Cecil Taylor: a legacy of improvised piano

We’re nearing the end of an era, when the last of the 1950s jazz musicians are leaving us. As you may have heard, the great avant garde jazz pianist Cecil Taylor died two days ago. (He was born in 1929, only one year after Louis Armstrong recorded the last of his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens!)

Cecil was uncompromising in his idiosyncratic approach to music. I heard him live in concert just once, and it made a very strong impression on me. It was in the summer of 1988, when I was the saxophonist Gerry Mulligan’s assistant. Gerry’s big band was on a European tour, playing all the big jazz festivals. And one great thing about playing all the jazz festivals was that you ran into lots of great musicians in each town.

Although we were constantly travelling, I think we actually had a night off in Verona, Italy. So several of us walked from our hotel to an outdoor concert venue to hear the evening’s roster of amazing talent. I’m not sure of the exact order, but we heard Art Blakey’s band, a group led by John Zorn, and yes, Cecil Taylor.

Cecil played solo piano and it was stunning. For me, abstract jazz music is often better in person than on recordings, and Cecil displayed a musical imagination combined with a technical brilliance that I’ve rarely heard again. (Keith Jarrett at Carnegie Hall comes to mind.)

If you haven’t heard Cecil Taylor play before, his early work is a good place to begin. Here’s his rendition of Cole Porter’s “Get Out Of Town.” Notice how he caresses the melody, while interspersing more energetic, almost aggressive, bass lines underneath. This recording was made in 1959 and you’ll hear the similarity to movie soundtracks of the day and theater pieces such as West Side Story.

Cecil Taylor: Get Out Of Town

This live performance of Taylor’s is from 1990, about 2 years after I saw him perform:
Cecil Taylor: Stuttgart 1990

Here’s more about his life and music:
Cecil Taylor: NY Times obituary

Cecil Taylor can serve as an inspiration to all of us musicians who are finding our own, unique artistic voice through our music. R.I.P. Cecil Taylor (1929-2018)

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