Cecil Taylor, one of jazz piano’s most uncompromising pathfinders, died on April 5.
Cecil Taylor, Charles Neville, Bob Dorough and more, we bid you adieu.
ÒCecil Taylor has always hated me since I said he couldn’t play,” wrote Miles Davis in his 1989 autobiography. It could be said that his perception of Taylor, an avant-garde, starkly individualistic pianist who composed and played with a fierce intensity, echoed the opinion of the jazz mainstream. In fact, such was Taylor’s reputation that club owners on the ‘60s jazz circuit refused to give him work, lest his relentless atonality scare away the audience. Despite this, Taylor never once compromised his aspirations or diluted his output to appease popular tastes. Born in Queens, the young Taylor first became interested in music after hearing Duke Ellington’s drummer, Sonny Greer. This awakening would later influence his uniquely percussive approach to the piano, an instrument that he took up when he was six. By his late teens, Taylor was studying composition at the New England Conservatory in Boston. As the ‘50s commenced, he saw in jazz the means of exploring new musical possibilities. Leading a quartet which included saxophonist Steve Lacy, Taylor’s 1956 debut LP was Jazz Advance, whose title alluded to the pianist’s progressive take on bebop. After recording with John Coltrane in 1958 (for the LP Stereo Drive), a year later Taylor released the prophetically-titled Looking Ahead!, where he began to rebel against conventional notions of melody, harmony, and structure. Though it was released at a time when another revolutionary, saxophonist Ornette Coleman, was laying down the blueprint for what became known as free jazz, Taylor’s music remained fiercely individualistic. “I try to imitate on the piano the leaps in space a dancer makes,” he once said, describing a style defined by dissonant cluster chords and
“I TRY TO IMITATE ON THE PIANO THE LEAPS A DANCER MAKES.” Cecil Taylor
fractured melodic lines characterised by wide jumps between notes. In his thirties Taylor struggled to find work as a musician (dishwashing and dry cleaning were two jobs he took to pay the rent), but his fortunes improved in the 1970s, when he regularly performed in Europe and became famed for his demanding, lengthy solo piano recitals punctuated by screams, poetry and him attacking the keys with his fists and elbows. He also started to record with more frequency. The period from 1980 to 2002 witnessed a plethora of albums for free jazz indies such as Soul Note, Leo, and FMP, and Taylor began to receive the respect his groundbreaking sonic endeavours deserved. One of his final performances – in Japan, to mark his receipt of the 50 million yen Kyoto Prize for Arts And Philosophy in 2013 – proved his questing spirit and performing vigour were still strong into his ninth decade. “What I am doing,” he explained of his life’s work, “is creating a different American language.”
Where there’s smoke: (main) Cecil Taylor, player of ‘88 tuned drums’, at the Montreux Jazz Festival, July 1976; (below) in New York, 1985.