|Cecil Taylor. Photo by Peter Gannushkin.|
Cecil Taylor is dead. The beautiful one has gone. The eighty-eight tuned drums have become silent.
The last great founding father of free jazz isn’t here anymore. His name stands in one line with Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and John Coltrane, he was “the first musician of any importance to consequently introduce atonality into so-called jazz“ (Valerie Wilmer).
Although Taylor’s talent on the piano has been noticed from the very beginning of his career, many club owners rejected his radical approach. “Cecil was forced to work in places where he couldn’t have had to work. It wasn’t because nobody recognized his genius, it was because black genius isn’t recognized in this country“, Chris White said, a bass player who worked with Taylor occasionally from 1954 - 60.
However, at every stage in his development, Taylor played with total sureness and the tremendous drive that was his main characteristic. His staggering technique, his use of extreme chromaticism made it obvious that there was someone who was very knowledgeable. Often he had several melodies going on at the same time, all of them in different keys, he worked with different harmonies, he had a vast range of dynamics and attacks at hand, as well as tone clusters played for percussive, not harmonic, effect, that’s why many people were reminded of “eighty-eight tuned drums“. Taylor rushed across the keyboards, sometimes almost faster than the speed of light. Or, as Paul Lovens put it: “He plays in a completely different league if it comes to music“. His long-time collaborator Jimmy Lyons said: “Playing with Cecil made me think differently about what’s music about. It’s not about cycles of fifths, it’s about sound“. Taylor always refused to play the obvious. He was hitting each note with an intense touch. “We beat the keyboard, we get inside the instrument. Europeans admire Bill Evans for his touch. But the physical force going into the making of black music - if that’s misunderstood, it leads to screaming“, he once said.
In the 1960s Taylor released spectacular albums with his unit, Unit Structures and Conquistador, for example, both for Blue Note. In the 1970s there were solo albums like Air Above Mountains < Buildings Within > or the three marvelous Nuits de la Fondation Maeght releases with Jimmy Lyons, Sam Rivers and Andrew Cyrille. But still his music wasn’t appreciated they way it deserved it. He was a real revolutionary in the history of jazz, yet his fate was to be shut away in one of the obscure corners of music. When he played the Liederhalle Stuttgart in 1978 with his band (the gig was later released as One Too Many Salty Swift … And Not Goodbye), he wasn’t allowed to use the well-tuned grand piano there, the authorities said it was reserved for classical pianists. He had to use one which was out of tune. Taylor then decided to do the gig in his undershirt in order to show how disrespectfully he was treated - and played incredible music.
However, the 1980s weren’t his best years although he still released wonderful albums. After his long-time-collaborator Jimmy Lyons had died 1986 he was looking for new challenges and found them in Europe. In 1988 FMP’s Jost Gebers invited him to Berlin for four weeks to play the “Workshop Freie Musik“ where he was able to join the crème de la crème of European improvisers. The result, the 11-CD-box set Cecil Taylor in Berlin ’88, is one of the most magnificent albums in free jazz history, it received the prestigious “Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik“, it was album of the year in the 1990 Downbeat poll and Taylor was elected “best pianist“. Consequently, he returned to Berlin for another six months in 1990, equipped with a DAAD scholarship, which gave him and FMP the possibility to record even more beautiful music.
But finally, Cecil Taylor is more than his music. His charisma, his generosity, his vulnerability and his unpredictability were famous and notorious. There are great, memorable anecdotes about him:
After having some Himbeergeist shots after his gig at the 1989 festival in Wels/Austria he was dancing to Snap's "The Power" - in his typical white long socks and sneakers. Or just imagine the scene during his four-week-residency in Berlin when he was regularly holding court in a club called “Abraxas“ after the concerts, entertaining his listeners by criticizing icons like Miles Davis or Igor Stravinsky and dancing to hard funk with “plaited braids aswirl as he shook a tail feather“ (as Steve Lake recalled in the liner notes for the Cecil Taylor in Berlin ’88 box set). The story that the prize sum for the Kyoto Prize he received in 2013 (nearly half a million dollars) was stolen from him by a general contractor who befriended him while working next to his house in New York City even hit international media.
I’ve listened to Cecil Taylor’s music since I was 18, I was 29 when I heard Alms/Tiergarten (my all-time favorite recording) for the first time, a friend gave it to me. Immediately, I’ve felt the energy, the ease, the power, the precision, the profusion. And I’ve felt the pure beauty of his music.
I was lucky to watch Cecil Taylor live several times, with his European quintet (Harri Sjöström, Tristan Honsinger, Teppa Hauta-Aho and Paul Lovens, which is unfortunately unrecorded), with Thurman Barker, and with Tony Oxley. The last show I saw was at a small jazz club in Bavaria in 2011, I was sitting right in front of him. He was 82, and he had the hands of a 40-year-old. He was focused and energetic, read some of his poetry, it was unforgettable.
Goodbye, Cecil. Thanks for all the love, the dedication, the passion. I already miss you.
Watch him playing a solo concert in Perugia/Italy in 2009: