Cecil Taylor 1929 - 2018

taylor

With the passing of Cecil Taylor it could be argued that jazz has lost another titan. But the pianist was never defined by the word 'jazz', let alone music in the broadest sense. Taylor wrote poetry, often disarmingly abstract, that was inextricably linked to his interest in language and culture, which in turn led to a range of Afro-centric and surreal titles for his recordings, be it Nefertitti, The Beautiful One Has Come, It's In The Brewing Luminous or One Too Many Salty Swift And Not Goodbye. Furthermore, there was a deep fascination with choreography and movement, which coalesced with his commitment to spoken word and music in both humorous and engaging ways. When Taylor played an unforgettable duet with drummer Max Roach at the Barbican in London in 1999 he first did a solo set, entering the stage in futurist leggings and jersey, trademark skullcap and antennae dreads – his sartorial style caught the eye as much as his music the ear – and executed some playful pirouettes as he recited verse. Taylor told me sometime before the concert: "When you go right into battle with Maximilian you have to be fully armed and ready", as a mark of great respect for his equally inspirational partner, as well as of his commitment to the demanding art of spontaneous composition, which he saw as a kind of ballet in beats or intense corps-a-corps with others where there was no room for compromise on form and content.

Raised in Queens, New York, Taylor was immersed in music from an early age, playing piano at six before going on to study at the New York College of Music and New England Conservatory, and while his initial work in the 1950s showed his absorption of the techniques of Tatum, Ellington and Monk, it also provided a glimpse of the lexicon he would subsequently develop. Taylor took the percussive playing of his forebears to new heights, creating barrages of polyrhythms and juddering motifs, often at high tempo, in which the right hand, rather than stating just one theme, acted practically as a whirling ride cymbal while the left sculpted pithy melody like a bass drum. The low end was as much a well of lyricism as it was chordal accompaniment. Constant momentum, whirlwind tonalities and unbroken streams of ideas, no matter how abrasive, were among Taylor's key contributions to post-war piano vocabulary.

Like many other American improvisers Taylor was interested in European composers such as Bartók but, perhaps cognizant of the ways of his mother, a renowned dancer, he brought torrid physicality to his music between the 1960s and noughties. His classic group albums, such as Unit Structures, Conquistador, Winged Serpent (Sliding Quadrants) and 3 Phasis, saw him work with brilliant players such as Jimmy Lyons, Sunny Murray, William Parker, Gunter Hampel, Tomasz Stańko and David S.Ware among others, while his several majestic solo albums, such as Air Above Mountains, underlined his ability to use the keyboard as a source of great orchestral richness.

Taylor had quite a mischievous side to his character that often led to slights on other musicians, but his influence, heard in anybody from Don Pullen and Matthew Shipp to Craig Taborn, Vijay Iyer and Alexander Hawkins, has been immense. A rebellious, subversive and cerebral figure, Taylor was a very complex person, a man fully aware of many kinds of minority status who challenged stereotypes and claimed ownership of his aesthetic, professing as much in the expression Dark To Themselves.

– Kevin Le Gendre
– Photo by Joe Chonto

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