Parker Burwell Toop credit Jak Kilby


Cecil Taylor - 88 Unique Years

Cecil has passed.

After his 88 years and immense and unique legacy. I will leave it to the professionals to write the informed eulogies and obituaries, but feel that I need to blog something to acknowledge the huge significance of Cecil Taylor’s death. Having been working on Barry Guy’s biography, which has included a visit to interview him at his home in Switzerland, I haven’t devoted any time to keeping the blog running. However, given Guy’s connections with CT - which include the exhausting recording Nailed (1990), and the fact that Cecil named (nailed?) him as his favourite bassist - it seemed apposite to salute the pianist’s  passing with a few words.

One of Taylor’s most famous quotes was that which compared the piano to ‘88 tuned drums’, and this is surely one of the most appropriate images for his tumultuous and thrilling work on the keyboard (only on the acoustic piano, no experiments with electrics at all, as far as I know). My first encounter with the piano-as-percussion and/or piano-as-maelstrom, was in 1982, when I chanced my hand with Silent Tongues, his solo album from the 1974 Montreux Jazz Festival. It has always remained one of my favourite recordings, and was rapidly followed up the purchase of the live 1962 trio,  known as Nefetiti, the Beautiful One Has Come, which was only released in 1975, and has henceforth figured in most lists of Jazz Top Fifties, being an epochal event both in Taylor’s discography and in group music in general. There really had been nothing like it before in modern jazz, and Jimmy Lyon’s alto work and Sunny Murray’s percussion have jointly received just praise for their contribution to the group sound and for pushing forward the boundaries for their particular instruments. All three members have now gone.

Cecil Taylor was born in 1930, the same year as Derek Bailey, who he also played with, as part of the gargantuan 1988 Berlin concerts, wherein he also improvised along with other British free improv giants, Evan Parker and Tony Oxley, and it is interesting to speculate on the backstage dynamics of that particular mix of spiky personalities and temperaments. Another child of that year was Sonny Rollins, who still  remains with us, and who is probably the last remaining giant from the fifties generation, the grandfathers of the avant garde of the music. It has become an utter cliche to say that a pianist is ‘Taylor-ish’, when one is looking for a lazy way to describe a style which is ultra-fast, dissonant, strongly rhythmic and densely constructed - Dave Burrell,Marilyn Crispell, Irene Schwiezer and Alex von Schlippenbach are examples of pianists who have been compared to the grand master, all of whom are themselves advanced practitioners, but ultimately different in terms of the effect that they have on the listener and the cumulative affect that they produce over time. A Cecil Taylor concert was an immersive experience, involving suspension of time and surrender to the laminar process of his playing. I usually found myself swaying to the flow of the music and even stomping out a beat with my foot, imposing a regularity of meter and motion when all seemed chaos if approached in segments. A ‘Heroclitian’ flux’ as Evan Parker once memorably came up with (not in connection to Cecil, it has to be said).

My final memory of Cecil Taylor is one, or rather a series of them, from hislong-lasting trio with Oxley and William Parker (The Feel Trio), from their residency in 1990 at Ronnie Scott’s Club. This was memorialised in the box set Two T’s For A Lovely T, which was also a sample of the obliquely allusive titles that he gave to his recordings, which deserve a blog to themselves. We managed to get a seat a few feet behind the 88 drums themselves, and my abiding recollection will be the gradually swelling pattern of sweat that started to cover Taylor’s shirt, seemingly correlating to the outpouring from the trio and the incredibly energy and musicality from the great man himself. By the end of the set, his shirt had changed colour, and the audience felt correspondingly drained. There was still another set to come, and it seems incredible to think that this was probably an average Cecil Taylor gig!

Given the lack of a figure of comparative influence in the modern era, we can only celebrate the life and works of one of the few individuals in jazz who were possibly possessed of genius. If that seems absurd, consider how many others have produced a school of playing that no-one has yet even approximated, and think of anyone else that could step into his trainers now that he is gone. I feel privileged to have been able to see him in action on a few occasions.

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Banner and book cover photo credit: Jak Kilby