The brilliant, challenging, perplexing and incomparable pianist/improviser/composer Cecil Taylor died April 5, 2018, at age 89. Here’s what I wrote of him to celebrate his 80th birthday:
Cecil Taylor, unique and predominant, 80 years old 3 27 09
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.