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
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
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
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.