Pianist Cecil Taylor was born in New York City in 1933 and has lived there ever since. His urban life seems to have been important in the development of his musical aesthetic. ‘What makes jazz unique’, he has said, ‘is the compression of energy into a short period of time and that, in turn, is a reflection of what the machine has done to our lives in metropolitan areas of America.’
Entering jazz after intial interest and prolonged study in the academic musical world, he has been recording infrequently since 1956. All his records show a deep appreciation and an intelligent development of the work of older musicians. His appreciation of Duke Ellington is evident in his concern for tone colour, both in his own playing and in the playing of the particular musicians he employs. As an example, consider the use of the metallic clours of saxophonists Archie Shepp and Jimmy Lyons4 and the use of a drummer Dennis Charles, whose hard brilliant sounds contribute much to the urgent mood of many of his performances—Air3 is a good example. Like Ellington, Taylor seems to be gifted with a strong visual imagery which acts as an aid to his composition. In an attempt to explain his composition Bulbs7 he says ‘if you stand at the north-west corner of a certain park in New York City you will see—particularly in the evening—reflections of multipleshaped cubes in the distance when you look into the water below and
Secondly, we can see in Taylor’s work the extension of many of Thelonious Monk’s methods. He recalls Monk in his highly percussive playing, in his compositions and the melodic structure of much of his improvisation, in which, as Gunther Schuller has already noted, ‘there are passages in which the overall shape and direction take precedence over the actual notes,’ and above all in his conception of the way in which a jazz group should function. Taylor’s playing in accompaniment to a soloist, like Monk’s, is very active, oriented towards giving further harmonic and rhythmic impetus to the other musician and towards producing a more integrated group performance. But whereas Monk’s accompaniments preserve the figure-ground relationship by their economy, Taylor’s are more like collective improvisation. Many notable performances of this type are available on record, especially in the Looking Ahead album, where he plays with vibraphonist Earl Griffith; on occasion, however, as in his playing behind Bill Barron on Matystrophe2 the soloist seems overpowered by his forceful intrusion, and the attempt is a failure.
The distinctiveness of Cecil Taylor’s playing, however, does not arise only from his development of the jazz tradition. His extensive study, with private teachers, at the New York School of Music and later at the New England Conservatory, assisted him in the development of an instrumental command unrivalled in jazz at present, and acquainted him with European music. His improvisational talent seems to have been nourished rather than stifled by this acquaintance. He apparently derives at least some of his direction from the piano music of Bartok and constantly uses harmonic material which, though easily acceptable in the academic world, can be considered ‘dissonant’ within the jazz context. It is hard to ascertain whether he respects the prevalent practice of basing his improvisation on the harmonic framework provided by the composition; if he does, his playing certainly demonstrates the arbitrariness of the limits previously imposed upon this practice. It is certain, however, that these departures re used to very good effect: the use of such a wide tonal area is largely responsible for the strangely disquieting emotional mobility in his playing. No other improvising musician in jazz has made such extensive and creative use of European harmonic thinking.
Taylor also seems interested in the rhythmic possibilities offered by European music. His latest record indicates that he is attempting to explore the possibilities of non-metrical rhythmic organizations, and it will be interesting to see whether his future work will continue in this direction. (Although much has been written about Ornette Coleman’s use of non-metrical rhythm, it would seem that much of Coleman’s playing is arhythmic and that his maximum impact is often derived from an unusual and highly developed conception of melody exercised over a comparatively primitive rhythmic structure.) Earlier records show that, while Taylor’s rhythmic ideas were always interesting, they were not properly worked out. In one interview Taylor has pointed to Miles Davis as a jazz musician whose rhythmic ideas impressed him,
The comparatively small amount of Cecil Taylor’s recorded work shows him to be an intelligent and tremendously energetic improvisor who attacks and restructures every aspect of his material and an innovating musician who has found a place in the jazz vocabularly for much new material. Since his entry into jazz he has never ceased to produce strong, beautiful and arresting music; despite this he has never succeeded in finding more than intermittent work as a musician. Critics and the general listening public have paid him scant attention, and musicians themselves do not seem to be interested in his work. (The only musician I have heard who shows his influence is the English pianist Stan Tracey.) It is lamentable that any disruption of premature definitions of what jazz slould be is so bitterly resented.
Cecil Taylor can be heard on the following records: