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RIP Cecil Taylor

This article originally appeared on Ethan Hein’s blog.

When I was nineteen, I was flipping channels on TV late at night, and I stumbled on this:

I had no idea what I was seeing, but I was spellbound. I still can’t exactly verbalize what this music means to me, but I know it means something.

I’m especially puzzled about why I love Cecil Taylor’s music so much when I generally can’t stand modern/atonal/experimental composers. The fact that Cecil was mostly improvising has a lot to do with it. You can see Cecil’s thought process playing out in the moment, especially because he’s such a physical, full-body player. His music is challenging for sure, but I don’t sense any hostility toward the listener. The overall feeling I get from him is playfulness and joy.

I saw Cecil play many times in New York. I definitely had to be in the right mood. If I had had a hard day at work, then he could just be exhausting. But if I was prepared to keep up, his shows were transformative. At one show at the Knitting Factory, Cecil and the band started improvising backstage — singing, chanting, drumming on the walls and furniture. They gradually made their way to the instruments and transitioned seamlessly onto them.

I thought, oh yes, this is absolutely right. This video shows some of Cecil’s singing and dancing in its last couple of minutes:

Cecil’s debut album, Jazz Advance is one of my favorites, not because it’s his best one necessarily, but because it’s such a remarkable document. It includes this lovely Ellington tune:

Cecil is paired with a conventional bebop rhythm section, and the material is mostly conventional bebop tunes. They play the head, and then when the solos begin, Taylor launches straight into the unknown. The bassist and drummer do not follow him out. They keep doggedly playing normal jazz accompaniment, walking quarter notes and doing spang-a-lang ride patterns respectively.

It’s like listening to a Cecil Taylor solo performance superimposed on an Aebersold play-along record. It works musically better than you would think. You can hear the rhythm section thinking, to hell with this guy, we’re just going to keep playing the form, and Cecil thinking, to hell with these guys, I’m playing free jazz here. It shouldn’t sound good, but it does.

My favorite (relatively) straightahead Cecil recording is his exuberant take on “Jumpin’ Punkins” by Mercer Ellington:

Cecil’s album of improvised duets with Max Roach is justifiably famous. It begins with a brief solo performance by Max, then one by Cecil, and both are both must-listens. Cecil’s solo here is my absolute favorite recording of his.

Twenty-one years later, Cecil and Max did another duo show, and I was lucky enough to be in the audience for that one. It was a summer evening out on the quad at Columbia University. There was a big crowd, and people were dancing. That’s how free jazz should be experienced.

This album with Dewey Redman and Elvin Jones is a special one too:

I’ve tried playing some Cecil-style piano. But Cecil had incredible formal piano technique, and I have none at all, so I can only do a weak impersonation. I’ve had better results translating his style to guitar. It isn’t just a matter of being wild and uninhibited. You have to be both wild and controlled, both uninhibited and laser beam focused. I can only sustain that balance for short bursts. Cecil could do it for hours, across six decades. He was the best at what he did. R.I.P.

Cecil Taylor died on April 5, 2018. He was 89 years old.

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Ethan Hein
Ethan Hein

Ethan Hein is a Doctoral Fellow in Music Education at New York University. He teaches music technology, production and education at NYU and Montclair State University. With the NYU Music Experience Design Lab, Ethan has taken a leadership role in the creation of new technologies for learning and expression, most notably the Groove Pizza. He is the instructor of the free Soundfly course series called Theory for Producers. He maintains a widely-followed and influential blog, and has written for various publications, including Slate, Quartz, and NewMusicBox.