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 years…US 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...
(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
given with generosity
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)