1994, and collaborated late on with Amiri Baraka, and there’s a slowly-growing body of work on his poetry – a Jacket 2 feature on the album Chinampas, Fred Moten’s essay, and hopefully more to come. The jazz audience perhaps lacks this capacity, and Taylors knows it, taking it as a playful challenge. You will only be able to approach this work – as a holistic concept, combined of poetry, dance and music – on its own terms. In his increasingly ritualized performances, Taylor’s asking: how far are you going to go with me? Am I a “jazz” musician? What expectations of “entertainment” have been constructed around this art-form? In 1994, he told Chris Funkhouser:

Well, I don’t know what jazz is. And what most people think of as jazz I don’t think that’s what it is at all. As a matter of fact I don’t think the word has any meaning at all. But that’s another conversation…

Increasingly – particularly when he began to give more extended readings – Taylor’s ritual recitations seemed to use found material, sometimes resembling parodies of academic lectures, with cut-ups seemingly derived from scientific textbooks, works on mythology – particularly voodoo and its West African roots, an abiding interest back to the 1970s – and later, ancient Egyptian and Aztec civilisation. Taylor’s poetics is intensely serious, for all that it encompasses play, spontaneity, improvised parody, satire and wit. His art refuses separation in that way. Texts that are academic accounts of ritual become once more parts of ritual themselves: not so much re-enactments as improvised responses, rejecting the distance of Eurocentric anthropology and insisting on the importance of the physical and mental fusion central to his conception of the socio-musical ensemble. As he puts it in an interview with Whitney Balliett:

I’m very conscious of body movement when I play. I apply it to the piano in ways never seen before. I sing inside me, and I sing out loud. I write poems and I recite them in the middle of my pieces.

(originally New Yorker 1986, reprinted in American Musician II: Seventy-One Portraits in Jazz twenty years later)

And four years later, quoted in the liner notes to In Florescence:

I currently view the presentation of music from a very ritualistic point of view…The voice, the chanting, the poems and the movement are all things I’ve been working up to throughout my whole career.

Andrew Cyrille, who was a central part of Taylor’s Unit during the late 1960s and 1970s, usefully characterizes Taylor’s aesthetic at the turn of the twenty-first century:

He’s found a place where he feels comfortable with what he has acquired and learned over the years from both cultures, the African and the European put together in the African-American in this country. There are other parts of Cecil which he doesn’t talk about too often, but on occasion he will mention his Indian roots. I’m talking about Native American. A lot of what he feels and thinks comes out of that cultural perspective also. […]All jazz musicians play European music, or most of us do in some way-shape-or-form. [Africans] don’t play XIII chords and flat IXs and sharp XIs and all that sort of stuff. […]

The thing that the African-American does is bring a feeling. The Europeans might make the clothes, but hey, we’re going to put it on and style it the way that we want.

(Quoted in this useful piece by Ted Panken)


Because of Taylor’s deployment of poetry as part of an overall aesthetic, rather than a compartmentalized, generically separated practice, it’s hard to track this work. As noted above, Taylor cared little for publication, increasingly so over the years, and poetry appeared more as performative interludes: for instance, the pieces from the 1980s for the Orchestra of Two Continents and the Cecil Taylor European Orchestra, Winged Serpent and Legba Crossing, and as the regular introductions to most of his solo recitals. The distribution of texts, syllables or words amongst the ensemble – or in interaction with vocalists, notably Brenda Bakr in a 1980s version of the Unit – dispels the notion of the singular poet, reciting with authority or gravitas, and instead disperses the “text” as a quasi-musical element, which, like musical notes, is at once referential and abstract, ringing with significance and full of playful, mutable, improvisational responsiveness and openness. Not only is the “poem” itself, as a singular unit, virtually destroyed, but the bestowed authority of poet-as-reciter is spread. Poetry becomes a texture amongst the musical ensemble, associated with physical movement, the sound of the voice, and with a ritualized performance environment which parallels, if it does not exactly mimic, the ritual practices it describes and invokes.

The best place to trace the evolution of Taylor’s poetry is the album Chinampas, recorded in 1987 and released in 1990. Certainly, given the fugitivity of the rest of the uncollected written work, it remains Taylor’s most-discussed foray into poetry – though, for the reasons just outlined, it can’t be called a “text”. Over nine tracks, Taylors recites, speaks, whispers, growls, and croons his way through a series of oblique texts, with additional overdubs of voice and tympani. Each phrase resonates in the mind, Taylor’s unforgettable enunciation, swooping from precise to burred and blurred, using space as with his phrasal “units” in piano improvisations, hanging on the border between speech and song. “Incarnate theyselves in the heads of they horses”; “angle of incidence / being matter ignited”; Taylor can make even mathematical equations zing with the disarming caress at once personal and impersonal, the grain of his voice. Chinampas differs from the solo or Unit concerts, where poetry would be deployed as just one element amongst dance and music (or, in ensemble pieces, , as fragments of speech which function in a similar manner to the scales and melodic themes which form the basis for group improvisation: Legba Crossing is a good example of the latter). Named after a form of meso-American agriculture – the construction of floating gardens, continuing the theme of horticulture and agriculture that pervades Taylor’s poetic work – the texts on Chinampas are essentially descriptions of ritual practice – principally from Aztec civilization and from Haitian voodoo. Taylor’s use of tympani vaguely recalls what Ezra Pound had done with recitation many years earlier, but with none of the orotund reverence of Pound’s conception – Taylor is far more a trickster, far less interested in moralistic pronouncement. In the interview with Funkhouser, he says:

…the thing that allows me to enter into what [Charles Olson and Bob Kaufman] do is the feeling that I get. It’s the way they use words. It’s the phraseology that they use, much the way the defining characteristic of men like Charlie Parker or Johnny Hodges is the phraseology. And in the phraseology would be the horizontal as well as the vertical. In other words, the harmony and the melodic. Well, I also see that in word structures.

As he notes of Chinampas, when asked how much was improvised:

None of it. What was improvised were the instruments. What is also improvised is how the voice is used.

Given the resources of the recording studio, Taylor gets to play with his voice in ways not always possible in live performance, where his recitation was linked to his movement, generally not mic’d, and where words might get lost, coming across only as sound. Here, he progresses from caressed whispers, hanging sibilance, to loud squawks, rough rasps, intoned over the thud of tympani or shakers, or the rustling of papers as percussion instrument. Though the subject-matter is descriptive of ritual – about as far from lyric as one might get – this is song, a curiously lulling and beautiful recitation at times, the intimacy of close-up voice. As I’ve found in attempting to make transcriptions of Taylors’ recitations here and in live performance, it’s virtually impossible to capture on the page the distinctive tempo and timbre of Taylor’s phrasing. Sometimes, indeed, Taylor appears to use found texts, chopped up and played with in recitation: it’s the “delivery” and the ritualized context of performance as much as the text itself that makes it a poem. Above all, it’s the time and the timing of reading, the way breath and tongue and teeth spin out the phrase or line, that “notation” or transcription can’t capture. Taylor will often be found staggering a word, in instances of what Nathaniel Mackey elsewhere calls “telling inarticulacy”: words divided up, extended, syllables stretched out to become particles of song – or lines repeated, teased out, turned into lyric, mutable mantras. Take the following from Chinampas’ second track, where Taylor appears to imitate the sound of bird-calls. As should be easily apparent, transcription is woefully inadequate to what he does with his voice here:

of corbelled vault limestone in granulated stack to summit surrounded by feathers and
and and CHACK
chack chack seeded on chack chack chack chack chack
chack seeded on cloud.

And it’s hard to capture on paper the humour of the record, which sees Taylor shouting: “stand, boy, stand, stand! stand, boy, stand, stand!”; “quadruped got a plan quadruped got a plan, say!”, or beginning a poem with an excited “guess what guess what guess what!”

Chinampas opens, and as a whole sketches out, a region of space and light, at once the ritual space of the sacrificial area, the voodoo houn’fort, or the place of ceremonies “at water’s edge”, and of the unity of astral, abyssal and earthly realms figured to exist and be accessible simultaneously in the transports of voodoo possession. Taylor’s is not merely a description of voodoo rites or beliefs, but one which unites them with a discourse drawn from mathematics and moments of humorous address. “Angle of incidence / being matter ignited”, Taylor intones as the record begins, uniting mathematical angles and curves, sacrificial offerings, and a meditation on racialized bodies and the continuance of memory: “pre-existing blood per square centimeter of a black body”. Both the poems – which are often multi-tracked – and that which they describe exist on multiple levels: “a curve having rotation in three dimensions / uniting of three astral planes corresponding to a serpent synthesis”. Here, “deposits of hieroglyphic regions” – sees hieroglyphs – themselves fusions of image, letter, sound and alphabet – figured as material deposit, akin to mineral or sacrificial offering. Figuring both spirit possession and the model of an improvised, collective group socius found in his previous theorisations of the musical ensemble, Taylor intones “The inexpressible inclusion / of one within another”:

being word is both heat and water, revisited
generates our in-otherness

These are poems of waiting – “watching across silence”, a “whole people […] at water’s edge”. The fifth track is devoted to the “ever observant” voodoo snake god, Damballah, who speaks with a hiss, and the ceremonies of his invocation through “oracle bells”. In Haitian voodoo, the possessed initiates are “ridden” by loa, or spirits, such as Damballah, who instruct those witnessing to “tell my horse” – a phrase which, as Zora Neale Hurston notes in her invaluable book of the same name, has passed into Haitian slang as a kind of subversive nod to ways of expressing the inexpressible.

incarnate theyselves
incarnate theyselves in the heads of their horses rolling
incarnate theyselves in the heads of their horses rolling against the cylindrical wood
darkness moveable screens
step into celestial essence

The initiates possessed by Damballah – his “horses” – are “magneticized”, and “speak to bear and carry speak to bear and carry speak to bear and carry” in the ceremony of voodoo possession, which occurs as a result of chance – “Chance into three astral planes / to make contact”. This also serves as a figure of creativity:

Outwardly mark the ever-observant muse
acting as prompters prompters prompters
become movement
prompters prompters prompters […]
elements geometric and chromatic; forces of the air
atmosphere in astra

In this ceremony, we find hidden histories:

forces of the air
angles of blackness

This is a dislodging of ego, equivalent to the Christian practice of “speaking in tongues”, and in voodoo known as “langarge” or “langage” (itself the title to an earlier Taylor poem).

winged sun in the act of shedding all as forces of the invisible obliging those out of tongue to incarnate theyselves
damballah damballah damballah

Here, brightness – a recurrent figure in Taylor’s poetry, associated with illumination, with the naked fire gesture – harks back to that inaugurated two centuries before – perhaps the initiation in the context of the slave trade – with the west-facing ritual practices unavoidably echoing that of the imperial west.

in breath
first fresh
to intersect to intersect to insersect
to intersected curve
arrayed arrayed arrayed a-r-r-a-y-e-d
plated by stream of moveable
two centuries before before before
surrounding darkness man facing west man facing west
west west west

In this context, the ceremonies take on a mournful aspect, possessed by the spirits of the past, by lost ancestors, by all excluded and destroyed by the violent, racialized inscriptions of the West:

o wind o wind o wind
hearts stand in margins

darkness moveable screens
very ancient thing horses ridden

The record ends poised on an edge, of birth and re-birth:

We may enter the womb
And pause

Taylor’s “argument” (if the record is to be called a “thesis”, which it probably should not be) is not for the recapturing of some original essence, but is based precisely on that edge: on the constant movement, re-invention and improvisation that occurs within the fixed yet mutable form of the voodoo ceremony, the improvised musical ensemble, and the experience of racialization, displacement and in the Americas. As he put it in the Unit Structures liners:

It is not the origin but acceptance of hypothesis, that ultimate authority, poetry depends. Rude knowledge befitting ease gratuitous. The unknown, ever before life force our spirit considers action in reaction […] Move forward recognition not in experiment but as test of their singularity, unity and sanity.

But the words are only one level – even in published form, Taylor’s work is constructed with a clear, if not precisely “notational”, relation to sound as driving logic. And in performance, the timbre, the grain of Taylor’s voice can impart even lines taken directly from scientific textbooks into dancing barbs, teetering on the brink of sound and sense. And there’s something fun here too – when audiences laugh at the odd sounds of Taylor’s recitation, that’s in some ways an appropriate response. Sometimes this is deliberate parody, sometimes a sheer joy in the pleasure of sound. Eccentricity might be one word: a ritual communication that, like voodoo possession, contains a socially-destabilizing, potentially chaotic function. The joy of improvisation. So writing about Taylor’s work, we must bear in mind his cautions against the traps of an academic draining away of joy, fun – everything that makes his music and his poetry as big it is, out of it. This work is, as he puts it in the liner notes to Unit Structures, “not [...] to be measured after academy’s podium angle”. Judge for yourself. Here are selected videos, with scrolling transcriptions, of a few Taylor recitations, from Chinampas and elsewhere (the material is all unpublished).

"Wade in the Water"

I want to end by listening to one set of changes that Taylor rings on the spiritual “wade in the water” – improvising resistance, an oral transmission of transmission, “group sound / speech transported”; transplanted. But this ending is only a beginning. As Moten writes in his essay on Chinampas, now we can begin to listen – laying the groundwork, making a first attempt. Remembering out discussion of “the lick” in the previous post, Taylor’s poems sometimes come back to the same figures, often references, through song titles or lyrics, to a whole range of history and feeling. A particular significant instance occurs in the use of the spiritual “Wade in the Water”. As Taylor notes in Spellman’s Four Lives:

My father had a great store of knowledge about black folklore. He could talk about how it was with the slaves in the 1860’s, about the field shouts and hollers, about myths of black people.

And again in the interview with Whitney Balliett:

A religious man, he used to sing ‘Wade in the Water’ around the house.

As James Haskins, Arthur Jones and others have argued, the song ‘Wade in the Water’ was itself a masking, within the Christian notion of baptism, of a West-African ceremony in which the priest’s driving of a cross into the river bed served as a bridge facilitating communication between the realms of the living and the dead. Harriet Tubman is said to have used it to communicate to fugitives escaping to the North that they should be sure to “wade in the water” to throw bloodhounds off their scent.

Jordan’s water is chilly

Wade in the water,
Wade in the water, children.
Wade in the water.

If you get there before I do,
God’s going to trouble the water,
Tell all of my friends I’m comin’ too…

The song is directly and indirectly alluded to throughout Taylor’s work, but its most notable instance comes on the recitation from his collaboration with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, “Intro to Fifteen”: an initiation into the mysteries of creation on multiple levels: the autobiographical resonance of his father’s oral transmission, and the histories of resistance, escape, and West African ritual resonating through what was transmitted. As itself one of Taylor’s orally-transmitted text, what follows is my imperfect transcription of Taylor’s weight lines (can we call them “lines” at all?)

but having
function of seed
deliverance is then of determining weight
weight in the waters weight in the waters wade in the water, wade, wade
weight, weight

Transcription doesn’t go there. Weight, wait, wade, weight: these are staggered puns between the visual and the verbal, the history of slavery which that song references, wading in the water to escape the dogs, wading in Afro-Christian baptismal ritual, wading in reference to voodoo rituals of water, themselves responding to the oceanic distance established by the Middle Passage. We recall here that another of Taylor’s poems, briefly discussed earlier, is named for the voodoo spirit of the waters, Aqoueh-R-Oyo (more often spelled Agwé or Aque / Agoue’ te Royo, Maitre l’eau).

Agwé Arroyo or Agwé Tawoyo / Agwé 'Woyo (“Agwé of the Streams”) is captain of Immamou, the ship that carries the dead to Guinee, the afterlife. He cries salt-water tears for the departed. He assisted the souls of those that suffered crimes against humanity during the trans-atlantic slave trade.

(From Milo Rigaud, Secrets of Voodoo)

In Haitian voodoo, Agwé is an important link to the sea as place of separation and return, death and rebirth; often represented by the figure of ships within voodoo hounforts, he is also paid tribute to outside the hounfort, in the sea or in waterfalls, proffered with gifts of food or decorative ships, possessing and speaking through the voodoo initiates. Zora Neale Hurston provides an account of such a ceremony in her anthropological work on Haitian voodoo, Tell My Horse.

The spirit Agoue’ ta-Royo enters their heads and they stagger about as if they are drunk. Some of them talk in the unknown tongues. Louis Romain, the houngan of the Bolosse who was preparing me for initiation at the time begged me not to enter the water. He said, and others agreed with him that Agoue’ ta-Royo, the Maitre L’Eau (Master of Waters) might enter my head and since I was not baptized he might just stay in my head for years and worry me. The belief is widespread in Haiti that Agoue’ ta-Royo carries off people whom he chooses to a land beneath the waters.

(Zora Neale Hurston, Tell My Horse / Voodoo in Haiti)

Hurston witnesses what is a joyful ceremony – though with a sense of potentially chaotic forces that might “worry” the non-initiated for years. But there is a mourning here too: as well as the ecstatic “drunkenness” of possession, which, as Hurston notes, can have a socially-destabilizing, even satiric function, a sadness intrinsically connected to the sea as pace of the Middle Passage. In her own book on voodoo in Haiti, a classic work of immersrive anthropology in which the anthropologist-artist is possessed in the ceremonies in which they participate, Maya Deren provides a memorable account of the ceremonies for Agwé. Deren accompanies the voodoo supplicants as they sacrifice large quantities of food, a ram and a decorated, hand-painted barque to Agwé.

Apparently we were nearing, now, the island beneath the water, although I was never to discover exactly how this was determined […] At the first offering, two women were almost simultaneously possessed by Agwé […] Those who were near saluted the arrival of the divinity, and, through each of the women, Agwé spoke a few words of greeting in a voice which gurgled as if with rising air bubbles, and seemed truly to come from the waters […] with the same air of noble, gentle sadness, they looked slowly from person to person, from the barque of food, to the mambo. There was something in their regard which stilled everyone. One had seen it in the faces of those who prepare to leave and wish to remember that to which they will no longer return. They met each other’s eyes, and as a way was cleared for them, approached each other, and crouched down in an embrace of mutual consolation, their arms about each other’s shoulders, their foreheads lowered, each on the other’s shoulder. So mirrored, they wept.

The people in the boat were accustomed, now, to the fact that their great gods wept, and they accepted it, sometimes saying to them, as one would to a child, that they mustn’t weep […] The last ritual consecration of the barque was accomplished with almost frantic speed. It was so heavily laden that six men were required to lift it to the rail […] As we all watched it silently, it seemed to hesitate to a stop, and then, as if a great hand had reached up from below and grasped it, it disappeared abruptly into the quiet water. The houngeikon, the drums, the chorus burst forth all at once, into a vivid song of “rejouissance”. It was the first song of joyous nature since the beginning of the trip.

(Deren, Divine Horsemen)

The island beneath the waters to which Deren refers and the land beneath the waters in Hurston’s account refers to the city of Ife, referenced in Taylor’s “Garden”:

First sanctity was link, original hookup,
had then width, simply of all following
to come being—lfe—house of life, centre
of the world (Yoruba) lle-llfe
ceremonies fountain finding protection
long ancient stream echo's as sticks
consecrated libation healed certain
chambers […]

lle-lfe most sacred citizenship there
encompassed more of then, which was, all ever was—

As Milo Rigaud notes in his Secrets of Voodoo (which, given its publication by City Lights, Taylor may well have read):

In voodoo, the place in Africa where the spirits abide is the astral city of Ife; and in Haiti the place where the Voodoo ancestral spirits have come to dwell since the days of slavery is La Ville Aux camps […] The adepts of Voodoo, relying upon the fundamentals of the African tradition, believe the place of origin was of Voodoo was Ife, the name of a legendary city whose replica actually exists in southern Nigeria. At the same time, Ife is a mystical city from which comes the greatest of the Voodoo mysteres and it is regarded as a kind of African mecca.

The African city has its modern equivalent, and the voodoo ritual, enacted in locations from the displacements of slavery, stages a psychic and spiritual return to the spirit of African ancestors.

In Ife, therefore the city of the Voodoo spirits’ origin, resides the totality of magic powers […] So it is natural that for a person to acquire the magic powers of Voodoo, ritually enacted in the prise d’asson or “asson-taking” ceremony, the candidate for the voodoo priesthood must go and take the asson [ ] at Ife in Africa by traveling logically via the line of the centre-post that traverses the asson’s magic circle.

[ Indeed, Taylor describes this process in “Da”.

vertabraes seam’d atolling
meteor pa-zzanin a hissing
asson adorn bells past
a 2nd month lain 7 side.
oldest ancestor / fertilized seed
                        / making LegBa
                       / phallic mystere/
                                                    by the
                                                    center post
                                                    of Peristyle ]

Rigaud continues:

The voyage of the white sheep of Agoueh R Oyo, the drums, the initiates, and the houn’gans to Ife is a resurrection of the flesh offered in sacrifice in all species. In the Voodoo tradition this voyage renews the magic powers properly so-called as much as the administrate and governmental powers of the society […] the aim of this mysterious voyage among the loas is to see again the ancestors who are withdrawn into the stars of the veves [ceremonial diagrams which decorate the houn’fort] by death. These are the ancestors who retain the powers as well as give them back.

Ife was associated with the East, with African origins; the hounsi, or servitors to the cult, roll on the ground to simulate the movement of waves, a journey of psychic renewal which closes with a prayer to Agoueh as the mystère (or loa) of the waters.

The rite proceeds to the “voyage to Ifé.” […] The bed of green leaves is thought to represent the surface of water which the magic bark of the leas crosses to reach the city of Ifé Consequently, the Voodoo initiates proceed to travel on it just as regular ships would. They salute the three points—south, centerpost, and west—with a mystic kiss upon the ground which is laid the ritual leaves. Then they lie down at the west. They roll themselves one after the other, but never two at the same time, from west to east. They are accompanied by the houn’gan, asson in hand. When they reach a candle lit on the east side. where for the most part they usually stop on their own accord, they lie there a moment stretched out upon the ground lying on one side. Then they return, rolling themselves again to a candle lit on the west side where the houn’gan helps them to their feet.

One matter is especially important: the houn’sihs are invariably possessed by mystères during the crossing in such a way that it is always a mystère coming from Ifé, the East, which helps him to his feet. It is therefore evident that the houn’sih, by rolling on the ground to simulate this magic crossing, imitates not only the rolling and whitening of the waves, but travels to the East (or Ifé) to obtain a renewal of psychic powers.

By titling his poem about the interaction of the musical ensemble, ‘Aquoeh R-Oyo’, Taylor posits the improvised ritual they enact as an equivalent to the immersion and ascent of the Agoueh ritual: a ritual performed differently by each priest, by each servitor, in each instance and in each place.

As Rigaud notes, each mystère has an astral degree, and the city of Ife is also associated with the astral. As part of the Aquoueh ritual (and others), the houn’gan strikes the veves, or ceremonial diagrams, which contains the powers of astral ancestors, with the asson, a calabash rattle through which the ancestors “speak”. The voyage over the waters, descending or ascending from the abyss, the underwater city of Agwé, form a potent resource for Taylor, developing the metaphors established in the Unit Structures liners of fire and light, water and resurrection. Taylor came to saw the piano keyboard itself as divided into registers which may correspond to the levels present in voodoo – from the abyss to the astral, and his register transpositions across the keyboard – much of his solo work develops through taking one figure, or scale, and playing it in five or six different combinations in rapid succession, enacting a kind of self-dialogue that parallels the improvised interactions of the musical ensemble, the ensemble ritual of voodoo, and the ecstatic trance of spirit possession which enables one to speak in multiple voices. If the voodoo ceremony relies simultaneously on the renunciation of the ego and a mastery of ritual elements, voodoo as a “religion” is notably non-hierarchical. As Harold Courlander wrote in 1960:

It is not a system imposed from above but one which pushes out from below. It is bred and nurtured in the family, in the town and in the fields. It is common law, with deep roots in an unbroken and continuous past. The priests of Vodoun do not control it and direct its course. They, like the least fortunate peasant, simply move about within it and make use of its resources. They are its servers and interpreters. In their cult centers, the principles of Vodoun are brought into sharp focus and dramatized. Vodoun is democratic in concept. Any man or women may have direct contact with the deities or dead ancestors without the intervention of the cult priest. There is no place or situation beyond the influence of the loa or beyond the limits of Vodoun […] The cult priest [houngan] nevertheless plays a significant and essential role. He translates beliefs that otherwise might tend to become amorphous into formalized action. He is a teacher, a repository of cult learning, and a vital catalyst. He gives form to abstraction, and vital meaning to symbols. He is the intellectualizing agency of a tremendous emotional force.

(Courlander, The Drum and The Hoe: Life and Lore of the Haitian People)

While ritual ceremonies occur within the form of the hounfort, or temple, with a separate building, built around a central pole, called a peristyle (referenced in Taylor’s poem “Da”). But ceremonies also take place outside the hounfort – “at waterfalls, on the seashore, in sacred groves, in ordinary homes, in a baot at sea, or under a sacred tree”.

Since every region, every locality, and, in fact, almost every hounfor has developed its own ritual out of the common materials, it is possible to see hundreds of ceremonies without ever seeing precisely the same one twice. Yet the common elements bind them all together.

Such are the ceremonies for Agoueh R-Oyo, and such, in a way, are each of Taylor’s musical performances, within the overall arc and arch of his music. In both his poetry and his music, we might say that Taylor functions as a kind of voodoo houng’an, whose role is as transmitter, as link, rather than sole source of creation. As voodoo itself was fused from a disparate series of West African ritual practices – the Ibos, the Yorubas, the Mahis, from Dahomey, the Congo River basin, Togo, Nigeria – so Taylor’s disparate influences form a mutable, improvised system which emphasizes change, but also involves practice, learning, discipline.

And, by following through on the visual/ sonic changes Taylor’s rings on wading in the water, we see how Taylor’s work, from ‘Aqoueh-R-Oyo’ to Chinampas through to the numerous other changes wrought on the words to the spiritual, figures the sea as it resonates in West African ritual practice, resonates by other bodies of water – in the Caribbean, or in the rivers of America – as space of both healing and trauma, death and birth: the wait of waiting in the weight of historical memory. A straying, a sliding, possession, as – in voodoo – it suggests the taking over of one’s conscious mind, one’s individual ego, by voices from the outside which speak through one – and, in Taylor’s voodoo poetics of the improvised ensemble, also encompasses complete self-possession, against the ownership and reification of slavery’s history, the workings of spirit as against the thing-ification of bodies. In that sense, it’s a perfect encapsulation of what Nathaniel Mackey calls:

The way in which fugitivity asserts itself on an aesthetic level, at the level of poetics […] intimates fugitive spirit. [Baraka] writes, of a solo by saxophonist John Tchicai […] “It slides away from the proposed”. That gets into, again, the cultivation of another voice, a voice that is other than that proposed by one’s intentions, tangential to one’s intentions, angular, oblique – the obliquity of an unbound reference. That sliding away wants out.

If much Western modernism was based on an idea, either of newness and purification, or of a return to the distant past, Taylor’s modernism is at the voodoo crossroads, the meeting-point of living and dead, Africa and America, piano and drum: the point at which creation begins, as an Oliver Lake album title has it, what Taylor in ‘Intro to Fifteen’ calls “dialectical surmise”.

~ ~ ~

And at this nexus to end, on a poem of Taylor’s, recited on “Ellel’ from Garden (the album) – an invocation which encompasses West African ritual, the history of field slavery in America, the reckoning with death, that characteristic combination of personal and collective emotion and ritual reference. Death the mower or “thrasher” (“thresher”?) is also challenged by those who plough – what Taylor calls the “pastoral” reference that occurs throughout his work sedimenting the history of field slavery but also of other homes, other spaces, other possibilities – the “open field” poetics by which “stances continue / defy exterior commerce / deaths, to mountain exhalt”.

atas-gat atas-gat

about the thrasher
death comes too soon
about the thrasher
and we will go into the fields…to plough

Death comes too soon. Voices slides away. This from an untitled, early 1980s poem by career-long Taylor collaborator Henry Grimes.

(where do they go?)
             far above – and high
above the ground. Cecil Taylor
was still at large, waiting for a piano –
             High above the ground.

Death comes too soon. But Taylor roams still, channelling “discontinued voices without end” (Chinampas); his work serving, as he puts it in ‘Choir’, to:

salvage time establish’d
area agglutinized abyss
being Astral & all registers

Taylor reading poetry at Ornette Coleman's funeral in 2015


Below is a (partial) bibliography/discography of publications and recordings of Taylor’s work. The publication status of all of this is uncertain, for reasons discussed above, but it’s to be hoped that at least something – as it’s been long-rumoured to have been – might emerge soon.

Friday 13 April 2018

“…And Not Goodbye”: Cecil Taylor (Part 1)

Cecil Taylor died last week, at the age of 89. I think a lot of people had been preparing for this moment for some time, the occasional appearances and cancelled performances representing a slow tailing-off after consistent concert activity for decades before (in recent years, especially with regular sparring partner Tony Oxley); a sense that Taylor was ill and that the fire was finally burning lower, or at least, more intermittently; the last performances characterised by a slower, more limpid lyricism – which had always been there, but more often juxtaposed with those characteristic Taylor fireworks, those extreme instances of virtuosity that rendered him the most relentless and exciting and full of ideas of almost any musician, ever…

A couple of years ago, after Taylor had performed at the funeral of Ornette Coleman, another of that generation of pioneers of the late 1950s and early 1960s, I wrote down a dream.

CT was doing what may be a final performance, in some sort of large genteel university room. There was a really large group and I was really stoked and moved to see this valedictory thing. they started off by playing the piece “Taht” from Winged Serpent, but as they went on, I noticed that CT himself, though he was initially there, was no longer sitting at the piano and had disappeared. There was a team of other pianists, deputizing, some of them also adorned with various little instruments, whistles, recorders, etc. The overall feel of it was intensely sorrowful, like something enormous and beautiful and necessary had been lost and would never be captured again.

What can you say. Taylor’s music has changed (“changed utterly”) my listening life – my life itself, perhaps – in more ways than most. At times of concentrated listening, I can think of nothing else like it, nothing else as nourishing and beautiful and complex, music that can and should and does seem to go on forever, thinking and emotion and speed and a gorgeous, overwhelming intensity of purpose, of group concentration, communication, interaction, interconnection, conjunction, contradiction – all those adjectives, those nouns, don’t go there. I wrote about Taylor’s poetry for an MA dissertation some years back, and got deep into that as well. (Often the only way his poems are accessible, given the sparse publication record, are on live performances, and I made a stab at transcribing those – probably virtually impossible for the musical performances…) Those twin things are what I want to get down here – and again, what can you say, never enough, never more than a scattering of enthusiasms, but the gift keeps on giving, the vast discography, so much still to be said. What I thought I’d do was to provide a brief index of highlights and favourites, some of them more obscure, from the music, then go on to the poetry in a second part post. Of course, providing examples in this way risks becoming simply a by-the-numbers enumeration – a list of records, when each one in reality was a small volcanic explosion, an eruption into the atmosphere which might utterly change anyone who heard it. There are no bad Taylor records, pretty much, if we judge them on any other standards than those his own music so relentlessly and consistently establishes -- each one of them manifesting utter commitment, grace, poise, ferocity, intensity, all those adjectives critics fumble for, his piano running ahead of them in flurries and runs and clusters and sudden dropped chords of astonishing, heart-stopping beauty.

Bearing in mind too, this advice from the Taylor documentary All the Notes:

It's fun, if you don't let them make you write-all-this-stuff-down-forever, when all that shit'll drive you mad. Cause that's not fun, and everything should be fun, it should be a celebration of life.

Or, as Pheeroan Ak-Laff puts it, Taylor’s enormous appetite for knowledge, enacted and embodied in performance, “made mincemeat of the mere intellectual”; made mincemeat of body-mind dualism, of the imperial trajectories of western thought. Someone writes somewhere that each of Taylor’s notes is a monolith; someone else calls each of his notes a continent; a world. Some of those worlds below.

Early Taylor: This Nearly Was Mine

Taylor’s early records are of course awkward in the sense that, while his style is beginning to properly form out of Brubeck (passed beyond, after watching Brubeck on a double-bill with Horace Silver, copping his licks, as recounted in the invaluable interview with A.B. Spellman for the book Four Lives in the Be-Bop Business), Monk (a different room in the monastery), Bud Powell (the scene changing), he’s often cramped by the rhythmic straightness of the hard-bop/bop continuum he’s forced to work within (Ornette got over this by getting rid of the chordal instruments – no comping! But Taylor was the chordal instrument…Let alone having to play “tunes”). Taylor had played with saxophonists before – Steve Lacy’s tartly cool soprano; a slightly mis-matched post-bop date, set up by others, which catches him with Coltrane perhaps before the latter was quite ready (imagine the collaboration a little further down the line!); and a bit later, CT would sometimes play in informal settings with Albert Ayler (one precious, 20-minute recording survives on the massive Holy Ghost box-set). But I think it’s really when Archie Shepp, himself a rookie out of blues / R&B and the new influence of Coltrane, comes into the picture, that things really get interesting. I know a lot of people think Shepp’s a little awkward here, but for me, especially when he’s paired with Jimmy Lyons, there’s a rough and smooth, sweet and sour combination that’s later echoed by the Jimmy Lyons / David S. Ware combo of the late 1970s CT Unit and that really gels with Taylor’s melodic and ensemble conceptions. One of my favourite performances from this era – and one I’ve noticed cropping up on a number of other tributes as well – is the near-15-minute take on Richard Rodgers’ musical chestnut “This Nearly Was Mine”, a kind of lolling, lollop-ing, languorous, passionate, utterly, utterly gorgeous stretching-out, Shepp in perfect sardonic melancholic mood, Cecil rolling through on that same melodic stream.

Into the Hot

Into the Hot is a great, great album; released, confusingly, on a split album with the John Carisi ensemble (as Amiri Baraka put it in his review, “cool progressive”), credited to Gil Evans, who appears on the front cover in an obvious cash-in on his own Out of the Cool, but who by all accounts barely even produced the record. (The tracks were reissued, more sensibly, alongside a side by Roswell Rudd, later on in the 60s.) Three pieces, Lyons and Shepp, a real compositional sense, arranged, really, classic avant-garde big-band, careful and full of emotion, just perfect pieces, lessons for how to do jazz composition without the tricksy twiddlings of the Third Stream. There are moments, especially on “Bulbs”, of absolutely heart-stopping beauty, that rich stream of emotion Taylor could tap and which could not always – could almost never – be tied to a single adjective, containing multitudes.


The Café Montmartre recordings in the trio with Lyons and Sunny Murray were obviously a massive breakthrough – Nefertiti, The Beautiful One Has Come, those long, long work-outs where Taylor seems to be taking “comping” to a whole new level (as Monk did) – and then the mostly unrecorded participation in the October Revolution in Jazz, The Jazz Composers’ Guild and the militant democratisation and self-organisation of New York’s free jazz musicians. As Taylor puts it in the opening chapter to A.B. Spellman’s Four Lives – which is still the best economic insight into the music, and vital for explaining Taylor’s subsequent trajectory – to the academy (briefly – his orchestral conception in the 1970s definitely developed from his regular workshopping with students at Antioch, and you hear this influence too in a recording release by Jemeel Moondoc’s Muntu from around this time), and to Europe (where the pianos were at least better, and the Mafia itself was not involved in jazz clubs, even if rip-off merchant agents and promoters abounded). As Taylor puts it there:

That's what the Jazz Composers' Guild was all about. We had hoped to get together and to try to make conditions that were more the way we felt would benefit the musicians and, like, not necessarily the gangsters that we usually have to deal with.

So this is where Bill Dixon comes in. (*see below) Conquistador, on Blue Note, Dixon as part of a band including two basses (Alan Silva and Henry Grimes), Andrew Cyrille, Lyons on alto. These are new compositions, two of them, perhaps more jazz-inflected than Unit Structures from the same period (US and Conquistador were Taylor’s first recordings for four entire yearsUS is less percussive, more intricate, chamber-textures – this partly due to the “avant-classical” sound of Ken McIntyre’s oboe – and the limpid strangeness of “Enter, Evening” has few parallels in Taylor’s work). On Conquistador, things build to a new, ecstatic energy, and might be seen as the bridge between the orchestral conception developed on Into the Hot and the later music of the Cecil Taylor Unit.

This is I think, still my favourite Taylor record. Of course, a lot of this is to do with first acquaintance – the way something sticks as the first time you encountered an artist whose work would change life, to the extent that I can’t imagine a life in listening without Cecil’s music there, nor, really, the first time I heard it as a moment of revelation – I think it may have been Conquistador on college radio, though, definitely Conquistador was early. And still, the moment when the second theme on the title track comes in, about six minutes into the track, may still be one of the most exhilarating moments of all time in music, the way the unison melody surges out over Silva's and Grimes' vertiginous doubled-basses, like wings lifting the rest of the music – light and heavy at the same time, exemplary of Taylor’s melodic gift, capacity for ensemble mobilisation, and the transformative lift his music could make: gravity and grace at the same time.

(*Dixon played an unreleased duo with Taylor in 1992 – there are, needless to say, bootlegs – and then there’s the late album in trio with Tony Oxley, a live performance from Victoriaville is one of the sparsest albums in the entire Taylor discography, and it’s telling of the respect in which Taylor must have held Dixon that it’s Dixon’s processed, echoing trumpet that dominates; usually, at this stage, Taylor’s collaborators were along for the ride, riding the wave of Taylor’s established re-juxtapositions, re-combinations, pattern-playing, but here, things are open in a strange and surprising way. Needless to say, critics were not impressed.)

“The orchestration of one man’s piano” (Taylor / JCO)

The later 1960s were a time of transition. Remember, Taylor had barely been able to perform during the earlier part of the 1960s, helping Joe Termini’s the Five Spot to become the hotbed of the hip cognoscenti, but unable to sustain a long-term booking there, reduced to washing dishes, lacking the time and the space to develop his conception (compare to any number of classical pianists providing the umpteenth version of a Mozart sonata…) This sense of frustration is well-captured in the Spellman book – released in 1966, it catches Taylor on a cusp, having signed for Blue Note (a label with some clout), but increasingly looking towards Europe. Out of the initiatives which saw things like the JCO and the October Revolution had brought musicians together, and several large-group experiments resulted. Of the free jazz greats, it was perhaps Sam Rivers (and later, Braxton and Henry Threadgill) who would really develop the big-band as a medium; but the JCO, formed by Mantler and Carla Bley out of the JCG, released a fine album of what are essentially concertos for various soloists by Mantler entitled Communcations. Mantler’s charts, as on most of the other pieces, are gnarly, punchy, serving as swelling crescendo and riff punctuation for Taylor to give full rein to his virtosity. The charts have a kind of doomy heaviness to them; this is probably one of Taylor’s noisiest and most exhilarating recordings, a true piano concerto. Mantler calls it “the orchestration of one man’s piano”, and when that piano is already an orchestra in itself, and the orchestra in question has twenty musicians – no less than FIVE bass players – and when some of them include Gato Barbieri, Lyons, Cyrille, well…

The late 60s into the early 70s: Europe / Antioch College

Around this time, given the economic situation, Taylor increasingly began to perform in Europe, on often-exhausting tours, and to develop the Unit music with Lyons, Sam Rivers and drummer Andrew Cyrille (documentation of this in a live performance from Paris in 1969, and the documentary produced for Luc Ferrari’s series on avant-garde music, Les Grands Repetitions, broadcast on French TV, which features footage of the Unit rehearsing in what appears to be an old chateau in 1967). Student Studies is one of the more intriguing items from this period, recorded in 1966 but unreleased until 1973. This sees perhaps the first recorded appearance of “the lick” (see below), and also a kind of interestingly glacial, slowed-down version of the compositions Taylor would play with the newer version of the Unit in the later 1960s. Listen to how responsive Cyrille’s drumming is here – such crisp snare! – and Lyons’ almost sardonic delivery of the melodic lines – the pauses giving the music a real tension, a patient building – this, it strikes me, may be due to the extremely reverberant acoustic they’re playing in – maybe they had to let the phrases hang out at first. In either case, the slowed-down approach (at first at least) allows us to hear the logics behind what would be played at much more furious pace later on, and the music feels, in a sense, more open – there are passages approaching atonality, Silva’s bass is loud and singing, Cyrille is totally on it, open yet precise, Lyons is Lyons – this feels like real, collaborative endeavour, within a heavily-rehearsed, composed framework. Shit, in its use of space, it's almost psychedelic...

(Student Studies)

(Les Grands Repetitions)

It was also at around this time that Taylor also began to perform solo. He taught at Antioch College from 1969 to 1973, which gave him a much-needed opportunity to hone his conception – adequate rehearsal time, access to instruments, and to a steady stream of talented students who formed parts of large rehearsal bands. Though his students were not as starry, this time arguably parallels what, some years later, what Anthony Braxton would do at Wesleyan. Sadly, much of this work is unrecorded (or at least, buried deep in the Taylor archive). From the Antioch period come recordings like the solo Indent; Japanese recordings with the Unit (Akisailka) and solo once more; Taylor also started up his own label, Unit Core, who released a split solo / Unit platter called Spring of Two Blue J-s, which I’ll discus more in the poetry post. Each one of these recordings is great, and the solo music in particular is caught at a fast pace of development which might become a little more stabilized later on. My favourite is maybe the solo from Japan, just over half-an hour in length, but pretty much a perfect encapsulation of this stage of the solo playing. Two tracks in particular carry through the years: “Asapk in Ame” (full of "the lick", which we’ll return to below), and the more melancholy side of things slipping through on “Lono”.

Piano-on-Piano, Mark 1: Friedrich Gulda

Perhaps a curiosity, but one I’m fond of: this a short duet between Friederich Gulda and Taylor, recorded at Moosham Castle, Austria, in 1976. (Taylor's solo 'Air Above Mountains' was recorded at the same location.) The rest of the album finds Gulda, better known as a classical pianist, freely improvising with Albert Mangesldorff, Barre Philips, John Surman, Stu Martin and Ursula Anders (I think Taylor may also be involved, but don’t quite recall…) Telling, of course, that the youtube comments criticise Taylor for “not being able to play Mozart” while Gulda “could play jazz”. The beneficence. While Gulda had some jazz chops, what’s interesting about this collab is the territory they take – the motoric low-end figures, based on staggered explosion and release, that Taylor was exploring a lot in his solo work, become even more jittery when echoed and amplified by Gulda – at times it sounds like Gulda is doubling Taylor, a weird kind of stereo-matching or mapping or mis-matching effect. It’s certainly sparky – in fact, the few piano-on-piano collaborations Taylor made, far from crowding each other out, tend to create a nice contrast: of course the Mary Lou Williams performance addressed below is controversial, but there’s also a late film of a collaboration with Taylor devotee Yosuke Yamashita (probably one of the best of Taylor’s imitators, and one with a broader conception than that, in the “total piano” style of someone like Don Pullen or Jaki Byard).

Piano-on-Piano, Mark 2: Ayizan

Embraced: billed as an encounter; a meeting of generations, between Taylor and Mary Lou Williams, this album is often seen as one of the lesser-items in Taylor’s discography, as a kind of failed experiment. And that language of embracing is perhaps encapsulated as much in the poems (“Choir” and “Langage” – two of Taylor’s best) that are printed in the liner notes, as in the music itself. Carnegie Hall was booked, the concert was widely-billed – Taylor apparently doing a lot of persuading for Williams to feel comfortable. Williams wanted Taylor to play written music which moved through the history of jazz, from boogie-woogie to free, but Taylor preferred to improvise in his own fashion; what emerges, with Williams backed by more straight-ahead be-bop musicians, is sometimes awkward, rhythmic fixity underneath torrents of notes. And the concert and the resulting album were controversial as an apparently confrontational merging of styles that belied its title, and Williams herself wrote to Taylor that “being angry you created monotony, corruption and noise.” (See Linda Dahl’s biography of Williams for the full account). Yet this encounter is instructive in a number of ways as more than a case of simple communicative failure. As an encounter between members of successive avant-garde traditions, a flamboyant gay man and a woman in a male-dominated field, in particular – and, musically, sometimes, as on this track, “Ayizan”, it can gel all the more beautifully for the moments of ill-fit; when Williams’ own gnarlier tendencies off-set Taylor’s, or mesh with his balladry, it feels achieved.

Petals: The Late 1970s unit

It’s in the late 1970s that the Unit reaches its peak: first, with the version from 1976, featuring tenor player David S. Ware and the similarly powerful Marc Edwards –documented on what seems to be any people’s favourite Cecil album, Dark to Themselves, and on some absolutely incredible bootlegs from the same period. Ware is in the role that Archie Shepp fulfilled on the earlier records like Into the Hot, to inject some fire alongside Lyons’ as “straight” man (read, slippery, endlessly sliding away from the proposed, to use Baraka’s phrase of John Tchicai). It’s a performance by this group from a (quite well-recorded radio broadcast) bootleg at the aptly-named Power Centre, University of Michigan, in 1978 that provides their finest hour: a piece called “Petals”, different to the piece o the same name on the solo concert Silent Tongues, and as far as I can tell, not recorded on any official releases. From the announcement, it sounds like this might have been a first performance – Taylor says “Petals, just once through” – which intriguingly suggests that the repetitions of the melody were actually written as part of the composition. It’s not a “head” repeated twice, but a vital part of how it’s structured. The melody has that that lift I mentioned earlier in relation to Conquistador: the ostinato “James Brown shit” of the piano left-hand, the horns unison singing out over the top, the emotional shift, hard to characterise, from hopeful assertion to a kind of almost sardonic resolve in the melody’s second part. Then Marc Edwards’ powerful drumming, the contrast between Lyons and Ware – someone should release the Power Centre performance for absolute sure.

One Too Many Salty Swift…

The next instance of the Unit takes shape around 1978 (if we’re going by the official discographies), and features CT and Lyons with Ramsey Ameen on violin, Raphe Malik trumpet, Lyons, Sirone and Ronald Shannon Jackson giving it a funk edge. Resulting records include One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye, from HatHut, and two more compositional records for New World Records: the self-titled Cecil Taylor Unit, and the totally astonishing Three Phasis. As Phil Freeman notes in a piece on the 1978 unit, One Too Many Salty Swift, the last in the leg of a European tour, building its energy from the disrespect of promoters who refused to let Taylor use the grand piano reserved for classical pianists (who would have used about half the resources of the instrument that Taylor regularly exhorted from it), takes its time to build, in a series of staged duos between group members, but then, when the full unit plays collectively, reaches such sustained plateaus of intensity (plateaus, not waves – this terminology I think coming from a discussion I had years ago with the pianist Alexander Hawkins, one which helped to shape the way I understood Taylor’s structures no end), that it can almost be unbearable – you feel like you might leave your body, you don’t know how the musicians themselves sustained this kind of peak, night after night, let alone the listener processing or not processing this absolute information density. Truly ex-stasis (the title of a late Taylor body), group being transporting, within the body, out of the body, within the individual, out of the individual…


Tayor solo seems to be some people’s favourite. And it’s a strain of the music that forms a parallel to the group work, something of an equal focus, particularly as time went on (and, of course, it’s cheaper for promoters to pay one musician that an entire group, let alone rehearsal time…) There are some amazing records that emerged from this, and Taylor solo is, needless to say, like no one else solo. Yet, though astonishing in itself, I always feel that the richness of texture and density found in the Unit music is what I always come back to, what I always find the most sustaining – the compositional mindset, that structural way of thinking, is clearer in the solo work. The early solo material is in some ways my favourite, before Taylor settled into achievements of style (late style?), the same licks and patterns recurring from performance to performances. Carmen with Rings, which I believe might be his first solo performance in public ever, or at least the first recorded one, is surprising in that regard – closer to atonality (this from the student studies phase, also Unit Structures, where Cecil’s music is leaner, more angular, less suffused with ripe melodicism, fascinatingly barbed and spiky) – also an album released I believe on a Greek label, Praxis. Silent Tongues is clearly great; Air Above Mountains; the shorter, more concise pieces on Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly!; an earlier solo record from Japan in 1973; For Olim, from the late 1980s; The Willisau Concert, on the turn of the millennium, on which the lower note register of the Bosendorfer grand on which he insisted later in his career are really exploited to the full. But my favourite is still Garden, a double album alternating between longer and shorter pieces. There’s a six-minute or so piece here, Pemmican, which may just be the greatest thing he ever recorded. It contains a chord that Vijay Iyer says changed his life.

One chord he plays changed my life. It’s in the middle of the head, 1 minute in (and recurs on the repeat) – an A octave in the bass, and a B, G, B in the right hand. Andrew Hill also favored such a voicing, as in the piece “Subterfuge” on Black Fire. It’s a mysterious and spectral sound, stable and yet void, an anti-chord. When I first figured out what it was, it was like peering into the abyss.

I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. This is probably the most exquisite solo piece Taylor recorded, and it’s six-minute length – typical of the “ballad sections” he’d often deploy in performances fro the 1970s on – encapsulates his compositional-improvisational thinking, in “layers” as he calls them, abyss to astral…Pemmican is food for the journey, nourishment – a Native American word, Taylor has Native American ancestry. Survival food, survival music. Structurally, the piece is fascinating – elements held in suspension, in juxtaposition, in parallel, not so much ‘progress’ and ‘development’ but the alternation of expertly-moved blocks, what Taylor might call “cells” or “units”. Vertical organisation rather than horizontal, as I’ve heard some people call it. But it’s far from a dry technical exercises -- emotionally, what it’s “mood” exactly is, or how it could be described is complex. Melancholy is the word everyone uses, and it has that, but the pleasure of it too – lament, sorrow too deep for tears, restraint – words don’t go there.

The 1980s: Large Groups

Carrying on from the Unit of the late 1970s, the early-mid 1980s was largely a large-group phase: records like It is in the Brewing Luminous, The Orchestra of Two Continents with Borca, Rava, Stanko, Tchicai, Frank Wright, et al; much work with dancers, Rashid and Brenda Bakr (the latter’s vocals and poetic contributions really bringing out this element of Taylor’s work). This saw some of Taylor's most developed orchestral music (much of it which went unrecorded, given reports of large groups), and late on saw him with the Italian Instabile Orchestra and leading a few big bands in club residencies, sadly mostly unrecorded.

Here’s a video of the “Orchestra of Two Continents” – notably not styled as the “Unit”, suggesting maybe that the Unit is conceived of as a smallish ensemble (say, five to eight members), while Taylor’s big band / orchestral conception embodies a slightly different mode of thinking of organization (maybe more akin to Mingus’ Workshop groups). This is a smaller version of the big band that plays on Winged Serpents, and I think they're playing some of the same tunes (the first piece is the one that's called “Taht” on that album). Some really wonderful moments – especially at the end, where the applause comes in and then they all start vocalizing while Cecil does this amazing camp dance with what appears to be a shopping bag – and then Jimmy Lyons is the only person left making noise, whispering some words into the microphone, before Frank Wright whispers into his ear, I guess that Cecil's finally disappeared off stage, and he walks off – something really beautiful and sad about that moment, I guess because Lyons would die soon and there seems something apposite about him being left there, having the last word. Karen Borca's bassoon playing is something else – check out the extended solo 20 minutes or so in – how someone can get sounds like that of the instrument is hard to fathom, and the invention, as with Lyons’, seems just fucking ceaseless – John Tchicai gets in some shudderingly ferocious tenor and some great joyous vocals, there's something I love too about that unison passages where they're playing those characteristic Cecil melodies, almost classic big-band style, playing off the soloist, or the soloist playing off them, Cecil really laying in, palms and elbows all over the keyboard...

Jimmy Lyons: The Transition

In 1986, Jimmy Lyons died of lung cancer. His collaboration with Lyons had been the closest musical relationship of Taylor’s entire career, lasting over 25 years; for Taylor, Lyons was like Danny Richmond was to Charles Mingus, a corner-stone, unobtrusive, a totally individual stylist, but one equally happy to keep things crackling from a totally non-grandstanding position, neither background nor foreground, but absolutely indispensable to things, without whom the whole structure could collapse, or simply meander. In terms of his own playing, Charlie Parker entering the free-jazz age is the usual comparison, but that absolutely doesn’t do justice to things: totally alive with melodic invention, never stale, always surprising and fresh (check his solo career – the album with Lester Bowie, Other Afternoons, or the amazing groups he led with his wife, the aforementioned bassoon player extraordinaire Karen Borca), Lyons was the link between Taylor and the band, transmitting ideas, solfege, internalising the way both the melodic structures and the broader compositional frameworks of Taylor’s Unit music could incorporate discipline and wild, far-out improvisational openness. Though Taylor taught the entire band the materials, it seems that it was Lyons who really helped in transmitting those ideas – think of the way it’s always him who introduces the luxuriant melodic ‘heads’ on ‘3 Phasis’ and the 1978 ‘Cecil Taylor Unit’ recording). Without Lyons, I doubt we’d have reached the peaks of the late ’70s Unit, where performances would last for over two hours and the music would reach such a peak of information density and total commitment of energy that it seemed to erase linear time in favour of an endless, ecstatic, hyper-kinetic present: a kind of eternity in music created, not from the stasis and peace that the word 'eternity' might suggest, but from pushing things to the limit of mental and physical possibility in a process filled, packed, crammed with action.

Reportedly, Taylor couldn’t go near a piano again for several months after Lyons death. The first tour made by the Unit, the year after, was marked as a Jimmy Lyons Memorial Tour, and Taylor never found a collaborator who could quite accomplish that anchoring function (particularly in relation to the more arranged, through-composed orchestral conception present in the music from Into the Hot through to Winged Serpents) again (though William Parker and Tony Oxley were persistent and consistent late companions). In an interview from 1987, Taylor recalled:

I met Jimmy Lyons at a coffee shop on Bleecker Street (in Greenwich Village) the week that Hemingway committed suicide […] He (is irreplaceable in all respects--musical loyalty, humanity, friendship, love, responsibility to the music that I wrote, the best interpreter of the music, my right arm, my best friend.

Several years later, Taylor recorded a poem for Lyons on the trio album In Florescence:

in the centre of…stone death-mask
a sacrifice
twenty-six years
a life
given with generosity 
(my transcription)

Critics have often noted that Taylor worked far less frequently with horn players after this – Carlos Ward appears on the first few efforts after, but Taylor predominantly worked solo, trio or with drummers. The most important indication of Taylor’s new work – again, a shift to Europe, though paralleled with lots of work in America- comes in the series of performances documented on the massive, and now out-of-print FMP box-set Cecil Taylor in Berlin – 10 CDs and a booklet documenting all sorts of collaborative encounters with the great and the good of European free improv, a clearly energizing force. It’s not as if Taylor hadn’t played with European free improvisers before, notably on the Orchestra of Two Continents tour, but these up-close encounters, particularly with drummers, generate new sparks. In fact, some of my favourite moments of the box-set are with the big-band groups– a favourite of mine is Legba Crossing (I think only released as a limited edition with the first few copies of the box-set, so obviously doubly-inaccessible…), on which he doesn’t play piano at all, but transmits voodoo poetics to the group, who I imagine crouching and spreading over the auditorium in a true ritual – Alms Tiegaarten / Spree, on which he does play piano, is also very fine. And another called Melancholy


At this stage, it’s worth pausing on what Taylor’s conception had now become. Particularly with Lyons out of the picture, things tended to full on his piano style, and the performative elements of his concerts, the use of poetry (more on this in the second post) and dance. Taylor had collaborated with dance companies, Dianne McIntyre in particular (and later, Min Tanaka -- see below), and was extremely knowledgeable about the history of dance. Some clips of performances with dancers from 1983 have recently surfaced…

In performance, Taylor himself had begun incorporating what are not exactly dance “routines”, but improvised introductions, ways of owning and placing himself in the performance space – generally as part of solo performances. Taylor's dance movements sometimes resembled a kind of kinetic sculpture, as he raises an arm and a leg and stands poised (posed) on one foot, while declaiming off a sheet of hand-written paper stashed inside the body of the Bosendorfer, or holding a mallet between thumb and forefinger, ready to strike and scrape the piano strings in a manner that actualizes his frequently-cited description of the instrument as '88 tuned drums.' As he put it in an interview with Whitney Balliett:

They used to snicker at Monk when he got up and dances during his numbers, but what he was doing was simply a natural extension of his music. My motions are the same.

Movement is key here; and the dance extends to the dance at the piano. Again from the interview with Balliett:

I think of what I write as blocks or grids – these are the bases of my improvisations. I don’t improvise on the melodies I write. I improvise on their intervals. I’m in a state of trance when I play. I think of groups of sounds. I think of groups of rhythmic ideas. I think of quality of speed and quality of sound. A student asked me once where the pulse is in my music. I asked him how many different rates of breathing there are. I told him that what I’m interested in in my music is the variety of pulses that exist in a given moment. I’m very conscious of body movement when I play.

So if we think of the sounds Taylor produces as physical – his shifting on the piano stool, his peddling – the dance between stool, hands, keyboard – if we actually take seriously that oft-quoted statement from the Spellman book, “I try to imitate the leaps in space a dancer makes” – then the repeated figures in his music, and the movement they enable, begins to crystallise nicely. Watch videos of his performances, the close-ups in particular, notice how his hands turn into sharp, jabbing prongs during those infamous dissonant runs from the top-end down, the two strongest fingers of each hand doing the hard work while the others curl up for a moment of temporary respite. Here we might also recall the title of Taylor's first duo encounter with Oxley, 'Leaf Palm Hand', and note the way that, at times, Taylor looses the tight muscular control which forms the basis for his extreme virtuosic style, instead simply letting his fingers slip and slide across the keys in rippling, downward runs, or banging out fortissimo clusters with his palms. What’s missed here is attention to his footwork, and his use of pedalling is central to his style – easy to miss, but incredibly sensitive, as Derek Bailey noted with some astonishment in an interview with Ben Watson for Watson’s Bailey bio:

One of the many remarkable things about Cecil is his pedalwork. He does get a lot of different sound out of the piano. I’ve played with a lot of Cecil imitators, and the one thing that’s constant all the time – usually – is the sound of the piano. Cecil does some amazing shit, just shifting the sound, and I think it’s his pedalling. Occasionally he refuses to accept that it’s a piano, he goes down to one finger. Sometimes he’s the ultimate piano player, a nineteenth-century kind of piano player, at other times he’s pointing out everything that’s wrong with the piano. (Quoted in Watson, 357)

Over the years Taylor managed to transform himself into a full band or even an orchestra in himself: he takes care of the bass end of the music, with those punched-out figures right down at the bottom end of the Bosendorfer (what he's called his 'James Brown shit'); the rhythmic/percussive side (in everything he plays); the harmonic middle-ground; and the top-end usually occupied by the horns. When you add other players on top of that, there is the danger of an overly dense and muddy texture, but what is particularly amazing is how rarely this happens: in fact, the only occasion I can think of is the twenty-first century big band performance with the Sound Vision orchestra, which entered the sort of free-jazz territory exemplified by Alan Silva's 'The Seasons' or 'Luna Surface. As William Parker, who played in these contexts with Cecil from the early 1980s on, puts it:

When it really started, “letting go” was like a field holler. It was related to the old music. Create that steam. And that’s what the end result of the music was. We rehearsed five days, eight hours a day and then when the gig came, all the music he’d given us and the notes and the sounds and the structures, now it began to come to life in another kind of way.

By contrast, the solo work, as it developed and coalesced and crystallized over the years, has become more luminous and clear and straightforwardly beautiful than ever. A good few years ago, I wrote:

Cecil, who, early in his career, bemoaned the narrow- and simple-minded criteria of the white jazz critics of the day, has subsequently succeeded in creating such an imposing body of work that it is near impossible to digest, analyze and absorb is output in any completely systematic way. When each performance contains enough material to last about ten releases from anyone else, one’s hard put to compare and contrast things too much: you simply have to let things wash over you, focusing in on particularly striking details and familiar touching posts as anchors and absorbing everything else by osmosis.

Taylor’s style has become more and more firmly established as a unique, inseparable imprint, a form of thought that flows throughout everything he plays. One cannot imagine him ever recording as a sideman; everything has to take place on his own terms, a rare place and one that he’s earned with strenuous effort over a period of half a century – more.

“The Lick”

It’s at this period that we really start to notice – perhaps because there are often fewer horns, so the melodic focus is on Taylor’s piano, the recurring presence of a particular melodic figure that is virtually unavoidable if you listen to any recordings from the last couple of decades. “The lick”, as Hank Shteamer dubs it, had been present from at least the late 70s, if not earlier (Tony Harrington dates it back to “Student Studies”, from 1966) – and the solo performances from Imagine the sound (1981) and Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! (the same year) focus on it pretty heavily. Again, I’d stand by what I wrote previously:

It can by now be said to constitute a kind of rhythmic thinking hard-wired into his brain: just as certain poets become such masters of their craft that they can think in verse, their thought emerging through and in metrical form rather than existing separately from it, so Taylor's specific harmonic and rhythmic tics mark a total absorption in, and control over, the formal qualities of his music. The ‘lick” has formed an ever-present, yet fluid compositional element in almost all of the pianist's improvisations during the latter third of his career.

Here’s Shteamer’s take:

it's like Taylor's pet melodic cell. he tends to always play The Lick, and its attendant variations in this sort of locked-hand pattern, i.e., his two hands play in rhythmic unison. The Lick is this bluesy little figure that's like "boo-ba-doo-ba DWEN-ga DWEEEEN-ga" or "boo-ba-da DWEN-ga DWEEN-ga." it's sort of an infinitely variable pattern (sometimes the "boo-ba-doo-ba" or the "DWEN-ga DWEEEEEN-ga" are extended), but The Lick acts like this center of gravity--in "Garden" and so many other performances, Taylor uses it to build momentum. those "DWEN-ga DWEEEEN-ga" sections are the real signature accents.

gradually he works up to what i call his Flurry playing, those stabbing torrents of notes that he plays with his index fingers perpendicular to the keyboard. this mode of playing almost invariably comes at the climax of a piece, i.e., after he's worried over The Lick for several minutes. he usually alternates those single-note Flurries with grand, pounding chords and little interludes of The Lick, usually played more rapidly and elaborately than in the intro sections.

There’s also a nice recent account of this on The Wire by Tony Herrington, where it gets dubbed (via a Diamanda Galas blindfold test) “a bad riff”:
It begins with Cecil rolling a bass figure, that bad riff, under the fingers of his left hand, feeling it out, applying sensual pressure at all the significant points, keys yielding to the touch; then with both hands he slides it up through the registers, amplifying the intensity with increasingly urgent motion, before tying it off by hitting a sequence of blue-hued notes with laser precision, but injecting them with just enough harmonic ambiguity to keep you suspended in the heightened eroticism of the moment. It’s a process that takes just three seconds to unfold, and Cecil repeats it numerous times over the next five minutes, each time mutating and expanding the original phrase with variations in attack, sonority, note choice and timing until it has been transformed into a long unbroken line that is sent flying through the upper registers. 
[…] the pianist must have played this phrase, this bad riff, hundreds of times before: it appears on most of his records from 1966’s Student Studies onwards. As with Ornette Coleman, that other historically imbued revolutionary agent of 20th century black American music, Cecil Taylor’s music was partly an art of quotation and recontextualisation, or cut and paste. His improvisations drew from a vast library of fragments – favourite phrases, motifs, licks and riffs; intervals, inversions and voicings – which he summoned forth into the here and now each time he soloed, reconfiguring and recombining them, impacting them into one another at great speed and with immense force. This is why listening to a Cecil Taylor performance can bring forth sensations of déjà vu (historical echoes) and future shock (revolutionary statements) simultaneously. In an ongoing act of vernacular surrealism, the familiar was made strange again by being rendered in utterly new conjunctions. […] But to get back to that bad riff, and to expand on Cecil’s own description of a single struck note, it is a whole continent, a world in itself.

So it’s a kind of microcosm that generates the whole – and to which the whole always returns. You can look at in on different levels, “angels of incidence” – as the ‘bass-line’, the equivalent to comping, the germinal “seed” (a concern of several of his poems, on literal and metaphoric levels), that which begins and which ends, “the point from which creation begins” as the Black Artists’ Group would have it. Sometimes its presence could feel exhausting (exhaustive?), a strange resort to the jazz lick which seemed almost a throw-back – was not the freeing-up of the New Music to do with a rejection of licks, a constant search for the new? – and sometimes it can seem fresher than others. But, for better or worse, that was what Taylor had come down to, that was what exemplified the compositional approach; and from it he could generate worlds up on worlds upon worlds.

Tony Oxley

Back to the chronology! So, after Lyons’ death, this era is associated in Taylor's discography with the mammoth box set of recordings from his 1988 Berlin residency, released on FMP; it was there that he first played with Tony Oxley, who in the following twenty or so years, has proved to be one of his most frequent collaborators, and clearly loves the sparks thrown out by Taylor's fleet-fingered pianism. Watch the video Burning Poles, basically the Feel Trio (Parker and Oxley) plus Andre Martinez, a frequent collaborator at this time (so once more the dual percussion line-up). In performance, his upper body stays quite still, his eyes remaining focused on the drumkit while his arms swing round it almost casually, producing a sweeping wash on the cymbals, or accentuating the leader's fiercely rhythmic attack with metallic interjections and clattery, herky-jerky rhythms of his own. When he does look up, catching Taylor's eye (both men momentarily playing by touch and locking each other's gaze), the pleasure he gets from being in such a context is clearly visible. There's a real twinkle in his eyes and a smile on his face; he looks as if he might burst into laughing at the sheer joy and exuberance and energy of all that sound just pouring out all around him. It’s fitting, then that Oxley was present at Taylor's last performance, though apparently playing electronicis rather than percussion). There are numerous duos and trios and group performances with Oxley over the years – here’s a live one from the 2000s.

Later Collaborations

Sometimes it could feel as if there wasn't an equal counterbalancing voice as there had been with Lyons -- a sense that other musicians, however skilled and responsive, were going along with the flow rather than adding to the pile -- but the collaboration with Derek Bailey, two performances, one of them released as Pleistozaen Mit Wasser, the second available in a short extract on youtube at the tonic, was something else. Not always successful, and the better for that, in a sense -- Cecil plays the first half hour playing the inside of the piano, complementing Derek's clanging angularity, and vice versa). But at its best, pretty astonishing.

I'm quite fond of Nailed, a pretty explosive quartet with Evan Parker on sax and Barry Guy on bass, plus Oxley. Guy and Oxley go absolutely full tilt, and Parker lays out a fair bit, but when he plays, we get some of the energy present in the earlier Unit: perhaps due to Parker’s jazz lineage, the increasing Coltrane influence that’s increasingly come through in his playing after the more of his earlier, scrabblier EFI work. Definitely one I return to.

And there are moments on Momentum Space, with Elvin Jones and Dewey Redman, one of the few other occasions with a horn player, and with two players with a heavy history –Jones, with whom Taylor also played in duo, establishing the Coltrane connection, and Redman with Ornette Coleman. The record as a whole feels a bit bitty, perhaps. When Redman enters, with passages of chunky melodic bite, his presence is really felt – at one point even quoting Lonely Woman – but he tends to sit on top of Cecil's unstoppable filigree, never quite achieving the long-form interaction or simultaneity that Lyons could initiate, interaction that felt like it could go on forever. This perhaps due to the absolute honing of what was essentially a compositional aesthetic in later years. The more open performances happened in unexpected collaborations -- with Bailey and a late collaboration with Pauline Oliveros available on an obscure DVD has some surprises as well. Precisely the edges that show, the potential for failure, give it that edge. In big-band contexts, too, there's a kind of roiling openness that approaches 'classic' free jazz much more than most of his later work -- a bootleg of a huge big-band in a club residency -- or with the Italian Instabile Orchestra. (Very different in that sense to Bill Dixon's late orchestral work, where Dixon is more compositional -- or the traditional big-band revivals of Shepp’s Attica Blues Big Band -- to name early collaborators, and people featured on Imagine the Sound. Seeing the contrast on Imagine the Sound – Shepp basically a straight hard-bop player, albeit fizzling with energy, Dixon gnomic and unpredictable, Taylor, in solo format, honing the licks and compositional aesthetic. A bootleg with vibes player Joe Locke from the 90s at Yoshi’s offers some rare and scintillating surprises – Taylor has, as far as I can tell, not played with a vibes player since the strange luminosity of the very early album in which Earl Griffiths takes Bobby Hutcherson-esque vibes duties (this is probably Taylor’s most Monk-ish album). It should still be up on that veritable treasure-trove, the Inconstant Sol blog. Many more things: an in some ways strange pairing with Anthony Braxton, apparently fraught with personal tension – this was my only experience of CT live, back in London in 2007, and the 45 minute group set, basically Braxton plus the Feel Trio, had some excellent moments. Numerous groups in America. The aforementioned trio with Oxley and Bill Dixon. CT was recording more and more in this period, and there’s a risk of exhaustion – you simply can’t keep up with all. But dive in.

Min Tanaka

Taylor’s late performances were often in collaboration with butoh performer Min Tanaka: notably, a duo at the Tokyo Prize, which Taylor won in 2013 (and out of whose prize money he was swindled, making the papers more so than his music did – a sad but unsurprising indication of the media’s prurient interest / lack of interests in the arts); then again in the performances given at the Whitney Museum as part of their Taylor exhibition in 2016, his final public outings, which were sadly unrecorded, though there are plentiful reports and reviews online. There’s also, apparently, a film by Ammiel Courtin-Wilson, who was working on a full-length Cecil documentary; predictably, no distributor as yet, mainly just a few festival circuit showings – the review I’ve read suggests an almost pure performance film, Taylor and Tanaka in his apartment, moving with grace in loving and respectful dialogue, full of humour and quixotic pathos. The Tokyo performance reminds me a little of those beautiful duo performances by the Kurtags, not so much in that it represents a life-time bond as close as theirs, but in the sense of late style, of a clarity that performing at that age can bring, all the bullshit cut through straight-away, as achieved precondition: respect without trepidation, each performer at home in their uniqueness, as Cecil puts it in a poem, “in otherness’s ourselves”. Indeed, what makes Tanaka such an ideal collaborator is perhaps because he comes from an entirely different discipline – one based on improvisation, on movement, but in visual terms, with none of the grammar of jazz or European free improvisation to negotiate, but to approach Taylor’s music on its own terms, and on his own terms. That opens up, not a gap, bridged by a shared musical grammar (or style, or idiom), but by a conjuncture of converging differences. And the weirdness of Tanaka’s performance, his facial grotesqueries, his awkward elegance, elegant, virtuosic awkwardness, match and highlight just how brilliantly strange Taylor’s own style is, emerging from a whole history of musicological and esoteric study into being nothing but itself.

Ornette Coleman’s Funeral

One more: his performance at Ornette Coleman's funeral. Just five minutes or so – though he apparently read a poem before as well – and at the time I remember thinking that it might be his final performance, it's got such a slow and measured pace, luminous, crystalline, that often-noted echo of Debussy (particularly La Cathedrale Engloutie), a comparison often deployed in earlier critical writing on Taylor, but only really coming through in this late work. That performance somehow felt valedictory for both for Taylor and for Ornette, particularly given the context. It turned out not to be the last – the Whitney performances, in trio with Tanaka and with Tony Oxley (on electronics!), and in a new Unit, from all accounts, combined that new-found late luminosity with characteristic energetics. But it is the last available, and it seems fitting to close on that.

(Coming next -- Part 2, on Taylor's poetry)