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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The solace of art: short thoughts on the passing of Cecil Taylor

Cecil Taylor in 2012. Photo by Peter Gannushkin.

By Stuart Broomer

We’re all the products and prisoners of our specificities, our cultures, our biologies, inevitably, and we are not diminished by our consciousness of those contributory openings and closings, not diminished by them, that is, until we insist on the closings as definition and the openings as illusion. Cecil Taylor was the best kind of creator, artist, thinker, the kind whose work insisted on the closings as illusions and the openings as tickets, licenses to a larger (and common) and richer and more meaning-full space than we have previously occupied, tickets that might explode, licenses that might expire, but that also might leave “the rose pattern driven into the dead iron-filings by the magnet” (Pound) or perhaps an aperture through which one might see the world in another way. Taylor was the kind of artist who made self-opening structures that made it possible to grow within the work, to see unglimpsed connections and possibilities, works as practical as can-openers and works that went on long enough to insist that they were themselves models of world, of mind, of space, of possibility.

In a culture in which we’re increasingly required to give trigger warnings about art lest someone be offended (this will go on for hours, it will include shocking and abrasive noises, things will get so dense that you might grow irritated and confused; in fact, why bother, we just won’t look, listen at all, and you can leave now unchanged; you’re too good for this; your participation mark awaits you), we risk the loss of art, the loss of self, and the loss of freedom, not just the freedom to know the past or the world, but also who we are, who we might be and become, who is in there and what is out there, and vice versa.

My crucial experience of Cecil Taylor’s music began 55 years ago with a brand-new record that began with Bob Haggart’s swing era standard “What’s New?” It was an appropriate question then, and now, and hopefully always, or at least the foreseeable future. My most recent experience of Cecil Taylor has arisen in the web of feelings, memories, obits and Facebook posts that I’ve read in the past five days. Among the most shocking of those for me was the apparently very old news (but news to me, I don’t follow the little reactionaries closely, just the big, orange, heavily armed ones) that Stanley Crouch’s biggest complaint about Taylor was his absorption of the music of Olivier Messiaen, as if there were something wrong with that.

It seems to me that if you were going to absorb anybody’s music it might be a good idea to work on a composer whose music synthesized complex polyrhythms, myriad scales, serialism, the sounds of nature and the sounds of electricity, a composer whose vision and calling were so intense that he managed to compose the Quatuor pour la fin du temps as an inmate in a Nazi concentration camp.

Taylor’s Messiaen connection reminds me of another work, one closely related to that idea of synthesis. Cubana Be, Cubana Bop was recorded four days before I was born, though I didn’t get around to hearing it until maybe 15 years later, around the time I heard that particular “What’s New?” The thing about Cubana Be, Cubana Bop is that it’s music that says you can use anything, and that it might be a more authentic, more accomplished, more meaningful work than what you’re supposed to use (which in 1947 big band terms might have meant Goodman, Basie or Herman). George Russell, the composer, was clearly conscious of the polyrhythmic and polytonal language that Stravinsky modelled to create the ersatz primal but nonetheless brilliant complexities of Rite of Spring, and he and Dizzy Gillespie must have known that the Cuban conguero Chano Pozo was the embodiment of the authentic, an essential building block in their own identities, but any more than Stravinsky was?

Charlie Parker had similar needs, like his idol Art Tatum who clearly relished playing Dvorak and Chopin, or his closest musical coeval Bud Powell, who recorded “Bud on Bach.” According to the great modernist composer Edgard Varèse, Parker “stopped by my place a number of times…He’d come in and exclaim, ‘Take me as you would a baby and teach me music. I only write in one voice. I want to have structure. I want to write orchestra scores.’…He spoke of being tired of the environment his work relegated him to, ‘I’m so steeped in this and can’t get out,’ he said.” (quoted by Robert Reisner, cited by Graham Lock in Forces in Motion, p.93) So Cecil Taylor pursued, with maximum vigor and creativity, a project he had inherited from Tatum, Parker, Powell, Gillespie, Russell and Ellington before them.

There’s a long history of big art, the kind in which an individual constructs a frame in which to assemble and stretch the known world—works like Dante’s Divine Comedy, fabricating a stratified cosmos in order to see Florence. They take a while to get, and if they ever seem easy, it’s an illusion; they might involve tremendous acts of surrender or absorption, but the effort is worth it. The Velasquez of Las Meninas, the Joyce of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, artists who subsume the world into their art, like Bach, Sterne, Gertrude Stein, Duchamp, Picasso, John Cage, Thomas Pynchon, Stan Brakhage, Pauline Oliveiros, ultimately stretch us and they leave works around that can continue to stretch us, their form feeding their content, their content feeding their form, as much as thinkers like Buckminster Fuller or Stephen Hawking do.

Cecil Taylor did that many times, he did it spontaneously, sometimes collectively, creating models in which conception and realization blurred, confounded, stretched and consecrated time and space and ideas of time and space. His work continues to warrant our attention. We owe the same attention whenever we encounter his like.

The last time I talked to Cecil Taylor was at a Jazz Journalists Association Awards Ceremony in 2003, where Stanley Crouch rushed over to engage him. It was also the last time I talked to Andrew Hill. So “What’s New?” Cecil Taylor and Andrew Hill and Olivier Messiaen (and all those other related folks from Dante to Oliveiros) are still alive, just in a different format. Crouch and the others in the brotherhood of blinders? “Who Knows?”


Sterno said...

Very nice, indeed. Any words on Cecil right now, are very, very appreciated.

grahame said...

YES> Cecil Taylor among others has shaped my life. The trombone (The forgotten instrument with regard to freedom) is probably the last to have the players of this instruments possibilities expanded. Everybody wants sax or piano or perhaps Elvin Jones. So thank you Cecil

A non-partisan said...

'I don’t follow the little reactionaries closely.' Indeed. Stanley Crouch's collected jazz writings ('Considering Genius') are actually quite interesting reading, if only to see where he is coming from.

His piece about Cecil Taylor in that book focuses on Taylor's June 1975 residency at the Five Spot which attracted packed audiences night after night, having been heralded as a major event by writers in the Village Voice and the New York Times. I will quote it in full because I don't want to skew the meaning by paraphrasing:

'Audiences, enjoying it or not, sat before the unrelenting fury of Taylor's music, which had created its own category, one in which a vocabulary predominantly influenced by twentieth-century European music was delivered as though the piano was an enemy that had to be beaten into submission by the small brown-skinned man with the knitted cap who took off his glasses before starting and did not stop for an hour or more. The sheer velocity of his articulation, the size of his sound, and the parallel obsession with grandeur and all that either blocked or denied it, made the emotion Taylor projected reflect not so much a jazz feeling as that of a Beethoven without lyricism. Big statements and triumphant pounding delivered with unequalled physical strength arrived as though they could go on forever. Then, never acknowledging the audience, Taylor put his glasses back on and left the stage for the dressing room. There, far more educated and intellectually engaged than 99 per cent of jazz musicians, he might be gleeful, full of wit, given to extraordinary leaps of association. Or he might be almost glum. Or, quite easily, he might break into a contemptuous rage levelled at bigotry and critical incompetence, describing the European concert world's aversion to black musicians, the similarities and differences between African dance and ballet, which he loved equally, the historical racial hiring policies that were why he hated the New York Yankees and the Boston Celtics. Taylor knew plenty about plenty. Therefore, whatever he was, and wherever he was playing, those who had heard it knew that he was the only one on the earth who could meet -- or even wanted to meet -- the challenges he had set for himself. The sheer intelligence of the man, genius actually, gave him a special colour in any light, particularly because he had brought together intellectual thought with athletic prowess. While what he played had little to do with jazz, it was still a massive achievement on a human level.'

In essence, I don't think there is much to argue with there. I have listened to a lot of Cecil Taylor's recordings over the past few days, most recently the Enja CD 'Air Above Mountains' (a solo performance at a festival in Austria in August 1976), which strikes me as an exceptionally clear example of his unique genius (to be filed under 'sui generis', alongside everything else he did). Incidentally, the booklet that accompanies the Enja CD contains a detailed exposition (laid out as poetry) of CT's approach to the process of collective group improvisation, going right to the heart of the matter.

Lee said...

Stuart, this is really excellent. And your discussion of a Taylor/Messiaen connection, which I hadn't much known of or thought about, intrigues me in part because I've been moved equally by both artists' ecstatic and intimate musics. They share, to me at least, a deep passion for this world and beyond.