Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Cecil Taylor: Nefertiti, the Beautiful One Has Come

This is where it started.  At the Cafe Montmartre in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1962, the pianist Cecil Taylor and his compatriots, altoist Jimmy Lyons (who worked with Taylor for nearly a quarter century) and drummer Sunny Murray found the freedom to pursue a particularly creative, innovative and powerful way to play their music.

It was a revelation that was years ahead of its time and, sadly, kept Taylor from being hired for performances and signed to record deals for most of the rest of the 1960s, excepting a stint with Blue Note Records mid-decade that yielded the great Conquistador! and the remarkable Unit Structures.

But, it was Nefertiti that provided the template, the blueprint for the type of relentless emphasis on expression that drove Taylor to make some of the most challenging and technically brilliant music on piano heard anywhere.

This double-disc release on guitarist John Fahey's Revenant Records (also responsible for the fantastic Albert Ayler box, Holy Ghost, someday to be highlighted here) in 2007 provides music from both sets of the Montmartre gig.  With the exception of the standard "What's New?" the pieces are Taylor originals.

By original is meant a new direction for the pianist, who was already pushing at the boundaries of freedom in jazz from his 1956 debut Jazz Advance through the transitional recordings for the Candid label in 1960-61, featuring bassist Buell Neidlinger and budding altoist Archie Shepp.

When Taylor joined forces with Lyons, who immediately knew how to build off the leader's complicated foundations, and Murray, who sense of freedom in keeping time may have been among the greatest inspirations for the new direction, something happened that was profoundly new in jazz.

As many observers have noted, though, it wasn't just jazz that Taylor was working with.  He was classically trained at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and seemed intent on working with the modern structures of Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok and others as well as developing his unique approach to jazz.  Taylor has often commented that his music is attuned to the rhythms of dance.

This recording was made during the course of a seven-week engagement and, though the fidelity is not particularly strong (Revenant's remastering, however, appears to have done as good a job with the source as could be expected), the playing is so exceptional that the deficiencies in sound can be easily overlooked.  It is, however, obvious that the piano in the club, apparently an upright, was not in the best of shape, but, as an exceptional craftsperson, Taylor makes the most of the situation.

He is relentless, probing, and searching in his use of notes, chords, runs and octaves during solos and provides comping behind Lyons that drives the altoist to some spectacular playing--at once, very bop sounding, but also very new and innovative.

The fact that Lyons spent most of his career as a quiet, but essential part of Taylor's Unit, while hardly doing any solo work or collaborations with others, has left him out of most discussions when it comes to the many great alto players since 1960.

As for Sunny Murray, it is tough to qualify the pathbreaking mark he set, not just here, but also in his remarkable work with Albert Ayler, Shepp and on his own.  His constant shifting in time and meter, heavy use of washes of cymbals and his unearthly vocalizing (moaning?) during his playing are hallmarks of a style that was entirely his own.  Murray's expansive approach to the kit and expressions of freedom in time gave Taylor the space to employ the full range of his technique on the piano (even one as badly maintained as that at the Cafe Montmartre.)

In 1962, another great innovator of the era, Ornette Coleman went into a sort of self-imposed exile, frustrated with the machinations of the music business and, perhaps, his flashpoint role in the controversy over where jazz was heading.  Whereas Coleman's silence, lasting until 1965, was largely of choice, Taylor's own period of near-silence was anything but that.  He was just considered to be too out there until Alfred Lion signed Taylor for that two-album deal mentioned above.  After that, the later sixties saw a few recorded live performances, including a great French set with the great Sam Rivers in 1969.

It was not, however, until the 70s that Taylor started to build a small, but loyal audience and some measure of critical acceptance and praise.  By the end of the 1980s, he was finally recognized as the brilliant visionary he had been for more than two decades and, while his output slowed over time, he passion, power and explorations continued undimmed.  This blogger had the pleasure of seeing Taylor and a quartet at Los Angeles' Jazz Bakery in 1999 and has been a big fan ever since buying Conquistador! and then Unit Structures, as well as some of the Candid recordings in the early 90s.

He's still with us--performing less, but still receiving accolades, including the Kyoto Prize (though his $500,000 cash award was embezzled from the 85-year old composer by someone he trusted--the case against the criminal is, apparently, pending.)  Whether Taylor will be playing much in public is unknown, but, after decades of near-neglect, the piano titan has finally been accorded some of the respect he has long deserved.

And, it really started in Copenhagen over a half-century ago with music that plunged forward in a world not ready to accept it and which is still provocative, fresh and brimming with invention.  For the ultimate in adventurous jazz, Cecil Taylor's music can be a breathtaking experience.

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