Remembering Cecil Taylor (1929–2018)

by Michael Schell

The passing of Cecil Taylor on April 5 gives cause to reflect on the long life and career of one of America’s most innovative musicians. An enterprising bandleader and a pianist of prodigious technique and stamina, Taylor was one of the key figures in the development of free jazz.

In this respect he is often mentioned alongside his contemporary Ornette Coleman (1930–2015). But whereas Coleman learned to play saxophone in blues bands, and usually worked squarely within African-American musical traditions (jazz and later funk), Taylor was classically trained in composition and piano (including three years at New England Conservatory), and readily combined the rhythms and instrumentation of jazz with the forms and atonal harmonies of modernism. His synthesis of musical influences launched a movement in the late 1950s that was subsequently embraced by Eric Dolphy, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and Anthony Braxton before eventually merging with European and rock-influenced styles to form the broad multi-ethnic genre of free improvisation that has been prominent since the 1980s.

Taylor’s approach is well documented by a pair of classic Blue Note releases from 1966 that remain his most frequently cited albums. Taylor begins the title track of Conquistador! with a piano intro that sounds like Stockhausen. But after a few seconds, his side musicians enter with a flourish-filled theme whose vestigial swing feel and instrumentation (two horns, drummer Andrew Cyrille, and two bass players) reveal the music’s jazz roots. We hear an alto sax solo from Jimmy Lyons, then a trumpet solo from Bill Dixon, and then at 7:21 comes a new theme in E♭ minor, the sort of tune that ordinarily comes at the beginning of a jazz track. But then it’s back to improv with an extended clattering solo from Taylor. The E♭ minor melody is reprised by the horns at 13:26, whereupon we get another Taylor solo, this time with Alan Silva adding prominent counterpoint on a bowed bass. The final section features two entrances from the horns bracketing a duo for Silva and the other bassist, Henry Grimes.

The title track from the Unit Structures album employs a similar ensemble (including the same drum and bass players), but the music is more extensively composed, featuring the unpredictable block form used in such landmark 20th century compositions as Debussy’s Jeux or Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments. The first five minutes is a chain of contrasting ensemble sections, after which an animated jam finally gets going, led by a Ken McIntyre bass clarinet solo. An alto sax solo from Jimmy Lyons follows, then at 10:30 we get another chain of structured ensemble sections. At 12:25 the tempo picks up once again for Eddie Gale’s trumpet solo, followed by a Taylor piano solo filled with glissandos and tone clusters. One last tutti section closes the track.

After recording these Blue Note albums, Taylor started to focus on solo piano work. His closest predecessor among jazz pianists was Thelonious Monk, but in the Indent album from 1973, it’s clear that Monk’s melodic eccentricities and love of dissonance have been jacked up several notches. It was about this time that Taylor’s high-energy atonality, which owed so much to European modernism, began to influence younger composers of piano music, as evinced by Frederic Rzewski’s Squall from 1979 (compare it to the first track of Indent at around 4:40).

Taylor continued to perform as a soloist and a bandleader well into his 80s. He also partnered with artists from different backgrounds, such as the dancer Min Tanaka and the British electric guitarist Derek Bailey. One of his more unusual collaborations was this 2008 duet with composer/accordionist Pauline Oliveros:

The two musicians had never performed together before, and the beginning of the duo is a bit tentative, with Oliveros often echoing Taylor’s licks. But starting at 3:09 the pair establish a more complementary footing. Often Oliveros plays sustained notes and chords as counterpoint to Taylor’s trills and flourishes. In the quiet passage starting at 15:28 you can hear Oliveros exploiting the tuning clashes between her just-intoned Titano accordion and Taylor’s equal-tempered piano.

Though Taylor is usually the one doing the leading, he is conscious of the delicacy of his partner’s instrument, and his playing is notably softer and sparser than usual. The result is a surprisingly compelling musical experience from two unique American masters.

At the same time, though, this coupling highlights a prejudice that continues to haunt conventional narratives of Western art music. Of these two musicians—both of similar age and similar stature among musicians, and both clearly capable of articulating a shared musical language in a public space—only Oliveros is consistently mentioned in textbooks and retrospectives on contemporary classical music (see, for example, the otherwise admirable surveys by Paul Griffiths, Jennie Gottschalk, and Tim Rutherford-Johnson). The oversight comes from the notion that art music requires a score, that it must be “fixed in some sort of notation for a performer or creator to interpret or execute” (Rutherford-Johnson) to be authentic. This was a legitimate premise prior to the 20th century, but it has become obsolete in the age of audio recording, radio, and digital media. Nowadays the record, not the score, is the real “text”, and the persistent conception of classical music as an exclusively literate tradition has pushed the music of Taylor, and his fellow improvising avant-gardists (many of them from backgrounds that effectively barred them from the academy), to the margins of the canon.

Ironically, Oliveros also emphasized improvisation in her work, and almost all of her published scores use verbal instructions rather than musical notation. But she was still invariably described as a “composer”, and was able to achieve success in the milieu of universities, concert venues and foundations, whereas Taylor was always a “jazz musician” who mainly performed at night clubs and festivals. And so his eminence languishes in the domain of jazz history, jazz radio, and jazz CD bins. Despite today’s well-publicized efforts to improve diversity in musical opportunity and programming, it seems that the segregation borne of professional biases can be just as intractable as the cruder chauvinism of social bigotry. Taylor’s music, so powerful and innovative, deserves recognition that transcends these boundaries.

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