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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

To Cecil Taylor (Part 1 of 3)

Over the next three days the writers from the Free Jazz Blog will present a tribute to Cecil Taylor's music through his discography. The choices and reflections are personal. We welcome your thoughts as well. So, in no particular order ...

Cecil Taylor Jazz Advance (Blue Note, 1956)

Given Taylor’s sprawling, unbelievably prolific career output, it’s easy to lose sight of just how astonishing Jazz Advance was as a debut recording.  Who else could have made a piano trio album like this in the mid-50s, let alone do it as their first record?  Just as Ornette divided critics in 1958 with Something Else!, Taylor’s percussive flurries, bursts of atonality and rhythmic license were simply too much for many listeners to handle.  But they were certainly signs of a uniquely creative mind at work, and an invaluable early glimpse of Taylor’s genius.

Although it’s tempting merely to view this record as a foretaste of what was to come, approaching it as document unto itself allows for an appreciation of Taylor’s undeniably musical sensibility.  Yes, there are times when he seems to be leaving bassist Buell Neidlinger and drummer Dennis Charles behind due to the sheer abundance of his ideas (although it’s all the more incredible that they keep pace with him as well as they do).  But even more surprising are Taylor’s sympathetic tendencies: just listen to the way he comps behind Steve Lacy on “Charge ‘Em Blues” and “Song,” the two tracks on which Lacy appears.  It’s a perfect illustration of how thoroughly Taylor had imbibed and mastered the language of bop—crucial, of course, in allowing him the wherewithal to deconstruct it so thoroughly during his many decades as an artist.  And Taylor’s melodicism is also abundant here, albeit refracted through his uniquely off-kilter vision, as we hear on his sensitive treatment of Ellington’s “Azure” and his tour-de-force solo performance of Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To.”

Although Taylor’s subsequent recordings will be more frequently cited as examples of his inimitable, path-breaking spirit, this is the album that started it all, and it easily stands on its own as one of the finest jazz recordings of the 1950s.

-Troy Dostert

Cecil Taylor – Spring of Two Blue J’s (Unit Core, 1974)

This recording on Taylor’s own Unit Core label features his greatest interpreter Jimmy Lyons on alto sax, along with bassist Sirone and drummer Andrew Cyrille, on the second part of a two-part composition.  Here Taylor relishes his role as accompanist as much as he enjoys sparring with Lyons on equal footing.  At points of convergence, the power of the group is overwhelming.

The first part is even better though – a lone Taylor speaking in tongues, the most advanced of musical minds performing at a primal level.  When he turns automatic composition into a call-and-response exercise, what emerges is an artist committed to the duality between instinct and organization – which is a commitment he kept until the very end.

Cecil Taylor – Looking Ahead!  (Contemporary, 1958)

“Luyah! The Glorious Step” opens with Taylor alone, very deliberately banging out discordant non-swing.  When bassist Buell Neidlinger and Earl “Mystery Man” Griffith (vibes) enter, so do the eighth-note bop conventions.  Welcome to late 50s Cecil Taylor.  Taylor is desperately trying to break free of the jazz tradition but has not yet acquired the means to do so (and neither has Ornette!).

Neidlinger and drummer Denis Charles would play into the early 60s with Taylor, providing conventional timekeeping roles underneath Cecil’s speedy accidentals and mathematical hopscotch.  They are an excellent band – even as Taylor removes himself (literally) from the rhythm section in the mix here, with Charles, Neidlinger and Griffith in one channel & Taylor in the other one.  No missing the point; Cecil Taylor is playing against the band.

Honestly though, there are three tracks – half the album! – where the group is more cohesive than Cecil would apparently like for us to believe.  The first, African Violets,” is the kind of late night noir tune that no one would think to associate with Mr. Taylor.  The other two are “Toll,” where Neidlinger slows down to whole notes, allowing room for a more relaxed approach to interplay, and the session’s centerpiece “Excursion on a Wobbly Rail,” on which Taylor’s chords push Griffith into unexpected melodic figures as the band pumps with singular purpose.

- Tom Burris

Cecil Taylor - Unit Structures (Blue Note, 1966)

Together with "Conquistador!", released on Blue Note the same year, Unit Structures is one the landmark albums for free jazz. In contrast to other artists such as Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, Taylor tried to incorporate the entire musical canon in his music, including the European avant-garde, using it to start delving deep into the soul of jazz, mixing the resulting sounds and techniques, and then liberating the outcome from clearly defined forms, including doing away with the traditional role of the various instruments. In his vision, all instruments are solo instruments and they collectively co-create a sound, improvising together as a "unit" around open-ended musical structures, or in Taylor's own words: "“The emphasis in each piece is on building a whole, totally integrated structure.”

The musicians are Jimmy Lyons on alto, Ken McIntyre on alto, oboe and bass clarinet, Eddie Gale Stevens on trumpet, Alan Silva and Henry Grimes on bass, Andrew Cyrille on drums and Taylor on piano and bells.

Taylor writes in the liner notes of Unit Structures: "The player advances to the area, an unknown totality, made whole through self analysis (improvisation), the conscious manipulation of known material; each piece is choice; architecture particular in grain, the specifics question-layers are disposed-deposits arrangements, group activity establishing the plain".

Listening to it now, and unlike the music of Ornette Coleman from that period, it still sounds very modern, with four lengthy pieces, defined by the energy and the freedom of its leader. It is glorious, pristine, as if after millenia of confinement, music itself was suddenly liberated from its prison and its chains, running outside, dancing and singing out of the pure joy of freedom. At the same time it is intelligent, carefully improvised, avoiding chaos. It generates music that is deeper, more authentic, more energetic.

"A tool of refinement,
An attempt to capture “dark” instinct. 

Cultivation of the acculturated
To learn one's nature in response to 

Group (society) first hearing “beat”
As it exists in each living organism".

Brilliant: a new language, a new listening experience, liberating music from its dusty confines.

Dark To Themselves (Enja, 1976)

Ten years later, the Cecil Taylor Unit releases in my opinion another iconic album, with the stellar band consisting of Jimmy Lyons on alto, David S. Ware on tenor, Raphé Malik on trumpet, and Marc Edwards on drums, the latter replacing Andrew Cyrille for the occasion. And indeed: two bass players on "Unit Structures", no bass player here.

The album has only one track, recorded live on 18 June 1976 at the 17th Yugoslavian Jazz Festival in Ljubljana, Slovenia, which was split in two parts on the original vinyl album and totalling only 49 minutes, so for once I can recommend readers to go for the CD version which has the full 61 minutes of the performance. Why is it iconic? First because the band itself, second because of the maturity of the interplay and the seamless collaboration and energetic drive of all the musicians. While Taylor and Edwards keep the momentum and the power going, first Malik, then Ware, then Lyons play as if their lives depend on it.  They give it all! For more than forty-five minutes. Relentlessly. Then after Lyons' ten minute solo, the horns give all the space to Taylor himself, who quietens things down, calming the storm for a more contemplative moment, a moment of nervous serenity, playing fast runs and slow chords and after ten minutes he increases the power and the speed and the energy, wonderfully backed by Edwards's heavy percussion work, inviting the other musicians back in for a spiritual finale. It is gorgeous. 

Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon & Tony Oxley (Victo, 2002)

Of a totally different nature is this trio album with Bill Dixon on trumpet and Tony Oxley on percussion. Taylor and Dixon had played together since the mid-sixties. Taylor and Oxley had performed together in the "Feel Trio", and in duo albums, with "Leaf Palm Hand" being the first. Bill Dixon and Tony Oxley also released the great "Papyrus" volumes on Soul Note a few years earlier.

It was almost inevitable that the three artists would meet and perform together, and it happened at the 19th Festival International de Musique Actuelle at Victoriaville, Canada in May 2002. Dixon's trumpet is linked to pedals and comes with echo and strong reverb which puts it in a more distant sonic space that appears to be different from Taylor's and Oxley's close intimate acoustic sounds.

Despite that, or maybe because of it, there is tension in the air, something unusual, both dark and agitated, ominous and alive, especially in the 45-minute long first track. It reflects the essence of Taylor's musical conception: that sound is energy, and that composition is the total of all the improvising soloists. But the overall nature of the music here is more cautious, less driven by the natural power of Taylor's other albums. It is more avant-garde and free improvisation than free jazz. All three musicians play at an equal level, with respect for each other but also with their own character and ideas showing through. At the time of its release, the album did not get much positive response, but now, looking back, it's still of a level that is well above the average. It shows a different facet of all three musicians, and it somehow stands on its own, and is as such pretty unique, showing an interesting new sonic perspective. I only wish the trio had more performances together.

And if you're curious about Taylor's own opinion, here are the liner notes:

- Stef Gjissels

The Gil Evans Orchestra - Into the Hot (Impulse!, 1962)

Incredible to think of these three essential Cecil Taylor cuts hiding behind Gil Evans’s name and image. Sorry, but no soft spot for Evans’s music—or that of John Carisi, who actually wrote the album’s three other tracks—can protect them from being blown out of the water by Taylor’s contributions to this 1962 “split.” Then again, what a way to find oneself introduced to Taylor’s music (I’m speaking from experience), the sucker punch fully intact. The pianist’s discography may be studded with more obvious gems, but “Pots,” “Bulbs,” and “Mixed” find Taylor—along with Jimmy Lyons, Archie Shepp, Henry Grimes, Sunny Murray, Ted Curson, and Roswell Rudd—at a thrilling moment, with one foot in breakneck bebop, spine-tingling harmonies, and stomping syncopations and the other in something else altogether. Into the Hot? Sounds about right.

- Eric McDowell

Air Above Mountains (Enja, 1978)

Moosham Castle in Langau, Austria. A Bösendorfer grand piano. And Cecil Taylor. Such a minimal setup for what is one of the most intense jazz sets I’ve listened to. During the 1976 performance, Taylor glides through the single long piece “Air Above Mountains (Buildings Within)” without major pauses and with the aura of a man possessed. He plays hard notes that seem on the verge of imploding, he frolics through frenzied sections punctuated by repetitions, and he even finds elusive flashes of groove, steady rhythm, and melody—all the while exhausting and pushing himself to extremes. More than any other Cecil Taylor record, Air Above Mountains is the purest embodiment of his relentless approach and energy, a sublimation of a thought found in the liner notes: “Creating Music as sound within the whole body; which must be brought to level of total depersonalized realization.”

Conquistador! (Blue Note, 1967)

Unit Structures and Conquistador!, Cecil Taylor’s only two releases on Blue Note, had a transitional and defining role in his career. Brimming with potential of what was to come, they were firmly placed in the emerging and bristling free jazz scene, while showcasing a creative force and musical world that was unlike anything or anyone else. In that sense, Conquistador!, the second of the two, is an album that acts as an exclamation point to his output in the sixties. Working in the form of a sextet with two bassists, Henry Grimes and Alan Silva, trumpeter Bill Dixon, alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, and drummer Andrew Cyrille, Taylor creates music with a fleeting duality. It contrasts a fervent rhythmic base, lead by his piano spurting notes like a machine grinding gears and Cyrille’s polyrhythmic, compact drumming, against Lyons’ and Dixon’s almost lyrical playing. It’s especially Dixon’s phrasing, with numerous drops into lower registers and gentle whispers, that’s fascinatingly calm and dark in face of the pandemonium around it. Even the few expansive sections on the two album cuts, “Conquistador” and “With (Exit),” appear as deceptively anxious. Simultaneously, the sextet sound is full of mercurial textures that shift and grow, disappear and reappear. This is music as cryptic and powerful as the mind behind it. A classic.

- Antonio Poscic