IN TRANSITION (Blue Note LA 458 H2)
Sides 1 & 2: Cecil Taylor / piano, Steve Lacy / soprano saxophone, Buell Neidlinger / bass, Dennis Charles / drums. Recorded: December 10, 1955, Boston.
Sides 3 & 4: Cecil Taylor / piano, Ted Curson / trumpet, Bill Barron / tenor saxophone, Chris White / bass, Rudy Collins / drums. Recorded: April 15, 1959, New York City.
New releases by Cecil Taylor, recorded a month ago or, as one of these recordings was, twenty years ago, are always events of great musical significance. This 1955 session is a particularly important one. It is Taylor’s first recording date and, perhaps more than on any other of his early LP’s, he defines the vocabulary, shape, and direction of his music. If his roots are clearly Monkish, he is already well beyond Monk, adding to the latter’s range of expression a greater density, darker tone colors and, above all, a greater rhythmic/harmonic flexibility; Easy to see how an early critic of this music, Gunther Schuller, might have focused particularly on the music’s expanded harmonic horizons, seeing it “as working primarily with the outer reaches of tonality” and even bordering on “atonality.”
Yet Schuller’s description, correct as far as it goes (there is probably nothing here that is actually atonal), was a case of misplaced emphasis. For Taylor is essentially a rhythmic player, whose harmonic explorations seem only part and parcel of his highly percussive approach to his instrument. It is the latter that is at the core of his music, even if there are other (necessary) results that follow from it. (Shifts in tonal gravity must thus be seen as a by-product of a more intentional rhythmic displacement.)
What makes this date such a success, however, may be that while this was not exactly a “working” band, it is one that had been together for a time and which had rehearsed for several weeks prior to the recording session. It is obvious that Taylor felt comfortable with the group, as he works with an astounding ease and freedom within it. He implies any number of ideas or directions while not really pausing to pursue any one for an extended length of time; through such an intentionally fragmented methodology, he manages to cover a wide range of possibilities, at the same time remaining concise. He likewise feels comfortable enough with the “rhythm section” that he is able to play both through and against its more conventional late-bop styling’s as much as with them.
And the probing, shifting substructure he builds behind Steve Lacy (particularly on “Charge ‘Em Blues”) is absolutely brilliant. Lacy, at his lyrical best, somehow maintains his poise and balance. The most important of these pieces, however, may be Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” in which Taylor, now playing solo, is free to push his innovative conceptions to the breaking point. He suggests various musical contingencies, suspends them, perhaps later picks them up, or else offers contrasting possibilities, as playing (or seeming to play) in two different tempos at once. (Recall, too, that few people at this time had even absorbed Monk’s ideas; but here was Cecil Taylor, for whom Monk had become only a source, an influence to be transcended.)
The 1959 date is less a success, though naturally still of interest. Much of Taylor’s work is (for him) just ordinary, and only occasionally (on “Love For Sale,” for example) do flashes of genius as profound as those of the previous session shine through. It must be that this particular group hemmed Taylor in more, as he seems less willing to depart from the more obvious (rhythmic/harmonic) sense of the pieces played. Similarly, his style seems in a state of flux; but while his lines are now sometimes longer, they are not as broken, and his percussive poundings serve more to merely punctuate than to shatter and suggest further developmental possibilities.
On “Carol / Three Points,” we do get an early glance at Taylor’s more structural concerns. The composition is in three parts, though the latter two are both very short. Still, Taylor’s conceptions here lead directly to his explorations on Unit Structures and Conquistador, recorded seven years later. It should also be pointed out that the voicing of the horns on this piece is fairly unconventional for the time, set as they are both in similar and contrasting motion.
Taylor himself, though, is the obvious focal point of these recordings and, for his playing alone, there is considerably more in a generally more favourable setting on the earlier date. That recording is likewise one of the most essential of his work from this period.
Henry Kuntz, 1975
Cecil Taylor biography:
Cecil Percival Taylor (born March 15 or March 25, 1929 in New York City) is an American pianist and poet. Along with Ornette Coleman, he is now generally acknowledged to be one of the innovators of free jazz.
Taylor’s first recording, Jazz Advance, was released in 1956, and is described by Cook & Morton in the Penguin Guide to Jazz: “While there are still many nods to conventional post-bop form in this set, it already points to the freedoms which the pianist would later immerse himself in.”
Taylor is known for being an extremely energetic, physical yet subtle player, producing exceedingly complex improvised sounds, frequently involving tone clusters and intricate polyrhythms. At first listen, his dense and percussive music can be difficult to absorb, often described as if playing “88 tuned drums.” He learned piano at six and went on to study at New York College of Music and New England Conservatory. After first steps in R&B and swing-styled small groups in the early 1950s, he formed his own band with soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy in 1956. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, it was often difficult to find work, despite landmark recordings such as Unit Structures, Nefertiti the Beautiful One Has Come, and a pairing with John Coltrane (Coltrane Time/Hard Drivin’ Jazz).
Taylor played and recorded predominantly with alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons from 1961 until Lyons’s death in 1986, along with drummers Sunny Murray and later Andrew Cyrille. Within that group, known as “The Unit”, the musicians developed often volcanic new forms of conversational interplay.
From the early 1970s onwards, Taylor began to perform solo concerts, some of which were released as the Indent and Silent Tongues albums. He began to garner critical, if not popular, acclaim, playing for Jimmy Carter on the White House Lawn, lecturing as an in-residence artist at universities, and eventually being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1973 and then a MacArthur Fellowship in 1991.
Following Lyons’s death, Taylor has played in a variety of settings ranging from solo (e.g. For Olim, Garden, Erzulie Maketh Scent, The Tree of Life, and In Willisau), the “Feel Trio” formed in the early 1990s with William Parker (bass) and Tony Oxley (drums) (Celebrated Blazons, Looking (The Feel Trio), and the 10-CD set 2 T’s for a Lovely T) as well as larger ensembles and big-band projects. His extended residence in Berlin in 1988 was extensively documented by the German label FMP, resulting in a massive boxed set of performances in duet and trio with a who’s who of European free improvisors, including Oxley, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Han Bennink, Tristan Honsinger, Louis Moholo, Paul Lovens, and others. Most of his recordings for the past several decades have been put out on European labels, with the exception of the unexpected release of Momentum Space (a meeting with Dewey Redman and Elvin Jones) on Verve/Gitanes. The classical label Bridge recently released his 1998 Library of Congress performance Algonquin, a duet with violinist Mat Maneri. Few recordings from 2000 have yet been published, though Taylor, now in his seventies, continues to captivate audiences around the world with live concerts, usually played on his favored instrument, the Bösendorfer piano that features 9 extra lower register keys. A documentary spotlighting the enigmatic musician, All the Notes, was released on DVD in 2006 by director Chris Felver.
In addition to piano, Taylor has always been interested in ballet and dance. His mother, who died while he was still young, was a dancer and also played the piano and violin. Taylor once said: “I try to imitate on the piano the leaps in space a dancer makes”. He collaborated with dancer Dianne McIntyre in 1977 and 1979. In 1979 he also composed and played the music for a twelve-minute ballet “Tetra Stomp: Eatin’ Rain in Space”, featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Heather Watts.
Taylor is also an accomplished poet, citing Robert Duncan, Charles Olson and Amiri Baraka as major influences. He often integrates his poems into his musical performances, and they frequently appear in the liner notes of his albums. The CD Chinampas, released by Leo Records in 1987, is a recording of Taylor reciting several of his poems unaccompanied.
Taylor is featured in the 1981 documentary film Imagine the Sound, in which he discusses and performs his music, poetry and dance.