Cecil Taylor, I have read, is ill and has canceled a concert tour. Here's hoping he has a speedy recovery. And without wishing to be morbid, I decided that now would be a good time to write something about this great musician, who is 80 years old; I don't particularly want to write a memorial piece about him, and I hope this doesn't turn out to be one.
I'm not sure if I remember the first what the first Cecil Taylor music I heard was. It may have been Indent, a protean solo piano piece from the early seventies. I picked up that album in a junk store, and I remember being awestruck with Taylor's ability to improvise atonally at such length, with such intensity, and with such logic. The music made sense to me right away, even if I didn't (and still don't) always understand the principles that guide the construction of CT's music.
And it's obvious that the music is carefully constructed, even when it's mostly improvised. Taylor has made it clear over the years that he considers the idea of "composing" music in the western sense to be a highly dubious concept. But at the same time, his music hangs together in a compositional way - he seems to control the predetermined and spontaneous elements of his music in such a way that they form a unified whole. I feel this, even if I am not always able to look back at a Taylor piece when it is over and describe how that compositional unity was achieved. And others who have attempted to analyze CT's music have made similar observations. There's a wholeness to his music, and a mystery as to how that wholeness is achieved.
I have been lucky enough to hear Cecil Taylor perform only once, when he presented a solo concert in Atlanta in 1986. Taylor is also a trained dancer, and he began the concert, as he often does, with a series of ritualistic movements that slowly brought him from the wings to the piano bench. (He has said that "you don't just walk up to a piano.") At the same time, he intoned words and phrases, sounds and poetry; some of these vocalizations were intelligible and some were not. When he reached the keyboard, he began playing fairly sparely, but the music quickly increased in intensity and complexity. After about five minutes of atonal piano fireworks, large parts of the audience gave up and started leaving in droves. The rest of us were enthralled.
Listening to the recorded music of Cecil Taylor presents certain challenges. It's intense, the pieces are usually quite long, and the recordings are often hard to find. His two mid-sixties Blue Note albums (Unit Structures and Conquistador) are usually easy to find and are excellent representations of Taylor's music. They both feature his longtime musical partner, alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, and no piece on them is over 20 minutes long. Other Cecil Taylor recordings may feature one piece which lasts for an hour or two, spread over a couple of CDs or several LPs. Listening to these obviously requires an investment of time and concentration, which, however, is always rewarded.
It has struck me that the titles of Taylor's pieces can be seen as little poems, as mysterious as the music itself: "Air Above Mountains (Buildings Within)," "With (Exit)," "It is in the Brewing Luminous." The title which keeps coming to my mind, given the state of Taylor's health, is "One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye."