Cecil Taylor Unit - Live at the Cafe Montmartre (Debut, 1963)
Live at the Cafe Montmartre is also known as Nefertiti, The Beautiful One Has Come, and it was the groundbreaker for all the music Taylor was to release in the future. Recorded at Copenhagen’s Cafe Montmartre in late 1962, the album presents the nucleus for his Unit and it shows him with Jimmy Lyons on alto sax, his constant musical partner until Lyons' untimely death in 1986, and Sunny Murray on drums. For the first time the main characteristics of Taylor’s music, the clustered chord repetitions, the arpeggiated figures and melodic fragments, shine in an early beauty. Taylor’s forceful lines set the pace in all the pieces, which leaves the drums the freedom to fill and counteract the rhythms. It’s the moment when Murray consequently started neglecting the drummer's traditional role as timekeeper in favor of textural playing and sound exploring. In retrospect Taylor said that he was “creating a language, a different American language“ and that he didn’t separate “between intellect and emotion“. He said that the great artists “had a structure, a technique, and the thing that made the technique and the structure move was their passion“. By freeing jazz from the of the chains of a beat, he developed a rhythmic concept that rather piled up shifting rhythms and released Lyons and Murray to pursue sophisticated and careful improvisations. Possibly not his best album, but one of his most important ones.
Cecil Taylor European Orchestra - Alms/Tiergarten (Spree) (FMP, 1989)
In 1988 Cecil Taylor was invited to West Berlin to lead several workshops, the whole project was planned to last one month. The idea was to bring Taylor together with the best and most famous European improvisors, which culminated in the European Orchestra. The result was a monster of monsters, Alms/Tiergarten (Spree) is as radical as a free jazz orchestra can be, brutal, overwhelming, all-consuming and of the utmost beauty. One reason was the extensive rehearsal time available. Taylor trusted his musicians completely and wanted them to feel responsible for the process of improving and developing the material, to realize that it was not his, but their orchestra. For the actual performance he provided the orchestra with notated material and nominated so-called "section leaders," sort of sub-conductors who were to determine when and how long the orchestra parts had to be played and - typically Taylor - he added material during the performance. As a result the music is a "mountain range of real invention that vindicated everybody’s faith in the idea, (…) a dream music for everyone who had followed the vicissitudes of transatlantic free jazz," as Steve Lake puts it in the liner notes. The music is full of cacophonies, fanfares and hymns with motives resonating through the sounding body of the orchestra. Alms/Tiergarten (Spree) was my initiation rite to free jazz, it’s my all-time-favorite album.
The Feel Trio - Looking (Berlin Version) (FMP, 1990)
The Feel Trio (with William Parker on bass and Tony Oxley on drums) was Cecil Taylor’s working group at the end of the 1980s, it was a microcosmos to try out new things. “The certain knowledge of what can be achieved together makes the unexpected a force to be reckoned with, and points the way to new horizons,“ as Bert Noglik says in the liner notes. The album starts with an ostinato figure of Taylor’s left hand, Parker picks it up and Oxley’s creates a different, radiating texture with the incredible paraphernalia of his drum kit. And then hell breaks loose. Looking (Berlin Version) is like the very essence of Taylor’s music. Everything is there: the energetic outbursts, the relentless tempo, the clusters, the echoes of blues and call-and-response, the octaves, scales and sustained chords that can be found in almost all his recordings. It’s music that tries to overcome conventions using conventional instruments and by creating a structure that is so tense that it could last for hours. Who says that free jazz can’t swing?
Jost Gebers recorded this performance on 11/2/1989, the cover shows two people looking over the Berlin Wall. One week later the wall fell.
- Martin Schray
Cecil Taylor – Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! (MPS, 1981)
The album title might sound like overstatement, but this is one of Cecil Taylor’s more subdued sessions, and a good place to start for those new to his music or who find his more epic excursions too taxing. It was his first solo album not taken from a live performance, recorded in Villingen in the Black Forest in September 1980 at the studio of MPS which had made piano recordings something of a speciality, using state-of-the-art recording equipment. Taylor practised for two days before recording on the third, and played his favourite instrument, a Bösendorfer Imperial Grand, a piano with an extra nine keys in the bass register, providing a full eight octaves, and having a more burnished tone in comparison to the Steinway’s glassier sound. The pieces are relatively short, ranging from just under a minute (the first) to just over ten minutes (the last).
Taylor was notoriously unhelpful when talking about his own music, using metaphors or inspirational sources often difficult to interpret, such as the design of box-girder bridges, or just talking about something else altogether. This might have been one of the masks referred to by producer Joachim E. Berendt in his liner notes, designed to protect Taylor’s music, and himself. His music can be uncompromising, and yet in a number of respects it’s not quite as formidable as it might first seem, and there are a couple of general observations which might assist. First, and perhaps obviously, Taylor had an intensely physical relationship with the piano, to the extent that what we hear is not music played on a piano, but music generated by Taylor’s engagement and interaction with the instrument, and its potential. His playing seems to emanate from the piano’s very vibrations, how notes can be struck, and chords held, hairpin dynamics, cross-accented counterpoint and stratification across wide registers -- the dexterity and articulation particular to the keyboard. His pianism is utterly idiomatic to the instrument, exploiting its natural overtones (octaves, fourths and fifths) and distinctive timbres, such as pedalled washes, minor-second clusters, and pinpoint staccatos. But for Taylor, sound was never just sound. It had to have an emotive power capable of reflecting our own disparate characters and the complexity of the world about us, capturing the poetry of life.
Second, Taylor’s music embraces structure and freedom – both have an important role and one makes no sense without the other. Together, they achieve a dynamic balance which avoids stasis. There’s no real pre-existing plan to much of Taylor’s music, though later in life he would take what looked like charts or diagrams on stage, which he’d consult at various times. What he did use however, was a range of recognisable tropes, each with an idiosyncratic sonority and harmonic flavour: he said he conceived of the piano as an orchestra, with its own individual sections. Like many free jazz musicians, Taylor’s music was not so much atonal as polytonal, making use of the push and pull of different harmonic centres, set against genuinely atonal cascades and splashes.
There are no hard and fast rules here, but very often Taylor would open with a sort of exposition of these tropes – cells or motifs, they take many forms – frequently diverse or even conflicting in mood, tempo and behaviour, and then develop his material in a multidimensional fashion, like several trains of thought emerging and merging simultaneously. This is where Taylor’s greatness as an improvisor lay, which goes beyond his undoubted technical prowess: the endless permutation of his material, retaining distinctive shapes and colours, yet always searching for new configurations, connections and contrasts. There are times when the speed and switching of his musical brain seem to overload (though I suspect this never really happened) producing some of his most exhilarating playing – both sensuous and austere – and occasions when he’s deliberately disorientating, disrupting any recognisable pattern. His music is not goal-orientated yet always has a clarity of purpose, even at its most fragmented and seemingly chaotic.
During Taylor’s performances, different tropes would dominate, but one favourite, which came to have an almost talismanic significance, was a rapid figure produced with parallel hands, moving upwards or downwards, or quite often in contrary motion (left hand down, right up) creating a harmonic vacuum. As in Monk, an ambiguity that suggests different resolutions. It is introduced in miniature at the outset and permeates the whole album, which can be seen as an extended exercise in exploring the ramifications of one apparently simple musical idea – bounced between registers releasing bursts of energy in the extremities, slowed to a rocking motion and songful melody, reconstituted as scalar runs, splintered between pauses, and transposed into luminous chords. Clearly, Taylor must have felt a strong affinity between his protean material and the singular qualities of the Bösendorfer.
Originally, it was intended that the album cover would be a work produced by the artist Joan Miró created under the impression of Taylor’s music. It seems that something was produced by Miró at a Hamburg graphics studio, but it did not arrive in time, and when the album was released on CD in 2012 (now also available as an 88.2/24 hi-res download), the art could not be identified, so the original cover was used (see above). For the time being at least, we don’t have this tribute by one modern master to another.
Taylor, solo at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1974. The complete performance can be heard on Silent Tongues: Live at Montreux '74 (Arista, 1975), another good place to start with his music.
Cecil Taylor – Student Studies (BYG, 1973)
Looking back, 1966 was a significant year for Taylor. In May and October, he and an expanded band recorded Unit Structures and Conquistador! for Blue Note, which represented the summit of his work thus far and due to major label release, have proved to be his best known and most influential albums. In October, the quartet of Taylor, Jimmy Lyons (alto saxophone), Alan Silva (double bass) and Andrew Cyrille (drums), all of whom had taken part in the Blue Note sessions, played two sets in Stuttgart recorded by local radio, and later that month they began an extended visit to Paris where they rehearsed, gave some concerts and were filmed for a documentary series about contemporary music. This album is taken from a performance recorded by Radio France in the revealing acoustic of Studio 105 at Maison de l’ORTF towards the end of the stay (later also released as The Great Paris Concert (Freedom, 1977)).
The ensemble, which continued to play for the following two years, was one of the great quartets in the formation of free jazz, up there with those of Ornette, Coltrane, and Ayler with Don Cherry. They play free music executed with absolute precision – note the rapt concentration with which they listen to each other in the video extracts below – and each member has their part in what amounts to advanced group play: Lyons’ strongly lyrical lines, weaving through the group and expanding Taylor’s melodic nuggets, Silva’s deft pizzicato and spidery arco, and Cyrille’s pellucid patterns, never random.
What they play are open-ended compositions, foundation motifs and figures – like the units of Unit Structures -- which flourish and are referenced in determined and undetermined ways, a framework for improvisation Taylor was to use later on albums such as The Cecil Taylor Unit (New World, 1978) and 3 Phasis (New World, 1979) and in his large ensemble work, and which was surely an inspiration for Anthony Braxton. There are carefully sculpted peaks and troughs and space, and how it is filled, is of fundamental importance. In the title work, the opening alternates between Lyons’ ringing, single notes and a more urgent, almost boogie-woogie, refrain. Eventually, the music takes off with an extended duet between piano and drums, descending into a reprise of the saxophone’s repeated honks which provide a jumping-off point for a dense harmonic cloud, from which emerges a rich, impressionistic dialogue between Taylor and Silva on bowed bass. Lyons’ little motif is then worked up, urged on by dancing piano figures and tightly locked bass and drums, reaching a thunderous crescendo. The piece concludes with a more assertive, less questioning, restatement of the opening material in a kind of coda. Notwithstanding Taylor’s denials, his music was as informed by contemporary classical music, which he studied at the conservatoire, as it was by the jazz tradition and other cultures to which he was drawn, even though he always forged his own, unique path. He was one of music’s great absorbers.
‘Amplitude’, with its assorted percussion – gongs, timpani, cymbals small and large -- and Taylor’s focus on the piano’s internals, is a study in resonance and reverberation with Lyons’ keening saxophone giving it a ritualistic quality. ‘Niggle Feuigle’ (a version of ‘Steps’ from Unit Structures) has the band playing at full pelt, springing out of Taylor’s blues lick, but this is not the blues as we know it.
Below is the episode on Taylor from the French TV series, Les Grandes Répétitions (The Great Rehearsals) with fascinating footage of the quartet performing at the Place des Vosges in the aristocratic, Marais district of Paris, a few days after the ORFT concert.
Cecil Taylor & Tony Oxley – Ailanthus / Altissima: Bilateral Dimensions of 2 Root Songs (Triple Point Records, 2010)
The duo of Taylor and Tony Oxley (drums, percussion) performed for over twenty years, off and on, but this is only the second official release after their first meeting at the legendary Taylor festival in Berlin in 1988: Leaf Palm Hand (FMP, 1989) (their pairing was an afterthought by the organisers, once the festival had begun). It’s also the last of Taylor’s performances to be released as an audio recording during his life, on limited edition vinyl, though hopefully one day it will be available as a download. The material was selected from two nights during their residency at the Village Vanguard in November 2008, home to so many classic recordings, and is divided into two parts: ‘Ailanthus’ (three tracks) on the first LP and ‘Altissima’ (four tracks) on the second. The Ailanthus tree, of the Altissima genus, is known as the “tree of heaven” and was celebrated by Betty Smith in her novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943), which is where Taylor lived. This might be the species of tree he could see from his piano, from which he said he drew inspiration during his hours of practice.
The album’s subtitle holds a clue to those charts and Taylor’s playing in his later years, though it’s a continuation of much of what he’d done previously but on a more refined scale. There are two kinds of material which form the “root” of pretty much everything he plays or to which it’s a response. The first is heard in its simplest form at the opening of ‘Ailanthus 1’, picked out tentatively and with subtle shading. The melody has a jazz lilt and is transformed into the second root song, Taylor’s parallel hands trope, which by this stage had evolved into a rippling figure – contracting and expanding, inward and outward – able to incorporate arpeggios, delicate, trailing ornamentation, and cadential chords, each time he resolves the figuration slightly differently. The first song also has many guises: stepwise progressions. clangourous fortissimos and deep, spiky rhythms. Much of the music is taken up with these two “songs” which are almost always recognisable whatever form they take. They’re superimposed (as at the beginning of ‘Ailanthus 3’), assimilated, compared, adapted, elaborated, paraphrased, and dissolved, employing the full panoply of Taylor’s invention, the hard-earned skills of a true virtuoso, requiring musical intelligence of the highest order. Each of the nights provides a different “dimension” on the core material, as of course do the two players. Perhaps in Taylor’s mind the root songs represented that tree, fixed but always changing as it moved in the wind.
Oxley thought Taylor would benefit from a lighter, higher pitched percussionist, and with textures that ricochet round his cluster of cymbals, cow bells, wooden block and bongo drums (played with sticks) sonically, it’s more Varèse than a standard trap kit, a sound that cuts through Taylor’s choppy piano without smothering it. Although there are underscores and embellishments from Oxley, the pair tend to occupy different but complimentary spaces, with counter flow, collisions and transient configurations, swirling particles which never quite stabilise.
With age, the velocity of Taylor’s playing inevitably slowed, relatively speaking, and he mellowed, leaving more room for the lyrical and meditative. In ‘Altissima 2’ he opens more contemplative spaces, the fine recording capturing the sheen and varying decay rates of Oxley’s metalwork, providing an afterglow to Taylor’s polished tones. The closing passages of the album combine the passionate and elegiac, with the latter just prevailing. “My music is a celebration of vital forces” said Taylor, “an affirmation of life to the end.”
Of that initial generation of free jazz musicians, Taylor was the first, and last. His creative output was prodigious and it’s still taking us time to catch up with his oeuvre, single-minded and multi-faceted. It may be impossible to obtain the full measure of his achievements for a while yet, but his music will continue to prove some of the most demanding, and ultimately rewarding, there is.
Taylor and Oxley in Amsterdam during a 2009 European tour in celebration of Taylor’s 80th birthday. (There’s also beautifully filmed DVD of their performance in Strasbourg during the same tour: Quatre Fois Vingt Ans (Mezzo)).
- Colin Green