Cecil Taylor, himself
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.