Cecil Taylor, unique and predominant, 80 years old

Cecil Taylor is the world’s predominant pianist by virtue of his technique, concept and imagination, and one of 20th-21st Century music’s magisterial modernists. A figure through whose challenges I investigate the avant garde in Miles Ornette Cecil — Jazz Beyond Jazz, he turned 80 on March 25 (or maybe on the 15th), and tonight, Saturday, March 28, “Cecil Taylor Speaks Volumes” — and presumably performs solo —  at Merkin Concert Hall.

Taylor belongs to no school but his own yet has influenced and generated a legion of followers on piano and every other instrument, too. He identifies with the jazz tradition, many of whose most ardent adherents have regarded him since his 1950s debut insultingly, incredulously, quizzically, disdainfully, reluctantly, regretfully or not at all. But he does not limit himself, or his defininition of the jazz tradition: he draws from all music’s history and partakes of the whole world’s culture. 

He has earned significant critical acclaim —
“…Cecil Taylor wants you to feel what he feels, to move at his speed, to look where he looks, always inward. His music asks more than other music, but it gives more than it asks.” – Whitney Balliett

— and an international coterie of serious listeners, yet he has been ignored, feared or rejected by most people. Many pianists with more conventional approaches to their instrument, composition, improvisation and interpretation enjoy greater acceptance and financial reward.  
Jazz, at least, has tried to come to terms with Taylor, whereas America’s contemporary classical music world, to which he has has just as much claim of status, has shown not a bit of interest. Taylor embraces atonality but bends it to grandly romantic purposes; he is a master of polyrhythms, counter-rhythms, implicit and suspended time, which he deploys in lengthy, complicated yet spontaneous structures; he is a bold theorist and seldom acquiescent, though frequently collaborative. There is simply no other musician like him, although he has a few peers — with most of whom he’s concertized and recorded.
It seems inadequate to merely wish Cecil Taylor “happy birthday.” How should we celebrate? Here, from Ron Mann’s 1981 documentary Imagine the Sound, is a fine clip of the Maestro. 

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  1. Jake says

    One (predominantly) classical critic who publicly champions Cecil Taylor: Alex Ross. He lists the rather obscure FMP big band record “Alms/Tiergarten (Spree)” as among his favorite pop/jazz recordings (http://www.therestisnoise.com/2004/07/20_not_by_brahm_1.html) and wrote an appreciation of the maestro (paired with Sonic Youth) in the New Yorker way back in ’98 (http://www.therestisnoise.com/2004/05/sonic_youth.html).
    I wish more classical critics and fans would deal with avant-garde jazz and vice-versa. These musics have much in common and it seems a bit arbitrary to choose one absolutely over the other.
    Howard, I’d be curious to know how much you seek out modern classical and what you make of it.
    HM: I have in my possession but haven’t yet read Ross’s The Rest Is Noise; I’m interested to hear he’s a fan of Cecil Taylor’s and I believe that makes sense from what I’ve read of his in the New Yorker.
    I have listened to contemporary composed music since high school, when I was especially interested in electronic music by Morton Subotnick, Tod Dockstader, Iannis Xenakis, and also investigated Penderecki, Cage (I attended a Merce Cunningham performance w/sets by Rauschenberg and Cage’s music, a Cage piece performed by the Chicago Symphony and later Cage meeting Sun Ra, Cage reading Finnegan’s Wake at MOMA), Charles Ives, the flutist Severino Gazzelloni, quite a bit of other new music (mostly recorded by Nonesuch and Mainstream Records). I recall attending a Tashi quartet performance of Quartet for the End of Time. I made music in a nicely equipped Moog studio at Syracuse, as well as at Mills College and Roosevelt University in Chicago — was also in an improvisation workshop at the Art Institute led by Fredric Rzewski. I was interested in the processed flute pieces that Harvey Sollberger was specializing in, and also in Mario Davidovsky’s “synchronisms.” I became interested in Terry Riley and met Steve Reich, heard Philip Glass early in the ’70s, Marianne Amacher, Pauline Oliveros, etc; listened to the 3-lp Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music anthology, as well as Messiaen and avant-garde percussion music (Black Earth Ensemble was one I liked, Max Neuhaus another). I liked Wuorinen’s The Grand Bamboula and Time’s Encomium quite a bit, tried to get into Boulez, Stockhausen, various others.
    When I moved from Chicago to NYC in the early ’80s I used to hear Peter Kotik’s ensemble fairly frequently and I became friendly with Phill Niblock; I met a lot of musicians in their circles and while serving as a senior editor of Ear magazine I kept up on a lot of what was going on in new “classical” music. I actively attended, reviewed and eventually advised on the New Music America festivals, working with people like Charles Amirkhanian, Joseph Celli, Tania Leon. That was an interesting time — new music from the AACM composer-performers such as Leroy Jenkins, Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams was rubbing up against Lower East Side improv and comprov by people such as John Zorn, Wayne Horvitz, Elliott Sharp, Butch Morris, and also took on some rockin’ elements and minimalism (Lamont Young’s blues band comes to mind, so does Ornette’s Prime Time circa Of Human Feeling). Aspects of traditional, vernacularly commercial and popular and through-composed music from other parts of the world were in the mix, and there was a lot of technological breakthrough (shoutout to Richard Teitelbaum). It felt for a while like the genre divisions were being rendered irrelevant. That development seems to have slowed, if not stopped.
    While married to composer-singer-bandleader Kitty Brazelton I attended many performances featuring music by Eve Beglarian, Randall Wolff, Talujon Percussion Ensemble pianist Kathy Supové, Derek Bermel, among others — several Bang on a Can Marathons and heard what David Lang, Julia Wolff, Michael Gordon and their circle were up to; Arvo Part as played by Guidon Kremer, Lukas Foss conducting the Brooklyn Philharmonic, etc. I’ve been at concerts produced by American Composers Orchestra, Speculum Musicae, diverse chamber orchestras and smaller chamber groups (my daughter plays classical cello). I’ve kept up some attention to current composition, but I am more often disappointed and feel alienated from what I hear than I am taken with it — I don’t feel that in general that world embraces many of the values that I’ve discovered are dear to me that I hear in jazz, blues, and musics from other parts of the world. I’d rather listen to raga, gamelan, Sufi music, field recordings from Africa, Asia and South America, Afro-Caribbean music, late 19th-20th century composition (Russian, French, Viennese, American) than a lot of what I’ve heard presented from the past decade or so. I find there’s a self-regard about so-called “classical” music that means very little to me; there is also a lot of what I think is very thin “performance art” (and I admire Laurie Anderson) and pretention.
    This is not to tar all current composers with such attitudes — and I do keep listening, hopefully! I want to hear new directions of musical organization, new sounds, exciting ideas that seem to have implications beyond individual compositions. I was rather put off by Wuorinen’s opera based on Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, didn’t care much about Elliot Goldenthal’s music for Grendel — those may be the last big pieces I’ve attended. Having read this far, is there some contemporary composition you’d suggest I might like or should know about?