This morning I woke to the news that pianist Cecil Taylor
had died on Thursday in his Brooklyn home at age 89. Sometimes artists of Taylor's stature are so ingrained in your consciousness that they become part of you, whether they're alive or dead. He came out of jazz and belonged to it, but beginning the late 50s he bucked the tradition in every way, blazing a trail all his own. He was an artist in the largest possible sense, and he committed his life to making something unique and personal. He never faltered in that commitment, and like a handful of other uncompromising artists to emerge from jazz at the time—especially Ornette Coleman
—he endured years of neglect and ridicule before people eventually caught up with his original vision and recognized it for its genius.
I only got to see Taylor live a handful of times—I vividly remember a duo set with bassist William Parker
at the Jazz Showcase, back when it was at the Blackstone Hotel, as well as a dazzling solo set at Symphony Center—and those performances displayed the poetry of his art more fully than any of the albums I've heard. Sound and motion became one, all enfolded in a holistic, unbroken practice: the balletic grace with which he commanded his diminutive frame, the spoken word and sound poetry he intoned as he entered the stage, his whirlwind of activity at the keyboard. Though Taylor's recordings changed me more profoundly, that was only because I'd been able to hear them years before I had a chance to watch him play.
Taylor's Blue Note LPs from the 60s, among them Conquistador!
and Unit Structures
, turned me upside down—I was already enthralled by the free jazz of that era, but Taylor's music wedded a similar manic energy to his distinctive order and logic, creating a new point on in the jazz continuum. In his late-50s work, you could trace his rapid development over just a couple of years, away from something clearly influenced by Ellington and toward an engagement with time that was utterly new—the way he employed space in his improvisations felt just as revolutionary as his powerful use of clusters. During the 60s Taylor was surrounded by a group of devoted colleagues who helped him achieve his vision—saxophonists Jimmy Lyons
, Archie Shepp, and Steve Lacy
, drummers Sunny Murray
and Ronald Shannon Jackson, bassist Buell Neidlinger, trombonist Roswell Rudd
—and in many cases those players found their own voices through the partnership. It seems almost symbolic that Murray, Neidlinger, and Rudd have all died since December.
Taylor never stopped making demanding, inspiring music, and in 2016 he was honored with an exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York that celebrated his legacy, during which he gave the final few public performances of his life. On the brilliant 2002 solo recording The Willisau Concert
(Intakt), Taylor laid out the basic form he employed over the past few decades, where a note or a string of notes ushers in a torrent of ideas that flow from that initial kernel in generous and exhilarating ways—though his music could be overwhelming, there was nothing haphazard or chaotic about it. Of all the reasons to revisit Taylor's work, his death is probably the saddest, but I know I'll be pulling out some of my favorites in the coming weeks. Below you can hear the second part of The Willisau Concert,
which is really just a snippet of a single continuous performance. If you want more, head to the website of Columbia University radio station WKCR
, which is broadcasting a Taylor marathon all weekend.