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.