Sunday, April 08, 2018

A Personal Appreciation of Cecil Taylor

Playing right now: Cecil Taylor's appearance on Piano Jazz from 1994

I took a series of notes a few nights ago for an album review I was going to post here. Then on Friday, I received the devastating news that Cecil Taylor, the great pianist and figurehead of all that is avant-garde jazz (and more) has died at age 89. Yes, I find it devastating because of Cecil's stature in music, and the fact that he was one of THE few surviving revolutionaries on the level of John Coltrane. (In terms of that large stature, Sonny Rollins is one of the only ones left). But I connected somewhat with Cecil personally several years ago, so his death hits closer to home.

I'm not going to attempt to do a biographical salute to Cecil. For one thing, he probably wouldn't be into that and there are several out there right now that surely do a better job of explaining his approach to the piano and how it changed jazz and the idea of improvisation.

My earliest exposure to Cecil's music came around my senior year of high school. I was hanging around with my friend Steve Heineman, who was always willing to throw something on the turntable to open my ears to new things. (Steve played in punk bands but was well-versed in jazz and prog-rock.) He had a copy of the second volume of the Foundation Maeght Nights album, which picks up where Volume 1 left off, about 30 minutes into a performance. Without any pretense, the record drops you into the middle of a blistering attack on the piano amid wails from the saxophones of Jimmy Lyons and Sam Rivers, topped off with a barrage of drum rolls from Andrew Cyrille. Steve only played about a minute of it to give me a grasp of the intensity, which continues for 34 minutes. And there's still another album's worth of material from that performance. Clearly this pianist required some commitment from the listener.

A few months later I found a copy of 3 Phasis at the library and checked it out. The continuous piece was banded into shorter sections that ranged from soft and delicate to a glorious racket. While some the squonk they produced felt great, at times it got a little too intense for me. Still, I was intrigued.

Fast-forward to my birthday in 1990. My friend John Young, who was living in Charlottesville, North Carolina for a year, made me a tape of two Cecil albums that had been given to him, Conquistador and Live at the Cafe Montmartre (half of what was later released as Nefertiti the Beautiful One Has Come). The tape arrived right around the time that A&M had released In Florescence, a trio album that dared to get the pianist to play music in the five-minute range. I liked that record and played it on my college radio jazz show, but knew that I needed to hear his earlier work.

I practically wore that tape out. The two side-long pieces on Conquistador are astounding in the way they blended ensemble voices in sketchy themes (Jimmy Lyons on alto, Bill Dixon on trumpet, who for years I thought lost his lip during "With Exit" because of the way he was rasping; little did I know that was part of his style) and free improvisation that brings different contours to the music.

Cafe Montmarte scales the group down to just Cecil, Lyons and drummer Sunny Murray (Andrew Cyrille was on Conquistador). It begins with some lyrical gestures from Cecil, which emphasizes how out of tune the piano is, after just a few notes. Throughout the whole album, the trio sounds like they're having a real conversation, one person making strong points while the other two agree behind him. It was this album in particular that made me keep coming back, knowing that it was going to take a while to pick up on everything the group was doing.

By about the tenth listen, while either walking across campus with a borrowed Walkman, or sitting at home in my room, I felt like I got it. That might have been when I noticed that, somewhere in the middle of "D Trad That's What." Murray unceremoniously starts playing in tempo. Together, he and Cecil sound like Mal Waldron and and Ed Blackwell, or something like that. It's not bop, but an outgrowth of what Monk or Bud Powell had done. To some people it might have sounded like noodling nonsense, but I knew better. Something deeper was happening here. I needed to hear everything I could by Cecil, and read more about him.

About a year that happened I received a pull-out section from The Village Voice that coincided with some performance event that was happening in New York. Several essayists wrote about Cecil, describing key sections of his numerous albums. Some of what they wrote made sense, some went over my head, but it made me want to hear those albums, feeling like they would unlock some door and bring some wisdom and insight with it. I still have that Voice pullout somewhere, figuring that times like these would be a good to re-read it.

Then in 1997, my dream came true. Cecil was booked to perform at the Mellon Jazz Festival at a free outdoor show. As a freelancer for InPgh, I was determined to talk to him. Little did I know the herculean task of getting Mr. Taylor to agree to an interview. Twice I got him on the phone, and both times he set up times that we would speak - and blew them off.

After resigning myself to write the piece without fresh quotes from the man, I received a call from Mellon Jazz's promoter, who sneakily patched me into a conference call with Cecil. Outside of hearing Johnny Mathis say my name, there have been few thrills like hearing the maestro say, "Who IS this Mike Shanley?" It wasn't my best interview but I did get a few decent quotes out of him, along with a few haughty laughs when I asked how often he plays in the U.S.

The other info I gained from that talk was that he was interested in visiting the Andy Warhol Museum when he came to Pittsburgh. So the day after his performance, I drew upon my telemarketer's guts, called the Hilton Hotel, got Cecil on the phone and offered to escort him to the Warhol. If I remember correctly, he told me to call back in an hour - which I thought would be a blow off - and when he did pick up the second time, told me to meet him in the hotel restaurant where he would be having lunch.

Still expecting a blow off, I nevertheless made my way downtown and, sure enough found him and bassist Dominic Duval finishing up lunch. "Ah - the writer," he exclaimed as I stood at the table and introduced myself. He was in the middle of telling Duval about the time he tried to collaborate with Ornette Coleman, where their styles proved incompatible. I remember him getting ecstatic about his dessert and offering a bite to Duval, but not to me. Not that I care. I was happy that he paid for my coffee.

Sitting adjacent to this man who could thunder so loudly on the piano, I spent most of my time trying to make out what he was saying, his voice being so soft and low. He came across like an eccentric professor, extremely well-spoken and knowledgeable on a wealth of topics from around the world, and not one to rhapsodize about jazz music or elaborate on the creation of his own work, really. After lunch, he insisted on stopping at the hotel bar for a round, which became two, which meant that eventually, we never made it to the Warhol Museum before closing time.

That night, Thurston Moore was performing under the umbrella of the jazz festival, in an improvisational trio with drummers William Winant and Tom Surgal. Cecil said that drummer William Hooker had mentioned Thurston to him but he didn't know what it was all about. They did make it to the show that night, at Temple Rodem Shalom. The opening Vandermark 5 set really knocked my socks off but I thought Thurston's limitations were on display during his set. It felt like a lot of wanking and little in the way of real improv and connection with his conspirators.

Cecil, who had blasted some big-name jazz people during our conversation earlier in the afternoon, was much more complimentary. As he and Duval waited for their departing cab before the Moore set was over, Cecil gently said that Thurston had an interesting way of using sound and taking it places. At one point earlier in the evening, I ran into the publicist who connected me to Cecil during the interview. I told him that I hung out with the pianist that afternoon and he was really nice and friendly. His response - "Really?!" Maybe I had made a connection with one of the most impenetrable musicians. After all, when we parted ways earlier in the afternoon, he said he was glad to meet me.

Three years ago, I attempted something that I had desired to do for years. Still having a phone number for him, I called Cecil, quickly reintroduced myself and asked if he'd ever written a memoir because I'd like to help him write one. Instead of a quick hang-up, he said he had been considering it. Since I was going to be in New York for Winter Jazzfest and the Jazz Connect Conference, we made tentative plans to speak in person. I packed a few articles from JazzTimes to offer some credibility.

We never hooked up. At the Jazz Connect Conference, a few people reminded me of Cecil's eccentricities and shot my confidence. And the few times I called him, it rolled to voicemail. In fact there might not have been any room on the voicemail too. Not long after this, the story came out about the person who made off with Cecil's grant money from the Japanese government, which made me wonder if I could even get into the inner circle of Cecil Taylor's world now. Stories that appeared in an interview in The Wire last year implied that linear histories had as much to do with his life as following standard chord changes. In other words, nothing at all.

I just feel fortunate enough to have been able to sit at his feet (so to speak) and soak up his aura for those few hours in 1997. It's a nice memory to have while trying to getting lost during a few sides of One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye. 

Thanks, Cecil. I hope you were greeted by Lena Horne and John Coltrane in the next world. I know you adored her, and I'm sure you have a lot to discuss with him.

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