Cecil Taylor, the grand maestro of American avant-garde piano, will turn 85 this year. And yet despite his age and reputation as an innovator in the world of jazz (and other genres), his famously percussive, cluster-chord infused wild-style can seem as though it is less listened to than it is talked about. When you mention his name to a group of non-specialist listeners, you might get a dim flicker of recognition that doubles as skepticism—oh yeah, the free-jazz guy who’s really out there. Bangs his whole arm on the piano sometimes, yeah? Neither response is wholly incorrect. But like most shorthand riffs, these conventional wisdoms do exclude some of the most interesting details from the conversation.
For starters, contemporary music composers have known for a good long while that Taylor’s touch at the instrument—not just his peaks of loudness, but also his skill in quieter dynamics—is unparalleled; back in the 1980s, the pianist Ursula Oppens compared Taylor’s total command of the piano to that of Vladimir Horowitz in his prime, adding: “It’s a shame that thousands of classical pianists aren’t going out to hear him, especially since he’s developed very exciting new techniques.”
That festival also resulted in an 11-CD box set from the FMP label that topped a few jazz polls upon its release in 1990 (but is now completely out of print). Happily, after striking up a relationship with the FMP label’s founder, the Destination:Out label has started re-releasing some of these rare Taylor performances—both from the late ‘80s Berlin festival, as well as one-off dates from the ‘90s—and has thus become a critical contemporary source for anyone looking to get more recent intelligence on the pianist. Even Taylor’s hardcore fans—those who can tell the difference, on a moment’s hearing, between Taylor’s early-1960s records for the Candid label versus his two LPs for Blue Note in the latter half of that decade—may be unfamiliar with these titles, which go for insane amounts on the second-hand CD marketplace. So let’s check them out, one by one, to see what Taylor’s been up to in the decades after he revolutionized jazz performance in the 1960s.
I think of these reissues as a four-course meal: if followed in sequence, each setting can show you a variety of musical expression that may surprise you (especially if you assume that all of Taylor’s music is hectic and noisy). We’ll go slightly out of chronological order, and look at the 1991 solo concert The Tree of Life first. Solo recitals are a critical part of the Taylor oeuvre, and this recital is occasionally cited as a prime point of entry (as it’s less full-on hectic than some early solo sets, like 1974’s Silent Tongues).
Opener “Period 1” is a brief performance of Taylor’s abstract poetry, a gesture often used by the pianist as a sort of palette cleanser for the audience. And when the 44-minute track “Period 2” begins, we’re in a zone of extreme beauty: Taylor sounds a four-note motif very gently, then begins riffing on these notes, steadily building out chords—which in turn begin to suggest more daring harmonies. Even as atonality creeps into the melodic language of Taylor’s playing, he’s lingering in a garden of soft-touch gentility when it comes to his pianism.
Some people might steer you differently, as this is one of the rare Taylor albums that doesn’t feature his piano playing. And yet to others (myself included), there’s a growing understanding that Taylor’s large-ensemble work is a key part of his legacy.