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Cecil Taylor, himself

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(Photograph: Francis Wolff)

Today’s news of the death of the great musical revolutionary Cecil Taylor at the age of 89 brought back the impact of his early recordings and the experience of hearing him live on several occasions across the decades. It also reminded me of the night I gave him a lift back to his hotel after his London debut in November 1969. My car at the time was a much-loved old Fiat 500, so small that you could have fitted it into the trunk of a New York taxi cab. Hardly a limo. Barely even a car at all, by American standards. Luckily, Cecil fitted quite neatly into its confined passenger seat and talked cheerfully on the drive from Hammersmith Odeon into the West End.

His set during that night’s concert — part of Jazz Expo 69, on a bill shared with Cleo Laine and the most desultory quartet Thelonious Monk ever led — had been nothing less than staggering. With Jimmy Lyons on alto, Sam Rivers on tenor and Andrew Cyrille on drums, he reshaped my understanding of focused intensity. The two saxophonists worked their way through Cecil’s intricate unison lines against the jabbing commentary of the leader’s piano and the shifting thunder and lightning provided by Cyrille. Occasionally the skies would clear for a brief passage of shining lyricism before the storm returned, seemingly redoubled in force.

I remember two things from later in the evening. The first followed my remark that such performances must be physically draining. No, Cecil said. “You don’t notice it. Let’s go and find a discothèque — it’s good for the feet.” The second, not unrelated, came when I accompanied him to his room at the Strand Palace Hotel for a short interview. On a table was a small record player, with a Stevie Wonder album on the deck. I was surprised — maybe I’d been expecting Bartók. “Stevie Wonder is tremendous — he reminds me of a preacher,” he said. “The arrangements have the excitement of Dizzy’s old band.” He meant Dizzy Gillespie’s incendiary big band of 1947; it was a strikingly unexpected comparison.

A few years later I heard a phenomenal solo set at Carnegie Hall and then, just after the turn of the millennium, a poetry recital, shared with Amiri Baraka, at St Mark’s-in-the-Bowery in the East Village. Baraka read “A Modest Proposal for Giuliani’s Disposal (41 verses which are also curses)”, a lacerating tirade inspired by the killing of Amadou Diallo. Cecil read skeins of words that came from some private place. The last time I heard him, in a duo with Tony Oxley at the Village Vanguard maybe five years ago, he read and played, and on that particular night the music seemed to have taken up residency in that same private place.

I suppose the records I love best are the earlier ones: the free-swinging “Charge ‘Em Blues” from Jazz Advance, the whole of Looking Ahead, “Pots” and “Bulbs” from Into the Hot, the epic “D Trad, That’s What” from the Café Montmartre album, all of Conquistador. Also Dark to Themselves from the ’70s and It Is In the Brewing Luminous from the ’80s. Above all, though, the monumental “This Nearly Was Mine”, a radical meditation on Richard Rodgers’ South Pacific ballad, from The World of Cecil Taylor, now almost 60 years old. I once asked the record producer Alan Douglas (who supervised Money Jungle and the Last Poets’ debut) which album he would most like to make. “Cecil Taylor playing standards,” he said, and I knew what he meant.

Here’s a clip of a performance at the memorial service for Ornette Coleman two years ago (I was led to it by a fine piece on Ethan Iverson’s blog, Do the Math). It’s a good way to remember Cecil as well: the piano playing slowed down to mortal pace for the occasion but every note tipped with obsidian, coming at you from angles that belonged only to to this most fearless and uncompromisingly original member of the avant-garde.

19 Comments Post a comment
  1. Robert Stanley Bowden #

    Richard I saw him twice. Once with the Unit at the Roundhouse with a ballet corps leaping around the stage and once solo here in Bristol. I bought Lookin Ahead when I was 18 after listening in a booth, staggered at what I was hearing. Over the years I bought large amounts of him on vinyl and I have the huge FMP box of 12 CDs with many of the top European free musicians. My favourite album is Indent and I treasure the single track I have of him with Albert Ayler who I still think was the perfect match. Eccentric yes but no musician was more dedicated. RIP.

    Bob Bowden

    April 6, 2018
  2. Richard Harris #

    A very fine and fitting piece as always. Much appreciated. And coming so soon after Buell Neidlinger’s passing.

    I confess to not embracing all (or most) of Cecil’s later work, it just seemed so unrelenting, maybe I should relisten, but the Looking Ahead and The World of Cecil Taylor albums breath and are really outstanding. I even (kind of) like the album he made with John Coltrane and Kenny Dorham, released as “Coltrane Time” and other incarnations, each going their own way regardless, indicative of the changing time.

    RIP Mr Taylor.

    April 6, 2018
  3. Adam Glasser #

    What a fantastic tribute! thank you Richard

    April 6, 2018
  4. Mick Steels #

    Seeing the trio with Lyons and Cyrille at Ronnie’s in 1975 was the most intense powerful music I’ve ever experienced

    April 6, 2018
    • Saverio Pechini #

      I was there , August 1975 , and I’m totally with you .It was his ” Akisakila ” (my favourite album ) period and his wildest .

      April 6, 2018
    • I saw the Feel Trio at Ronnie’s in 1990, Mick. Ditto experience.

      April 8, 2018
  5. bluesbaker #

    Cecil – wow! I will miss him. Thank you so much Richard for this beautifully written piece.

    April 6, 2018
  6. Tim Adkin #

    A fine piece Richard. I’d like to mention the 33 minute “Communication #11” from Mike Mantler’s monumental JCOA double LP recorded in 1968 which you glowingly reviewed in Melody Maker in summer 69 when I was an impressionable teenager recovering from German Measles! It was the sort of review which made you want to go out and listen or buy the thing (like many others of yours) which I eventually did in the 70s when Virgin finally released it over here.

    A pal of mine saw him(and was similarly blown away) during the aforementioned season of gigs at Ronnie’s in 75 when, rather bizarrely, Cecil played opposite Joan Armatrading(backed by The Movies) a bill even more incongruous than that with Cleo. I only saw him once – in the late 80s when he played solo at St George’s in Bristol on a double bill with , I think, John Tilbury. It’s a concert my wife still complains about having been taken to….ah well.

    I’ll put the Montmartre album on tonight(and possibly “Unit Structures”) by way of tribute

    April 6, 2018
    • John Evans #

      Well worth seeking out for the clarity of the CD remastering: the 2015 Japanese Blue Note reissue of ‘Unit Structures’ (UCCQ-9193 in their Finest 1100 series).

      At the moment I’m listening to ‘One Too Many Salty Swift And Not Goodbye’, one of the Hat Huts that I first came across as very beat-up LPs in Bristol Central Library. Music that never fails to surprise and delight.

      April 7, 2018
  7. Thanks Richard… wonderful & evocative memories that sent me off to dig out the early Cecil Taylor records my old man bought for tuppence in Manchester…

    ps… did you find that “discothèque”?

    April 6, 2018
  8. Steve Garlick #

    Thanks so much for this; despite 45 years of eager delving there is still much music I know too little about which is one of the reasons I love your blog. You constantly arouse my curiosity about numerous artists whose work can prove difficult to find a way into and the links to live footage from the Ethan Iverson page of Cecil Taylor have just blown the top of my head off ! I shall be digging deeper into his work.

    April 6, 2018
  9. Bill White #

    Nice piece again, Richard. I was at that 1969 Jazz Expo gig and will always remember the contrast between Taylor’s set and as you quite rightly state the ‘desultory’ Thelonious Monk Quartet. Not for the right reasons, I’ve never forgotten the drummer’s name: Paris Wright.

    April 6, 2018
  10. Jonas #

    Cecil Taylor fundamentally changed the way I perceive, not just music but, everything. For me, he is/was a paragon of the transformative power of Art.
    Thanks for your piece

    April 6, 2018
  11. jamessidewinder33 #

    I too witnessed that incredible performance at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1969,possibly my first exposure to music of that intensity.
    I remember the stage being bathed in red light and I’m sure the band achieved levitation at several points in the set but I guess that’s my imagination running away with me!
    An amazing performance that has stayed with me for all those years.
    RIP Cecil and thanks for all the great music.

    April 6, 2018
  12. Paul Plimley #

    Thank you Richard for your contribution honouring Cecil. This is what I wrote on Facebook last night:
    One of the great artists of all has left us. What a tireless burning Spirit he was and will always be. Without a doubt he is the most brilliant human being I have ever met. His accomplishments are stunning in their magnitude, originality, power and deep beauty. His commanding melodic/harmonic character (great dramatic lines, heart breaking melodies, angular propulsive phraseology), his feel for blues, and total passionate intensity is unforgettable. For all of us, it can be said there is much in his music and poetry (and his musings in the many published interviews he gave) to inspire us to better fulfill our creative and human potential within our own lifetimes.

    One thing Cecil taught me is that it is more important to be playing from the basis of one’s feelings than impressing audiences by being clever. There’s much more to say, and those touched by his artistry will have their feelings to share and add to his life’s work and legacy. His music changed my life for the better. Complementary to his artistry, and critical to his stature in the pantheon of the greats , was the tremendous will he possessed to be the greatest he could be and— here’s the clincher — accomplishing this by being marginalized by critics, public and many musicians throughout the decades! The necessity to survive and the strength to witness the full flowering of his innovative rich musical language without compromise is yet another accolade that few others have attained.

    I love his poetic description of rhythm: “Rhythm is time the space of life danced through.” Another example, “The best athletes inspire, but a great Poet is something else…” I miss him already.

    April 7, 2018
    • Paul — Thanks for letting us read the testimony of someone who played with Cecil and was so profoundly affected by him. That first quote — “Rhythm is…” — is marvellous.

      April 7, 2018
  13. Dave Taylor(Purbrook, Hampshire) #

    Thanks for the wonderful and moving tribute to Cecil Taylor.
    It was your Melody Maker reviews in the 1960s that turned me on to this astonishing pianist.
    I, too, was at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1969 to witness his great concert with Jimmy Lyons & Sam Rivers – absolutely ferocious and stunning music and one of the most memorable jazz concerts I’ve attended.

    April 7, 2018
  14. jamessidewinder33 #

    I have a three LP box set “The great concert of Cecil Taylor” recorded in France on 29.7 69,with the same line up as the Odeon concert,on Prestige P34003 which captures the excitement of the UK performance very well.
    Copies of the original Shandar issue are available on Discogs for not very much money.
    Great music and well worth acquiring!

    April 7, 2018

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