Friday, February 17, 2012

Cecil Taylor: Conquistador!

How can Cecil Taylor be described?  He is a pianist, but also a percussionist (the piano, including his 96-key [yes, 96!] Bosendorfer, is after all, an inherently percussive instrument), and a poet, as well as a pioneer. 

From his 1956 album Jazz Advance to his famed performances in Europe six years later that were as free an expression in jazz (or any music, for that matter) as there was at the time to his mid-60s records with Blue Note to the string of solo and "unit" albums in the 70s and 80s that cemented his fame/infamy and to recent endeavors, Taylor has been a true original, totally committed to his music.

He is not an "easy listen" like so many "easy listening" pianists are and his playing is "out there" or "avant garde" or "free."  But, for those who are willing to follow the overall sound, the integrated playing in groups and the staggering range of patterns and scales he uses in solo performance, the effects can be spine-tingling.

The fact is, Taylor's technical expression is virutally unparalleled.  His speed, power, dexterity, stamina, dynamics, and complex lyricism are awesome and staggering.  Yet, even when he accompanies a soloist in a band setting, he draws attention for the inventive ways in which he uses scales and clusters of notes to help clue the soloist to any number of directions.  Taylor can be appreciated in very different ways by listening to his solo work and that with his bands or "units."  While much of the time is playing is so spectacular in its power, there are also those instances where a softer, more contemplative, but always creative, side shows.  There are even moments of sweet melodicism and a yearning lyricism.  Taylor often has stated that he thinks of dancers when he composes and plays, which is an interesting insight into his performance style.

Maybe listening to Taylor can be too much work.  But, a modicum of effort has, in this case, proven to be highly rewarding.  Certainly, the easiest of Taylor's music to listen to are the records before 1962, especially his Jazz Advance album, records like Love for Sale, or the Candid recordings like Air.  But, his commitment to a freer sound afterwards can be breathtaking.

The first album YHB heard of Taylor's some twenty years ago was the Blue Note album, Conquistador!, recorded in Fall 1966.  Here, the pianist brought in two bass players, Alan Silva and Henry Grimes, one to pluck and strum his instrument, while the other primarily used a bow to add a different sense of color and time.  Two horns were included, with longtime associate Jimmy Lyons, an alto sax player who was criminally underrecognized for his ability to work in sync with Taylor and construct solos of invention and power, and trumpeter Bill Dixon, who transcended the upper-register blowing that most players strive for and played with a calm and clarity that is a nice foil for both Taylor and Lyons (Dixon reunited with Taylor in a live trio setting about a decade ago.)  The great Andrew Cyrille on drums provides an elastic sense of rhythm and time for the soloists and he integrates very readily with the bassists.

The title track may have one Taylor's best theme statements, or heads, one that shows that his sense of melody is strong, despite all the attention he gets for his soloing, and which is played so well in harmony by Lyons and Dixon.  And, the way the pianist accompanies the horn players and works with the rhythm section shows the care with which he crafts his compositions and works with his "unit."  The other piece, "With (Exit)", features particularly strong solos from Lyons and Taylor, while the bassists perform beautifully in interplay.  The CD has an alternate take of the latter tune, as well.

There will be many Cecil Taylor albums highlighted on this blog because in the opinion of YHB, Taylor is up there with Coltrane, Coleman and Davis as one of the great masters of jazz from the mid-1950s onward.  Fortunately, I had the opportunity to see him play at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City in 1999, when he was 70, but playing with the energy and focus of someone decades younger.  He has been frequently known to literally collapse from exhaustion, physical and mental, after a performance.

Indeed, a few years ago, when Taylor was 80, he flew from Norway to Germany to perform a concert, arrived early in the morning, rested briefly, went for a very advanced soundcheck and played for four hours, rested briefly again, came back and played for three more hours, even as some of the crowd filed in early for the show, and then played his set of maybe 75-80 minutes.  This in his eighth decade of life!

He is now about 82 or 83 and still performing, while hardly recognized outside of his fans.  He deserves more attention for what he has done and still does, but it does take concentration and focus.  The results, however, are well worth the investment.

Cecil Taylor:  Conquistador!

1.  Conquistador  17:51
2.  With (Exit)  19:17
3.  With (Exit) (alternate take)  17:10

Bill Dixon:  Trumpet
Jimmy Lyons:  Alto Sax
Cecil Taylor:  Piano
Henry Grimes:  Bass
Alan Silva:  Bass
Andrew Cyrille:  Drums

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