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Forty-Four Thoughts for Cecil Taylor

A literary improvisation

The Complete, Legendary, Live Return Concert by Cecil Taylor. Oblivion Records, 3 tracks.

I had chosen eighty-eight as my starting point as there are eighty-eight-minutes of previously unreleased material on Cecil Taylor: The Complete, Legendary, Live Return Concert. And as there are eighty-eight keys on the piano, the instrument that Taylor played like no other artist before or since. That makes for a mystical coincidence. But in the end I discovered that eighty-eight was too many, and so I settled for half, forty-four. Structure, Taylor taught us, is meant to spark creativity—and you should be willing to abandon a structure when it no longer serves that purpose. Maybe kicking the proceedings off this way, with a discussion of poetics, will help set expectations, much like Taylor did at the beginning of many concerts, when he recited and chanted and danced his way on stage before sitting down to play.

Ideas in this essay will unfold in their discrete fashion, in their own way—then spin off into digressions and improvisations. Much like the cellular pockets of notes that Taylor explored in this concert. Listen to how he and alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons take a four- or five-note phrase, play it backwards and forwards again and again, until it mutates into an improvisational exchange. 

This essay will take more time for me to write than it will for you to read it, unlike the music that inspired it, which was experienced by performer and audience in real time. In any case, Taylor makes you question standard notions of time—not just the traditionally defined beats and tempos he had moved past by this recording, but the expected length of a concert. A continuous performance by four musicians lasting eighty-eight-minutes is a tremendous feat of endurance. And that was only the first set. The second set, which was previously released on Taylor’s own Unit Core Records in 1974, is also included on this digital album. (The date is November 4, 1973; the location is Town Hall in New York City.)

As a writing experiment, this is closer to Taylor’s earlier recordings from the late 1950s, when he was still using compositions by Cole Porter or Thelonious Monk as frameworks for his improvisations. It would take a poetic genius to approximate the music at this concert; I recognize my own limitations and won’t push in that direction. I’ll leave that to Nathaniel Mackey: no writer better captures improvised sound in words. 

In a more traditional review, I would have expounded at length on a few things which I’ll quickly state here, to demonstrate my technical competency. (And the technical competency of this quartet is no joke; their virtuosity is undeniable and thrilling.) Jimmy Lyons is one of the most criminally underappreciated alto saxophonists in the music. With a fleet and yearning sound reminiscent of both Charlie Parker and Eric Dolphy, he was to Taylor what Johnny Hodges was to Ellington: an indispensable side-person, the embodiment of the leader’s musical vision and needs. See, that’s some good jazz writing right there: look at how many names I dropped in one sentence! (Cecil had a cutting sense of humor, but I won’t try too hard here.) 

It is stunning how fresh the music sounds, fifty years later. Technical innovations have been standardized, instrumental virtuosity institutionalized, but spontaneous musical communication on this level remains tantalizingly rare. It demands a superhuman intensity of focus, a clarity amid the chaos. While listening to the recording, ideas for this essay kept drifting through my head, but just as I made to write them down, the music would shake all of that away and pull me back into its shifting web. 

Is web a cliché? If so, I should dig into it, squeeze through its tension like these musicians, who stumble across old melodies in the unit structure cells, reworking them into something mysterious and explosive. 

If this essay is to reflect the music, it must feel too rough to seem pre-composed and yet structured enough not to seem random.

I am ashamed to have come this deep into the piece without introducing the other members of the “Unit”—a regular complaint of mine is that the industry obscures the music’s collective nature by propping up a few big names. (We all have our favorite licks, little references to the symphony we have yet to write.) But this is gorgeously collective music. 

Drummer Andrew Cyrille is the one bandmember still with us, and he’s making sublime rhythms to this day. Listen to his dialogue, his punctuation, his propulsion freed from fixed meter time, his touch a masterclass in tone and timbre. Listen as he seamlessly transitions from brushes to mallets to sticks, wielding each with crisp articulation. 

Bassist Sirone is a veteran of New York City’s 1970s loft scene—an under-recognized period in jazz history when musicians ran their own venues and labels and festivals. (It is interesting how much of the original ephemera from the concert and old album were marked by Taylor’s interests in self-presentation and self-production.) Taylor, Lyons, and Cyrille made some special music as a trio, but Sirone is an ideal addition. He doesn’t try to perform any pre-written role but engages in the conversation as a full participant. Sometimes his frequencies on the recording can get lost in the powerful sound of Taylor’s left hand, but throughout I responded to his subtle instigations. 

The jazz historian in me wants to give more context on the musicians, to draw out their artistic lineages. In this recording, you can hear so many hints of the tradition, but the tradition understood as process rather than form—and that’s why I refrain from too much backstory. Those who know the names will want to hear the sounds. For those who don’t, please just listen first; there’s plenty of time to study later. 

I am primarily a musician, not a writer, and I’m a little nervous about writing the way I improvise, but I’m going to stick with it. Part of the struggle is the extra time it takes to verbalize and order a thought before transcribing it—there is an exhilarating freedom when you can leave behind words for sound. 

Hear how Jimmy Lyons works a phrase until it finally breaks from the pressure, as he switches from playing notes to squeezing cries out of his saxophone. Contrast that with the ceaseless flow of Taylor’s notes, the speed and attack of his fingers challenging but not quite breaking the piano’s tonality. Notice how Sirone and Cyrille interrupt or support that flow. Most important, acknowledge the clarity of the ideas, the dreamlike logic of the narrative. The musicians are always listening, responding, even when their individual sounds are annihilated into collective energy. 

Speaking of dreams, there’s always a moment when, after you finish playing or listening to Taylor’s music at full intensity, it feels like waking up from a dream. To engage with it is to enter a reality with clear rules that are nonetheless unknowable, informed by everything you are, yet like nothing you’ve experienced before. 

Cecil Taylor in New York City, 1991. | Photo courtesy Allen Ginsberg Estate

I had the extreme pleasure of playing in Taylor’s large ensemble for several years in the early aughts.[1] Attentively listening to the music now, as it inspires so many ideas and opens so many avenues for creative exploration, is a powerful reminder of how it felt playing with him. 

This is not how I usually write, but I didn’t play the way I usually play when I played with Cecil.

A great Cecil Taylor quote: “Can you dance to James Brown? Can you dance to Albert Ayler? Well, I can dance to both!”

My editor at The Baffler suggested I use this album as a way of talking about “how to listen to weird music.” I actually gave a talk on that topic to my mother’s senior ladies group once; it was quite fun. Cecil Taylor’s music can be particularly challenging, even when compared to his peers in the avant-garde: Ornette Coleman’s compositions are eminently melodic and swinging, John Coltrane’s impeccable jazz pedigree is evident even in his most outré performances. “Challenging”: the word comes up again, and we should remember that it is not pejorative. Rather, it is a spur to effort and creativity. 

Taylor’s music might have been more accessible if it was truly “free jazz”—releasing itself into ecstatic energy with less effort. But he was unrelenting in his commitment to working out musical puzzles. And so I ask the listener to focus on the communication, the internal logic, the build-up, the patience.

When I was originally conceiving of this essay, it had two parts: “How to Listen to the Weird”, and “Artistic Sabbaticals and Creative Pedagogy.” Two blew up into eighty-eight. (Or an attempt at eighty-eight.) Still, the biographical details of the recording are compelling. In the press release, Taylor is described as returning from a “self-imposed recording exile”—part of an impressive cohort of musicians who took semi-mysterious breaks in the primes of their careers, like Sonny Rollins’s retreat to the Williamsburg bridge between 1959 and 1961, or Miles Davis’s late ’70s disappearance. Between 1970 and 1974, Taylor taught first at University of Wisconsin, then at Antioch College, finding a crew of musical disciples who’d continue to collaborate with the maestro for decades. (A good portion of the large ensemble I played with studied with Cecil at one of those schools thirty years prior.) This brings up big questions around taking a break from the industry, the value of institutional pedagogy compared to lifelong mentorship—questions that feel particularly relevant to me as a middle-aged musician who does more teaching than touring these days. But let’s abandon this promising thread of investigation, as it starts to turn predictable. 

Taylor was always an interdisciplinary artist. His poetry was even more abstract than his music, with a similar sense of playful deconstruction and intense lyricism, though perhaps without the explosive power—that required eight-eight tuned drums. In his poems, he repeated words and phrases until they dissolved into sound, like Lyons’s clean lines melting into gestural shapes. 

Dance was also important to Taylor. His music doesn’t need a repetitive beat to feel acutely kinesthetic. (Even without bar lines, there is repetition—Taylor’s music definitely grooves.) 

Taylor didn’t use traditional notation. He would jot out notes, phrases, themes—written as clumps of letters: E, A, Bb, D#—on scraps of paper and spread the pages around the piano, to be referenced as needed. Nuggets of ideas were written out, points of potential connection mapped, but order and development (not to mention rhythm and dynamics) were to be realized in the moment. 

This recording was made soon after the entire band had returned from a residency at Antioch College. I imagine they had memorized all the cells of material, developed total fluency in a new musical language. The music is presented without translation, without the comfort of recognizable melodies or chords. Repetition of themes is the only handrail, and it’s sometimes hard to tell if they are real or imagined echoes.

I am aware that writing like this is risky and potentially embarrassing. Even if this experiment doesn’t work for you, know that it was the music which moved me to give it a try.

Jimmy Carter gave it a try. There’s a famous story about Taylor being invited for a “jazz at the White House” event in 1978 and performing a solo that inspired the president to chase down the pianist to shake both his hands. Carter said he’d never heard anything like it.

One of my personal Cecil Taylor stories involves Max Roach. I used to take lessons from Roach’s wonderful trumpet player Cecil Bridgewater, who once invited me to come backstage after a concert in Boston. I went to the dressing room door and politely told the doorman, “Excuse me, my name is Taylor. Cecil Bridgewater told me to meet him back here.” The security guard shouted backstage, “Hey Cecil! Taylor’s here!” Max Roach came running out, saying “Cecil Taylor’s here? Where’s Cecil Taylor?” He looked at me. “This kid’s not Cecil Taylor!” It was an unusual way to meet Max Roach. 

Taylor and Roach’s duets are amazing—that’s a digression to be taken up another time. 

Sometimes codes for the future are embedded in the past, as yesterday’s cutting-edge becomes tomorrow’s mainstream. Taylor dedicated this performance to Duke Ellington’s magnificent tenor saxophone soloist Ben Webster, who died a month before the concert.

Taylor Ho Bynum, Cecil Taylor, and Stephen Haynes perform at The Iridium in New York City, 2005. | Photo courtesy of Bob Windy

Even today, it is very hard to break musical rules in a compelling way. Imagine how hard that must have been for a queer Black student at New England Conservatory in the 1950s. On his earliest recordings, you could hear that Taylor had a jazz background, but by 1973, he was playing by his own rules, and any references are in the listener’s ears more than in his fingers. 

In previous writing assignments, I’ve tried to stay inside the lines, prove my basic skills, and explicate this artform as clearly in words as possible. I’ve saved my more playful, radical, and experimental tendencies for my music. But the very least I can do in tribute to Taylor is to take that chance and break the rules. 

Virtuosity is meaningless without vulnerability. This recording has both in abundance.

Music like Taylor’s is still marginalized today, but its radicalism in its time cannot be overstated. The pioneers of this music suffered critical derision, commercial disregard, exploitative business practices. But they persisted in fighting for their music, because it mattered. Some of the elders I have gotten to work with could be difficult, stubborn, irascible, inscrutable—but I never doubted the spiritual depth of their priorities and commitment. If only we could say that about all our leaders.

Taking it back to the music—which inspires, instigates, prods, challenges. When did “challenging” music become so scary? When did ritual and mystery and the unknown become anathema to scholarship? You can’t make music like this without a belief in something beyond ourselves. Nor can you make music like this without mathematics, research, study, boundless curiosity, and the willingness to experiment.

It also takes hard work, years of practice, commitment, and struggle—and we expect it to be easy to listen to? We celebrate hard work as its own reward in athletics, but despite the unfortunate competitiveness the arts field has adopted from sports, the simple rewards of hard work aren’t often celebrated. My best friend from childhood is an elite runner, and he knows the addictive mix of pleasure and pain that comes at the point where commitment and fatigue collide, especially when you force yourself through it. I recognize that feeling from playing with, listening to, and trying to write about Cecil Taylor. 

Taylor was a musical Scheherazade, his each musical story leading to the next. The joy of the process isn’t that every digression works—it wouldn’t be so exciting if they did, if all the motifs pleasantly culminated in major tonalities or grand finales. That’s lovely, and there’s a place for it, but the unexpected can be even more satisfying when the rub remains unresolved. 

Endings are a particular thing in Cecil Taylor’s music. As with “Autumn/Parade,” which takes at least five patient minutes to come to a watchful silence. Once you’ve pushed so far past the expectations, even the conclusion feels uncertain. The music isn’t over, it’s just that our window onto its universe has temporarily closed. 

It’s probably late in the day to introduce the title of the composition. Then again, I don’t really think of Taylor’s music as discrete compositions, but as an ever-evolving, interconnected universe of musical ideas, cellular musical solar systems spinning around each other and occasionally colliding in bursts of cosmic sonic energy.

I was disappointed this album is a digital-only release. I prefer hard copies of music—and of course, I prefer vinyl—but streaming technology does allow you to hear the entire first set continuously. Even on CD, the performance had to be split across two discs.

Cecil Taylor did not conform his concert lengths to technological constraints, even for a planned recording. The music would take as long as it needed to.

Playing with Cecil was very trance-like. The smallest of his ensembles that I played on had at least ten musicians, which allowed us to pass the musical baton and catch a breath. Taylor was in his mid-seventies, and his energy still overwhelmed us. 

I will reiterate my appreciation of all four musicians’ stamina of invention: the continuous intensity of the quartet on this recording is breathtaking. The dynamics ebb and flow across a tremendous spectrum—from moments of aching lyricism to hurricane-force floods of sound. Even when they are quiet, the energy never slackens. The focus remains absolute. On a purely physical and mental level, removed from its musical innovations, this recording is a testament to the possibilities of human dedication. The cleansing purity of well-earned exhaustion that comes from striving for the transcendent. 

There is an element of improvisation, especially when so expertly realized, that is akin to meditation. You are aware of all the thoughts floating through your head but continually letting them go to connect to the present moment, as a performer and a listener. Thoughts, fears, anxieties all inevitably arise—the brain does work at a furious pace—and by welcoming them, accepting them, articulating them, we can let them go. We can work out the puzzles of our own minds, embrace the unknowable together until it’s transformed into a creativity that needs no definition.

Cecil Taylor’s music is magnificently captured on this 1973 recording. It is worth the effort.

[1] When Taylor died in 2018, I wrote about the experience in Point of Departure, a fantastic writer-run journal dedicated to experimental music.