The great pianist Cecil Taylor passed away on Thursday, April 5, at age 89. I devoted the next day to listening to his music. Taylor, sometimes confronted with pointed questions about his musical aims, once pointed out that he was creating a language; I’d advise newcomers, rightly curious about his work in the wake of his death, think of it that way as they get started. They could also think of the grandeur of the ocean waves, if they’ve ever stood on a coast–a Taylor composition can capture their roaring power, their whispering delicacy, their dynamic regularity. A drum solo by a master like Andrew Cyrille or Milford Graves; a surge of choreographed motion by a master like Martha Graham or Mikhail Baryshnikov, suggestive of nothing but freedom; a clot of lines following a polygraph pattern, penned by a master like Allen Ginsberg or Nikki Giovanni–it might behoove the first-time listener to think of Taylor’s pianistics as if they’re from a different physical source of art.
Or maybe they need to just to say to themselves: “Prepare for something you’ve never heard before. Prepare to surrender your attention fully. Prepare to hear a new language that might quicken your heartbeat.”
I chose three of my favorite Taylor records to surrender to yesterday. The first was 1966’s Unit Structures, featuring a septet that included his longtime musical partner, Jimmy Lyons, on alto, and Cyrille on drums:
The second was a 1974 solo recital at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland–the first Taylor record I ever bought and ever heard. I can say truthfully, though I’d read his work was challenging, that it made sense to me. I could hear dancing, drumming, call and response, dark ruminations and joyous exhortations, whispers from the past–in short, Africa. What do you hear?
I closed out the afternoon with 1988’s Alms / Tiergarten (Spree), recorded in Berlin during a month-long celebration of Taylor’s music in which he was given a free hand, an excellent instrument, and the service of a wrecking crew of improvisatory musicians. Surely it was one of the most rewarding episodes in Taylor’s life, and, across 11 discs, he responds with an outpouring of music in multiple settings. This one’s comprised of two compositions, each about an hour long, played by 13 musicians, including such luminaries as Peter Brotzmann, Evan Parker, Han Bennink, William Parker, Harold Stanko, and Peter Kowald. It’s a must for admirers of Coltrane’s Ascension, I think, and it is indeed challenging–but invigorating!
SORRY! No YouTube track available–if everybody doesn’t want it, nobody gets it!
Please read Ben Ratliff’s obituary for Taylor, published in The New York Times. It’s very true, and also a good way for the beginner to start out with a firm handle on a man who resisted many attempts to reduce him, personally and artistically, on an innovator who took even fellow innovators aback but never faltered.
You’re sunk when you’re considered in the shadow of Cecil Taylor’s work, but Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy, just released, if not as wholly undeniable as her singles or personal appearances, is pretty entertaining. I do think, over the course of an entire record, that her rapping is revealed as still a work in progress.
I also sampled the equally new record by the great Ghanaian bandleader, composer, and instrumentalist Ebo Taylor, previously vaunted on this site. It’s called Yen Ara, and it’s a joy. Here’s a taste: