Cecil Taylor's Radical Approach

I would like to bring the name of pianist Cecil Taylor into your jazz vocabulary, but it's hard to explain my reason for this, because I find his music disturbing, forbidding, terrifying, yet always worth a listen.
Consider those adjectives. They seem to stand for everything that the music I love seeks to dispel. But Taylor has had a hook in my musical brain for some years now, a hook that draws me toward his dark and chaotic vision of melody and harmony. The nearer to it I get, the more acutely do I feel a slap across my chops and the necessity to sit and listen, and to listen hard.

He is a born improviser, having first reared his head in the mid-1950s with a sheaf of standards as a jumping-off point for his often-raucous, sometimes tender, always adventurous brand of free-wheeling it.
His name became associated with the free jazz movement that sped through the popular culture with Ornette Coleman as its hood ornament, so it is something of a surprise to me that Taylor is not better known among the jazz aficionados who like to argue about that kind of thing. His name rarely emerges, probably because his musical vision was leagues beyond the free jazz that now sounds so tame to ears tempered by nearly five decades of familiarity. I've had several conversations about him over the years with my friend, Rick, but Rick is cannier than most about the state of the music at any given time. He never says, "Who's that?"

But let that lie. By the early 1960s, Taylor was off on his own voyage after a period as a sideman for various and familiar names, such as Johnny Hodges and Hot Lips Page. After an aborted experiment with his own quartet in the mid-1950s, Taylor assumed the rank of captain of his own ship and never has looked back. In fact, as one listens to his music, it seems that this is one captain who isn't even looking for land. The journey is paramount and the discovery almost anti-climactic.

Despite some lean times, Taylor's remained true to his own vision in the face of withering criticism, small
audiences and general lack of regard.

His style combines clustered atonality with a percussiveness that often is reminiscent of Dave Brubeck when Bru is especially in the zone and "spitting out equations," as my friend Rick likes (accurately) to say.

The influence of Taylor's associations with Albert Ayler and early Archie Shepp are especially vivid in his style, and his performances, they tell me, can run to marathon lengths, a journey that potentially can takes its toll on both Taylor and his audiences.

Unfortunately, Taylor's recordings are scattered among a legion of small labels, so it is difficult to find his work, even in urban centers where your local music shop is inclined to do special orders. For example, about 10 years ago, I bought a vinyl LP at a library sale in Ohio, the library's trustees having decided to get out of the LP business and devote its resources exclusively to audio cassettes and CDs.

I paid a pittance, and the record came only in the plastic inner sleeve, bereft of a label on the disc itself but packaged in a makeshift cardboard outer jacket upon which someone had scrawled "Cecil Taylor, Piano" with a felt marker. I have no clue as to title (it appears to be one long composition) or year of recording or venue. But it is unmistakably Taylor.

I will, however, recommend "Pontos Cantados: Point 1/Klook at the Top of the Stairs," which appears as a live performance on a Blue Note anthology recording of 1985 titled "One Night With Blue Note Preserved," and which features a variety of artists, of whom Taylor is one, who have recorded on that venerable label over the years.

If you succeed in securing some of Taylor's recording, I can't advise you what to expect. It depends upon you as much as it depends on him. I have turned off some of his music because it wore on me so, and resumed my listening later. Cecil Taylor is not for everybody. But he is a valuable theorist who puts his theory into practice and makes listening an adventure, albeit a sometimes stormy one.