From Cecil Taylor Unit Structures

Cecil Taylor, the great jazz pianist, died last week. I write ‘jazz pianist’ but he was, in truth, uncategorisable, working in the left-field of free jazz, experimental contemporary music and classical. A great rhapsodic, abstract improviser, his work was always a challenge to orthodoxy as well as to the listener. His piano playing is a complex, improvised sound, highly percussive, ‘eighty-eight tuned drums’, as Val Wilmer put it in her book As Serious as Your Life. He was as influenced by Bartok and Stravinsky, Stockhausen and Elliot Carter as by Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington, Ornette Coleman and Thelonious Monk. ‘I am not afraid of European influences’, he told the critic Nat Hentoff. ‘The point is to use them, as Ellington did, as part of my life as an American Negro.’

Raised in Queens, New York, he went on to study classical piano at the New York College of Music and the New England Conservatory. His earliest recordings were comparatively conventional jazz, but he soon moved in innovative and sometimes strange directions. ‘What I am doing’, he said in 1994, ‘is creating a language. A different American language.’ In fact, Taylor created a different language. Full stop.

Alex Ross, who called Taylor ‘the untouchable emperor of the art of noise’, observed that ‘When dissonance and complexity build to a sufficient degree, works of classical, jazz, or rock descent can sound more like one another than like their parent genres.’

Taylor developed great improvising relationships with other musicians, especially alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, the mainstay of the Cecil Taylor Unit, Max Roach, Albert Ayler and Sunny Murray. he made landmark recordings with his Cecil Taylor Unit, including the 1966 Unit Structures. But my favourites have always been his solo work, especially his tremendous trio of live albums from the 1970s, Indent (1973), Silent Tongues 1974, recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival, and probably my favourite Taylor album, and Air Above Mountains (1976). So, here are a sample from those albums. The final track is Taylor’s haunting, sublime tribute to Ornette Coleman at the latter’s funeral in 2015.


Indent, 1973


Abyss, from Silent Tongues, 1974


Crossings, Pt 1 & 2, from Silent Tongues, 1974


Air Above Mountains, 1976


At the funeral of Ornette Coleman, 2015


  1. Charles Molloy

    Wow. Mr Malik. I’ve been following your blog for a while now and always interested in your selections from the web, your views and approach to contemporary issues ….. but then suddenly boom! You are also taken with Cecil Taylor and his departing from us. I was not expecting you were interested in him. Taylor has been such a measure for me since I first heard his Historic Concerts album with Max Roach. After that I tried to catch him live in as many places as possible …. 1989 on the South Bank RFH .. a double bill with Roger Woodward as part of the Arts Council Contemporary Music Network. Woodward playing Morton Feldman on the evening followed by Taylor …. a life changing evening for me. After that I managed to catch him at several shows during his 1988 residency in Berlin playing with all those drummers .. Moholo, Bennick etc. Highlighting for me that week not with a drummer but his workout with UK Guitarist Derek Bailey. Another hero never to be forgotten. Finally I had the good fortune to spend a week exploring the show dedicated to the great man at the Whitney in NY a couple of years ago …. He played at the opening and I couldn’t make it and it seemed unlikely he would play again …. but he did, towards the end and I was there to hear. I have been reading the obituaries all week and listening to his recordings again. I still cannot quite articulate why he is so important to me. Like Bailey he never wavered from his vision. I have searched all that’s been written since he passed for some inkling of what it might be …. but very little new insights have appeared. It’s now so quiet without him. So glad to have all those recordings by him. Lets hope even more will start emerging. I do like what you write ‘A wonderful rhapsodic improviser, his work was always a challenge to orthodoxy as well as to the listener.’ His touching hymn to Ornette was beautiful. I have thought that no pianist should attempt to play for him at his service … but that two angels should sing him to sleep …. Cyrille and Oxley together … at each side of the alter. That would be beautiful. Both with full kits. I am pleased that you liked his work. He cannot be replaced. CM

  2. Les

    Cecil Taylor was also a very innovative poet as well. In fact, some of his writing is almost a translation into words of what his music is like–little cells exploding in a thousand different directions, yet all with his incredible sense of how to organize sound. It would be nice if someone would publish an anthology of his writings, including, by the way, transcriptions of some of the performances he gave where he would mix the spoken word with his music. Talk about a different American language! We need more of that.

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