RIP, Cecil Taylor (1929-2018)

Learning from the fierce pianist's intensity

My favorite Cecil Taylor story is secondhand. I used to see him play at the Knitting Factory in the late 1980s when I was fortunate to live a few blocks away. I would often sit in the audience with Irving Stone and his wife, Stephanie. (It’s after Stone that John Zorn named the venue he founded, the Stone.) Taylor was late to a show one night, and Stone told of an epic late appearance by Taylor decades earlier. Taylor had been booked on a boat that would tool around Manhattan while jazz musicians played for a willingly captive audience. Taylor, who was often late for shows, Stone said, was warned not to be late because the ship’s schedule was unforgiving. The night of Taylor’s performance arrived, as did the boat. The audience boarded, along with other scheduled musicians. But no Taylor. They waited briefly, but the schedule had to be kept, and the boat left the dock. And then, of course, arrived Cecil Taylor, running to the end of the dock, unable to reach the boat, his eager audience stranded aboard, watching his figure fade in the distance. Judging by how late he was to the Knitting Factory that night, Taylor had never learned his lesson, though of course his audience, me included, was going nowhere. We waited. He arrived, and blew our minds.

I reviewed a massive Cecil Taylor box set many years ago, and I mentioned to a friend what I’d been working on, and he asked, teasingly, if I had managed to do so without using the word “cluster.” Cecil Taylor is the musician most synonymous with the word “cluster” (often employed by critics to describe his playing), except perhaps for Roedelius, Moebius, Plank, and Eno — and, as someone reminded me on Twitter, Cowell.

The walls of noise of Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton, and Godflesh and Slayer, and Last Exit and Machine Gun, translated at some point, for me, into a model of dense fields with cascading details. That all, in some way, I realize in retrospect, led me to focus on ambient music. Not ambient music as a refuge from noise, but as quiet form whose sublime intensity I had come to appreciate as having a kinship with noise, one of uniform-yet-chaotic pattern-fields best appreciated upon close examination, or upon utter surrender. It’s wrong to reduce Cecil Taylor’s music to its intensity, yet coping with and eventually reveling in its intensity is an important path that Taylor-admirers must walk. Ambient music rewards (if not requires) similar levels of dedication, notably patience and attention-paying. It’s almost certainly easier for someone ear-trained in Cecil Taylor’s piano crucible to find a way into ambient music than the other way around, but ambient listeners will find much reward in the wildly fluctuating systems of Taylor’s recordings if they take the time required.

Anyhow, my favorite Cecil Taylor album is For Olim, released in 1987 on Soul Note. It’s solo, and essential. Seek it out.

RIP, pianist, improviser, genius Cecil Taylor (b. 1929).

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