Cecil Taylor at 80, part two: A brief review

Pianist Cecil Taylor — who yesterday I might have described as “preeminent” rather than “predominant” — read his erudite, sound-sensitive poetry in the first half of his sold-out 80th birthday concert at Merkin Hall, then performed solo sonatas for approximately 50 minutes. An infant in the audience occasionally cooing along with Taylor’s precise diction made it difficult to catch every word (much less all the meaning) of his texts, filled as they were with the recondite references to biology, mathematics, Egyptian and Mayan civilization, yet some striking images and insightful thoughts emerged. 

Taylor’s music at the piano, with the piano, was crystal clear. From a few measures of score he drew from a folder and propped within view but didn’t further glance at, Taylor launched improvisations of impeccable and highly nuanced touch, complicated harmony and organic, balanced structures. His phrases often began as simple gestures or a few carefully selected notes, then stretched out with the evenness of breathing into full investigations and transformations of the nascent idea. And he has many, many ideas, demonstrating the infinite ways tones can be arranged, reflected, expressed to conjure beauty in spheres that transcend “mere” music to speak of movement, architecture, strength, delicacy, suppleness and nuance. As a listener I found myself (again!) suspended between awed appreciation of his art and floods of my own internal impresssions, including insights into my fleeting thought processes.

Few other artists deliver me to such a welcome and I believe productive (though some might scoff at as solipsistic) state of mind. Ornette Coleman is one, Miles Davis has been another, Butch Morris and Henry Threadgill, who were both in the audience, also have provided such gratifications. But Cecil Taylor is unique. His accomplishment is inspiring, the depths of his music profound, the heights sublime. In just the past year his pianism has significantly evolved: last night he seldom interrupted linearly unfolding episodes with contrary flurries of percussive strokes or clusters, and though he explored previously unknown extensions of melody he was the master of all terrain. He reigned commandingly, clearly having worked to achieve his position at the summit but needless of fury.
Taylor’s concept, technique and message appear to have developed continuously and fearlessly from early aching lyricism (hear, for instance, his 1960 version of Richard Rodgers’ “This Nearly Was Mine” free at last.fm) to his current vastly encompassing vision. His music today cannot be judged by what it isn’t — it isn’t like any other music, “jazz” “classical” or “folkloric” on this planet, though he obviously knows most of what’s preceded him and contains at his core kinship to Ellington and the blues. Regardless of any allusions, Taylor’s music should be listened to for itself and what it offers: a complete, coherent, consistent if radical alternative to what we’ve heard, think we know and accept as true, a statement of human individuality and each person’s potential for originality, the inordinate, ineffable beauty of it all.
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  1. Michael J. West says

    God this sounds wonderful. Just one more reason to kick myself in the ass for not getting a ticket.

  2. Lyn Horton says

    William Parker once said to me that the older a musician is, the closer he will come to making music that he began his journey with…and therefore, he will be performing as he truly is
    (“he” or “she”).
    That it takes such revolutionary postures, particularly for Cecil Taylor, to be heard in the appropriate context early on and then for that context to exist almost naturally (very) later on comments once again on cultural lag.
    I suppose the extraordinarily innovative artists and musicians in the world have to accept this aspect of culture: in order to move mountains when the tools are at hand, the tools can meet impenetrable impasses. But little by little, year after year, the tools chip away at the mountain and it becomes the size of a speed bump and completely negotiable. Musician to listener. The way becomes clear.
    The true self has opened in the both instances, musician and listener. The external whys and wherefores have disappeared and finally Essence can be appreciated. The music expresses commonality as opposed to adversity to tradition.