To many, pianist Cecil Taylor is one of the most forbidding figure in contemporary music. Wrongly labeled the man who brought atonality to jazz (he is never atonal), whose pieces are Brucknerian in length, compared more often to the European classical modernists (Stockhausen, Boulez, Messiaen) than to his idols Monk, Ellington, and Powell, there is no middle ground with Taylor, his music either chews you up or spews you out.
Taylor's ouevre since 1963, when he broke his ties to countable time, under-10 minute songs lengths and conventional song structures, can be divided into two: Taylor with horns, and Taylor without horns. In a band context, several things can be an impediment to easy enjoyment: there are typically too many things going on at once, a kinds of simultanaeity of drums, piano, and horn(s) roaming freely in different directions; the horns often scream; Taylor's structures reveal themselves less readily, and in general there is often, but not always, more than the human ear can take in immediately.
CD's that foreground Taylor's piano playing, typically solo, but on also on the rare occasions where he plays in a bass-drums trio, or duets with a percussionist, is really the place to start. First of all, what seems like anarchy actually has sound structural underpinnings that more readily assert themselves solo. Cecil basically has a storehouse of little blue motifs, they can be fanfares, little abstracted bop lines, train blues, Ravel-esque ballads, all short and clipped; (many recur, slightly altered, through his work, giving the impression of one big meta-piece; he often begins by rotating them around, contrasting them against one another, and thenstarts to dissassemble them into soloistic flights of unbelieavable density and speed and dexterity, often, as on Silent Tongues, culminating in earthquake runs down the entire keyboard that sound like tectonic plates creating new continents by means of massive seismic events. (Ever heard a piano scream?) Taylor has his own private cosmology, alluded to in titles and poems, wherein the registers of the piano have some sort of astral significance (bass=abyss, high notes=heaven), and there is much jazz-like call and response between these note groupings, stabbing clusters (fists and elbows) in the bass, waterfall flights of fancy in the higher register. Eventually the celestial logic of the improvisational flight of fancy reassembles itself into the next motif, and the process starts all over again of thematic announcement and juxtaposition, deconstuction into solo improv, and re-assembly into the next set of motifs. He can do this for 20 minutes, or four straight hours. And just when you think your head is going explode, Cecil will cool things out with teasingly gorgeous balladry, for as little as you can stand.
He is a virtuoso -- Tatum is really the only jazz pianist who can push simultaneity so far. He famously once referred to the piano as 88 tuned drums, and that is how he approaches it, with a percussive glee, orchetstral hugeness, and unbelievable precision. He has called his style an imitation of a dancers leaps through space, unlike his European classical counterparts, this is physical music and not hemmed it by its procedures. He is not like other free-jazzers, who often sound as though they are willfully ditching their skills to make a thrilling point. Taylor has got the chops, and a harmonic imagination that really does at first impression conjure up Messiaen and Bartok.
But don't let that fool you. This is jazz. The emphasis on primordial percussive rhythms (albeit more multiplicitous than "swing"), blue notes, show-stopping improvisation, call-and-response: despite the fact that Cecil has abandoned traditional 32- ane 12-bar forms, all of his procedures come from jazz. The way his solos build to dramatic crescendos comes straight from Louis Armstrong's sure-fire show-biz sense of a climax (which Pops said he got from Caruso, of all people; maybe Louis should be blamed for looking to European classical music WHEN HE FIRST INVENTED JAZZ, and not Cecil, who is much-maligned-by cultural chauvinists whose last name is Marsalis). Listen carefully to Duke Ellington's often ignored accompaniment to his orchestra. He is banging really unlikely chords with a most un-European physicality (watch his shoulders and back move in old concert footage). Taylor has said again and again to people who bring up Darmstadt that these Ducal moves were his starting point, that lead in turn to Monk and Powell, and CT just brought it into the space age.
Taylor only began recording solo concerts almost 20 years into his recording career, in 1973; silent tongues (1974)was his third such recording in two years, and was a critical, and in avant-jazz terms, commercial breakthrough for him, winning both Downbeat polls and putting him a little closer to mainstream attention. [Interesting to note that the world's most acclaimed and popular solo piano improvising concertizer, Keith Jarrett, released his first extemporaneous piano recordings almost simultaneoulsy; with all due respect to Jarrett, Taylor makes The Koln Concert sound like Elton John minus the singing. Same hackneyed soul chords pounded over and over again -- I revere Jarrett's current trio and his Dewey Redman quartet, but his solo shows are nauseating and tasteless, he's the anti-Taylor) Due to the relative brevity of the pieces and clarity of the programming, this is a good place to start if you're curious to hear a man who approaches the piano the way Jackson Pollock approached a canvas. This is music set free from the bounds of space and time, full of color and dynamics at the heart of some maelstrom. Cecil Taylor is not for the faint of heart, but if you like Ornette Coleman, post-1965 Coltrane, or Agharta, you are depriving yourself of the most technically sophisticated "Noise" you will ever hear if you don't check out Cecil. He is the Founding Father, having cut his first sides in 1956 and nearing 80, he is still wearing out sidemen and audiences young enough to be his grandchildren. And Cecil's noise is a human noise, varied thrilling, and exalted.
In the tradition of Ives, he's making a racket to wake us up.