THE MUSIC OF CECIL TAYLOR

-- Damon Short , Summer 1993

(Note: This article only covers the music of CT through 1990; aside for editing for HTML and a few random updates it remains as originally written.

Many of the recordings discussed have become available on CD since this was published, and there's been a welcome addition of CT recordings, documentation and commentary as well; a good point of entry is Peter Stubley's European Free Improvisation Site. ds 2/24/09)


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After nearly 40 years, this pianist/composer remains one of the most controversial figures in "jazz". For many of us, his work ranks as some of the the most profound art ever produced, regardless of category. Approaching his music for the first time can be a rather frightening proposition, particularly if you're not accustomed to really listening to music. Many of Taylor's works can last for an hour or more; the sheer density of information put forth can be pretty overwhelming if you're not used to it!

For myself, my total conversion to Cecil's music came during a series of live performances back in the mid-70s; I was able to hear a brief rehearsal by the Unit, followed by a 'seminar' where the group took questions from an audience; then I heard several club sets later the same week. It's not an exaggeration to say that the emotional and intellectual force of this music completely redefined my outlook on music, "art", and life in general for that matter.

The knock on Cecil is that his music isn't "jazz", "doesn't swing", etc. etc. But, as with all true innovators, he has taken the roots of the music and transcended any arbitrary limitations/definitions.

You can start with his earliest recordings to hear the obvious influences of Ellington, Monk and Horace Silver in his playing; even at this stage, however, he has begun to alter the forms and structures of a "tune" beyond that of the standard blues or 32-bar 'song form'. This is in 1955, at the age of 22: Peter Watrous points out in his notes to "For Olim" (1986) that at this time, Monk was still relatively underground, Coltrane was just starting out with Miles and Ornette was an L.A. elevator operator...

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Here are brief discussions of all of the recordings of Taylor (through 1990) that I have access to. Some of the albums are out-of-print, but many have been reissued on CD. I've indicated this when I'm sure of that. Everything since 1985 is on CD. Albums I particularly recommend are marked in boldface. That turns out to be most of them, but at the very end I'll give a condensed list with an arbitrary 'top ten'.

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PART ONE: 1955-1961
Jazz Advance (1955, Transition: later reissued on a Blue Note twofer In Transition (BN LA 458-2), and released (singly) on BN CD 84462 2 in 1991): a quartet date with Steve Lacy (who'd been playing revivalist Dixieland up until now), bassist Buell Neidlinger (also an experienced symphonic player, who once said that no musician he'd ever met, including Stravinsky and Boulez, had musical abilities that exceeded Taylor's) and drummer Denis Charles (a West Indian native whose dancing rhythms and interplay with the soloist are a foreshadowing of the work of Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins). Interpretations of Monk, Ellington and Cole Porter along with Taylor originals. [The other half of the 'twofer' is from the United Artists release Love for Sale (1959), which features trumpeter Ted Curson, tenor saxist Bill Barron (Kenny's brother) and more Porter reworkings.]

 

The Lacy-Neidlinger-Charles group can also be heard on a live recording from the 1957 Newport Festival, a Verve release which is probably out on CD (my copy is a Japanese vinyl import from the early 80s, Verve UMV 2564): "The Gigi Gryce-Donald Byrd Jazz Laboratory & the Cecil Taylor Quartet at Newport". Nat Hentoff later reported the reaction to this set (not unheard of today); half the audience uncomfortably moving away, the other half running towards the stage to hear more!...

Looking Ahead! The Cecil Taylor Quartet (1958, Contemporary S7562): Vibist Earl Griffith replaces Lacy. Includes tributes to Ellington and Fats Waller. Coltrane Time (1958, recently reissued on Blue Note CD 84461): released several different times under several different titles, this is the only recorded encounter with Taylor and Trane; and originally it was Cecil's date. With Kenny Dorham and Louis Hayes. The way the pianist and saxophonist interact at this early stage is already fascinating...what they might have produced together five or six years later!...

The World of Cecil Taylor (1960, Candid 8006, reissued on Barnaby as "Air") and "New York City R&B (1961, under Neidinger's leadership, Barnaby KZ 31035, Candid CD) [These sessions were reissued in their entirety on Mosaic] The "World" session is a quartet, some of the first recordings of Archie Shepp; the "R&B" tracks also include Billy Higgins, and a larger ensemble featuring Roswell Rudd and Clark Terry (!) playing "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" (ahem)...

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PART TWO: 1962-1969

 
By 1962 Taylor had almost completely abandoned the 'traditional song forms' - i.e. preset and repetitive chord sequences - and for that matter the concept of a steady pulse or meter. This is NOT to say that the music had no form or rhythmic pulse; one of the greatest misconceptions regarding the term 'free music' is that it is devoid of structure or organization; on the contrary, Taylor's music in particular is highly structured, with solo and ensemble passages worked out in detail.

 

One major figure in contemporary re-composition to recognize Taylor's talents at this point was Gil Evans, who produced several tracks of the 1962 Unit for Impulse. These three tracks were combined with three by John Carisi for an Impulse date under Evans' name: Into the Hot: The Gil Evans Orchestra (Impulse: once reissued on an anthology entitled The New Breed; Into the Hot is now on CD-SMCA-39104): This is a somewhat curious combination; Carisi is an interesting composer in his own right, but the style of his ensemble is a pretty stark contrast to Cecil's - yet at times both composers' sense of tone color on these dates are surprisingly similar, with Carisi's 'atonal' moments somewhat echoing Cecil's 'tonal' passages...

The Taylor ensemble includes Archie Shepp and Roswell Rudd, but two other major figures stand out on this date: drummer Sunny Murray and alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons.

 

 

Murray was one of the major drum innovators of the 60s, eventually taking the instrument completely away from a time-keeping role, providing instead a shifting backdrop of colors from (primarily) the cymbals and snare (although on this particular date he was still keeping a relatively steady pulse). Murray would go on from his work with Taylor to many memorable recordings with Albert Ayler. Lyons' partnership with Taylor would continue for another 24 years. His virtuosity on the alto is the clearest link (if one can't 'hear' it otherwise!) between Cecil's music and the legacy of Charlie Parker. This remarkable collaboration was cut short by Lyons' death in 1986.

The Taylor-Lyons-Murray trio recorded in Europe in late 1962: Nefertiti, the Beautiful One Has Come (Arista Freedom 1905): recorded at the Cafe Montmartre in Copenhagen, the recording quality is not great, and the condition of the piano is absolutely dreadful, but there's some great playing here if you can get past that. The only standard on this set (I think the last time Cecil recorded a standard) is the wonderfully ironic "What's New"... [Some other 'bootleg' discs have surfaced from this group's tenure in Europe, e.g. "The New Unit 1962", Ingo 16 (Italian).]

 

 

There was a 3-year gap before Taylor's next recordings - larger ensemble works for Blue Note (ah yes, once upon a time, American record labels were actually recording PROGRESSIVE MUSIC!! Well, Blue Note was, anyhow...): Unit Structures (CD 84237) and Conquistador (CD 7 84260 2, which includes an extended alternate take): On Unit Structures, the ensemble includes Eddie Gale Stevens on trumpet and Ken McIntyre on reeds in addition to Jimmy Lyons, bassists Henry Grimes and Alan Silva, and another ground-breaking percussionist, Andrew Cyrille.

BOTH OF THESE ALBUMS ARE HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

 

Taylor made two recordings in 1968 which are difficult to find. One of the few examples of Cecil performing another composer's work can be found on a recording by the late lamented Jazz Composer's Orchestra (JCOA 1002, CD). [The Jazz Composer's Guild was a short-lived 'cooperative' organization which included Taylor, Paul Bley, Carla Bley, Sun Ra, Shepp, Michael Mantler and others...] Mantler wrote a series of pieces entitled Communications, which featured Gato Barbieri, Rudd and others. #11 featured Taylor, and by "default", Cyrille - there's some truly amazing duo playing here. The ensemble writing is dense and relentless, with FIVE basses, seven low brass and seven reeds (including, for you trivia buffs, Lew Tabackin and Steve Marcus!? along with Lyons and Gato).

 

 

 

Also that year Taylor made his first recording of solo piano, released under the title Praxis. This is a two record set with sketchy details; rec. in Italy, June 1968, released on a Greek label. [It should be noted that reputable sources say that this recording was in fact done in the early 70s, and that does seem more logical to me. I've only seen this record referred to occasionally, purchased the only copy I've ever seen some 7 or 8 years ago. More on Taylor's solo work in the next section...]

 

 

In 1969, the Unit made a live recording in Paris. The quartet consisted of Taylor, Lyons, Cyrille, and Sam Rivers (his only 'official' recording with Taylor - there's a bootleg released on the 'Jazz Connoisseur' label of this same group on the same tour, possibly from the same concert...). It's been issued in France as Nuits de la Fondation Maeght, and in its entirety as a 3-record box for Prestige, The Great Concert of Cecil Taylor. [P-34003, probably not on CD]

This is definitely NOT the record to pick up if you're unfamiliar with Taylor's music! One piece, over an hour and 40 minutes. Rivers, although a brilliant musician and a major figure in his own right, doesn't quite sound comfortable here (of course, Lyons and Cyrille already had years of experience with Taylor's material). There are some remarkable passages here by all concerned, but overall I'll concede that this isn't the one Cecil album to have in your collection...

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PART THREE: 1973-1979
 

 

Following the "Nuits de la Fondation Maeght" recording of 1969, the next documented recording by Cecil Taylor was a J-for-Jazz broadcast, apparently solo, in 1971. [I've neither heard nor ever seen this release, and know of it only from an extensive discography included in the epic FMP 11-CD box release Cecil Taylor in Berlin 1988, which will be discussed in Part Four. (update, 2/09: I found a pressing of this some years ago; it's listed in Richard Shapiro's sessionography, entry #24.)

 

From 1970-73 Taylor was in residence at U-Wisconsin Madison, where he taught a course in Black Music (incurring the wrath of the 'authorities' by trying to use 'unauthorized' equipment (e.g. a decent piano) and failing many of his students for "failing to take the course seriously"). Indent (Arista-Freedom, rec. 1973, issued 1977, Freedom CD 41038): Originally issued on Taylor's own Unit Core label as Mysteries, this was recorded at Antioch College in Ohio, where Taylor was in residence following the Madison tenure. The earliest generally available release (and if the date on Praxis is wrong, probably the earliest recording) of Taylor's extended solo work. For those who might find the ensemble music of Taylor too forbidding, his solo work may prove an 'easier point of entry'. Often taking very simple motifs; 'vamps' in the left hand, blues-like riffs, flat-out romantic chord sequences; elaborating on them, building new sequences and then returning to the original kernels; the depth of his artistic vision and unsurpassed keyboard technique cannot be missed by anyone with ears to hear...

 

 

Later in 1973 were two live concerts in Japan, recorded for the Trio label: Solo (Trio PA 7067), and Akisakila (Trio 3004-5), a brilliant trio excursion with Lyons and Cyrille. Also that year: Spring of 2 Blue Js (Unit Core; out of print and very rare, but there are some copies still floating around...): Side one is solo, side two a quartet with Lyons, Cyrille and bassist Sirone. Recorded (I think) at New York's Town Hall.

Silent Tongues (Arista-Freedom, Freedom CD 41005): Recorded at the 1974 Montreux Jazz Festival. A solo recital and an absolute must-have recording!! In 1976 a new version of the Cecil Taylor Unit toured Europe. Both a solo set and ensemble recording were released on Enja (and in the U.S. on Inner City):

 

 

Air Above Mountains (Buildings Within) (Inner City LP 3021): A 45-minute solo performance, the first recording of Taylor using the Bosendorfer piano, with an extended 9-note range in the bass register (C below the standard A). Dark to Themselves (Enja 3005, Inner City 3001): In addition to the incomparable Lyons, this new Unit added drummer Marc Edwards (with a drier sound than Cyrille but still nearly as energetic), trumpeter Raphe Malik and tenor saxophonist David S. Ware. [a personal note: it was this lineup, with Beaver Harris replacing Edwards, that I heard in person a few months later - an experience that literally changed my life...] The 'typical' Unit presentation throughout his career: Elaborate, mournful/stately ensemble passages (usually in unison, slightly out-of-sync, with piano 'commentary') alternating with 'solo' sequences - yet not really solos in the 'traditional' sense, as Taylor and the drummer (and the bassist(s), when utilized) interact with complementary and/or contrasting material, almost always in a blistering implied tempo - in no sense a 'solo with a comping rhythm section'. If at times Malik and Ware fall back on sheer energy for lack of consistent ideas, this is more than made up for by Taylor's work, and the relentlessly brilliant constructions of Jimmy Lyons.

 

 

[It's worth mentioning at this point that there are several recordings under Lyons' leadership (without Cecil) that are well worth seeking out: Other Afternoons (BYG 1969, reissued on Affinity) with Cyrille, Alan Silva and Lester Bowie; Wee Sneezawee (Black Saint) A quintet date, I believe from the late 70s; Nuba (B. Saint, late 70s) w/ Cyrille and vocalist Jeanne Lee; Something in Return (B. Saint CD 120125-2) - A 1981 duo concert with Cyrille (there's another release by this duo - Burnt Offerings - that may be from the same concert.)]

 

Also during this tour was a recorded encounter with Taylor and 'classical' pianist Friedrich Gulda. It's listed on the (German?) Brain label, 0800-2-1850 as Nachricht vom Lande. (I received a cassette of this since the original publication...)

 

From 1970-73 Taylor was in residence at U-Wisconsin Madison, where he taught a course in Black Music (incurring the wrath of the 'authorities' by trying to use 'unauthorized' equipment (e.g. a decent piano) and failing many of his students for "failing to take the course seriously"). Indent (Arista-Freedom, rec. 1973, issued 1977, Freedom CD 41038): Originally issued on Taylor's own Unit Core label as Mysteries, this was recorded at Antioch College in Ohio, where Taylor was in residence following the Madison tenure. The earliest generally available release (and if the date on Praxis is wrong, probably the earliest recording) of Taylor's extended solo work. For those who might find the ensemble music of Taylor too forbidding, his solo work may prove an 'easier point of entry'. Often taking very simple motifs; 'vamps' in the left hand, blues-like riffs, flat-out romantic chord sequences; elaborating on them, building new sequences and then returning to the original kernels; the depth of his artistic vision and unsurpassed keyboard technique cannot be missed by anyone with ears to hear...

 

In 1977, Taylor performed in concert with the legendary Mary Lou Williams. This is generally considered the most curious entry in the Taylor catalog. While Williams generally disparaged the 'avant-garde', she expressed an admiration for Cecil's work, and the concert itself was certainly not a failure to my ears, although the sound quality (released on Pablo, a 2-record set entitled Embraced (Pablo 2620-108) - this is incidentally one of the few Taylor records that ever seem to show up in the used bins...) is abysmal - on my copy, at least, there's a ridiculously high level of reverb on Taylor's channel (there's pretty much total aural separation between the two pianos). There's no engineer listed (the coward), maybe it was Norman Granz's revenge or something... Most of the material is Williams', sort of a 'trip through the history of jazz'; Taylor, however, transforms the material in a way that superficially may not always seem 'appropriate', and the overall effect is not often that of the two pianists playing 'together'. There are also some tracks with bass and drums that don't work at all, but there is some fine music here. Put this alongside the "Great Concert" as 'non-essential'.

1978 saw one of the high points of the Jimmy Carter administration, or any presidential tenure for that matter. This was the First 'Annual' (oh well...) White House Jazz Festival. [Clinton may have revived the tradition this year, albeit with 'safer' musicians...] Broadcast on National Public Radio, it figures that the only segment reported by television was the joke-finale, with Carter joining Dizzy and Max in an impromptu rendition of "Salt Peanuts". (Oh, those crazy jass musicians...) Never mentioned were a tribute to Charles Mingus (in the last year of his life), a duet with Ornette and Denardo Coleman, AND a stunning 5-minute solo by Cecil Taylor. Carter was genuinely moved by the performance, and went immediately backstage to congratulate Taylor (probably freaking out the Secret Service). The 'Village Voice' printed a large picture of Jimmy and Cecil shaking hands, and of course this is what probably cost Carter the next election... [I have an 'aircheck' tape of this performance, along with the Coleman/Coleman duet that immediately preceded it, and the concluding Gillespie-Roach-Carter trio.]

 

 

 

Tony Williams: The Joy of Flying (Columbia JC 35705): This is worth finding for the final cut. Skip the tracks with Tom Scott, Jan Hammer, Stanley Clarke and the immortal Ronnie Montrose (well, go ahead and listen if you want to hear some slick 70s fuzak with a ferocious drummer...) and get to "Morgan's Motion", an 8-minute duet with Taylor and Williams. Tony lays hard on the power toms; as much as I love this cut, it makes me wish all the more that they might have done something together in the 60s, when Williams had a much more interesting tonal palette...Rumor was at the time that Columbia had an entire album worth of material recorded by these two, but I've never heard any more about it...

 

Anthology of American Music: Cecil Taylor (New World 201, CD) and 3 Phasis (NW 303): Recorded for New World Records, April 1978 - These were part of an extensive series of recordings brought about in part by the Bicentennial, ranging from 1800's parlor music thru folk songs, 'classical' and a very comprehensive survey of jazz. The lineup: Malik, Sirone, Lyons, violinist Ramsey Ameen and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson. Jackson was also a prime element of Ornette's early "Prime Time" bands, and his approach was a radical switch from earlier Taylor drummers; heavy on the lower range and often injecting a 'solid time' feel into the mix. These were the first studio recordings since the Blue Note sessions; The first album includes "Serdab", perhaps the most 'romantic' and near-tonal Taylor composition since "Mixed" (from the 1962 "Into the Hot"). The second album consists of a single 57-minute piece, building to a flat-out backbeat shuffle with yet another overwhelming Jimmy Lyons creation. [As before, the work of Malik, and during this period, Ameen, can sometimes be criticized, but never the playing of Lyons.]

 

 

 

The "shuffle piece" is also excerpted on a concert from June of that year, Live in the Black Forest (MPS 15505, Pausa 7053). [There are some fades on the recording which obviously indicate there was much more music on the concert.] Also during that month, One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye (Hat Hut 3R02), a three-record, 133-minute excursion by this ensemble. The length is not unusual for a typical live performance. Changing discs at home can be a distraction, for once the listener 'catches the wave and rides it' during a Taylor piece, the sense of elapsed time disappears...

 

 

Max Roach and Cecil Taylor: Historic Concerts (Soul Note 1100/1101): Recorded December 1979, not released until 1984. The great drummer is one of the few remaining icons of the bebop revolution, and one of the very few to continually develop his work through the years. During the 70s he performed in duo concerts and studio recordings with Archie Shepp (The Long March [Hat Hut 13] and Force [Base (Italy) UNI 28976]), Anthony Braxton (Birth and Rebirth [Black Saint CD 0024] and One in Two, Two in One [Hat Art CD 6030]), and finally, the two sets with Taylor at NYC's Columbia University. In one sense, Cecil and Max 'play the way they always play', yet at the same time they each bend their styles and ideas to complement one another, bringing the music to exhilarating heights. Truly a demonstration of the absolute timelessness of creative music... [I wax rhapsodic...]

 

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