On April 6, I was in Brooklyn, walking the streets of Park Slope. Didn’t realize Cecil Taylor had died the previous day, quite close to there.
The New York Times ran a fitting and substantial obituary. Nate Chinen wrote one for NPR, making note of Taylor’s 2016 collaboration with dancer Min Tanaka. And I was intrigued to learn that Taylor made at least two appearances on Marian McPartland’s NPR show, “Piano Jazz.” Their rapport is downright charming.
Taylor is a flag bearer for avant-garde jazz, of course, but his sound was built on the jazz tradition. My wife, after a few years of hearing the clicks and scrapes of free improv on my stereo, once walked in relieved to hear Cecil Taylor — something that, to her ears, resembled “normal” music. I had to break it to her that this was considered difficult avant-garde stuff, but the point is that she could hear the jazz in it.
We writers lazily compare any “outside” piano to Cecil Taylor, but Taylor’s style and language are unique and easily recognizable. At one point in that “Piano Jazz” installment, Taylor describes creating his own scales early on, because he didn’t want to practice the traditional ones. McPartland has him play one of those scales as an example, and it sounds like Cecil. He goes on to play some chord clusters as well.
Then there’s the precision. Listeners notice it more when Taylor slaps the keyboard with a forearm, but for me, his ten-fingered passages avalanches are where the real magic happens, where he starts rumbling away but never loses that Swiss-watch precision. That’s Cecil Taylor speaking his language to you. I’ve got Air Above Mountains on the turntable now, a solo album so richly steeped in that language, and I’m feeling so grateful that I got to see Taylor perform twice.