For most of my adult life I have been familiar with 4 early Cecil Taylor albums; 'Jazz Advance' from 1956, 'Looking Ahead' from 1958, 'Love For Sale', 1959 and 'Jumpin' Punkins' from 1961. (Please note the spelling of the latter - it is 'Punkins' and not 'Pumpkins') Now, if you were to read reviews of any of these 4 albums the review would probably end with the suggestion that the album being reviewed was an ideal introduction to the music of Cecil Taylor. Compared to his later albums I wouldn't disagree that any of the earlier ones are more accessible, but maybe there is one of these 4 that is the most recommendable. On all 4 we find Cecil Taylor's playing contains elements of the neo-classical composers of the 20th century mixed with the undeniable ability to 'swing'. The influence of Bartok has been mentioned but I am reminded more of Prokofiev. Ok, so no recording of Cecil Taylor is going to be for the fainthearted! I don't recognise any significant change in style from the first to the last of the albums mentioned here, but there is a change in the ingredients and, depending on your preferences, you will like one album over another.
Starting with 'Jazz Advance' we have 5 trio tracks and 2 with Steve Lacy on soprano sax. Not everybody likes soprano sax but I feel he blends in well with the trio. Of the tunes played 4 are standards and 3 are by Mr T. It might take a few hearings to work out just what is going on with the standards! By 1956 he was already leap-years ahead of anything being done by anybody else.
'Looking Ahead' came in 1958 - what a year that was for recorded jazz - and this is a quartet with a vibes player called Earl Griffith. I find the gentle sound of vibes is an ideal foil to Mr T's percussive playing. There are 5 tunes by Mr T and one by Earl Griffith and there is much serious swinging to be enjoyed.
'Love For Sale' came next a year later and features the trio playing 3 Cole Porter tunes and 3 Taylor originals with the addition of Bill Barron, tenor and Ted Curson, trumpet. Perhaps Mr T's treatment of Cole Porter's well known standards is the most remarkable feature of this album. Again, it might take a few hearings to understand just what is going on here.
Finally 'Jumpin' Punkins' came from 1961. Were you to have blindfold listen to the first track you could be forgiven if you thought you were listening to an Ellington small group with Cecil Taylor at the piano rather than The Duke. It is indeed an Ellington tune and Clark Terry is a member of the assembled octet. It is very enjoyable and I suspect there is nothing like it in any other Cecil Taylor recording. The second track is a quartet with Steve Lacy again whilst the final 2 tracks are trio alone.
The one member of the trio apart from Cecil Taylor who plays on all 4 of these albums is the bass player; Buell Neidlinger. I feel it important to mention that as his contribution to the success of all these albums cannot be overstated. So the winner is........?
Over more than 50 years I have returned time and time again to 'Looking Ahead' - it is exciting music and the addition of the vibes is a perfect compliment to the trio. If you don't enjoy this you won't enjoy any of the others!