Our Chopin

A Gift From Cecil Taylor

Some people decry Cecil Taylor as a composer because he rarely revisits pieces and doesn't provide song-form themes for others to play, just as some people decry Thelonious Monk as a composer because he was constantly revisiting pieces and worked almost exclusively with song-form themes that are played to distraction. Consistency is the hobgoblin of jazzcrit. What can be said with certainty is that Taylor, like Monk, has invented his own compositional method and his own approach to the keyboard and that they are indivisible. In the 45 years since he recorded Jazz Advance, he has crafted a unique vocabulary, a thesaurus of leaps, runs, skitters, eruptions, pauses, rhythms, melodies, thrusts, and counter-thrusts. In this, he is nothing unique, merely a member in a very exclusive club of self-invented pianist-composers. You want Chopin melodies, there's only one place to go. Same with Taylor, though melody is probably not what you're seeking from him.

I have no interest in whether Taylor's music will survive the next century as handsomely as Chopin's did the last, but I do suggest that in the realm of uncontained piano ecstasy, he is the modern analogue. Consequently, his every appearance is a gift, especially those rare American forays into concert halls, where the formality virtually guarantees as much attention to solo piano as to whatever unit he is leading. His February 28 performance at Lincoln Center, presented by the World Music Institute and Thomas Buckner, was typical, which is to say stunning. After only a minute or so of offstage guttural yowls and, I think, maracas, he hastened (black skullcap and pants; white, black, and gold blouse; rainbow socks) to the keyboard and began a characteristic buildup with blocked chords—some consonant, others dissonant, but all richly foursquare and spelled by canny rests. "Measurement of sound is its silences," he wrote a long time ago.

Taylor usually begins his extended piano works with poised motifs, building variations stolidly in a kind of foreplay before letting loose the climaxes of pianistic frenzy, the cascades and avalanches that sate the gallery and torment the disaffected. But the compositional authority with which he launches pieces has increased dramatically—from his first great period of piano recitals in the 1970s, through the miniatures and encore-length samplings of the '80s, to recent pieces that are at once mellower and more vigorous, possibly more composed, certainly bespeaking a greater composure. A superb example is Taylor's new CD, The Willisau Concert (Intakt), recorded in September 2000. Three of its five movements are under two minutes, providing easy entry for the wary, but it's the opening episode of the 50-minute first movement that overwhelms with impeccably plotted drama, wit, and command—the narrative skill of a vital composer.

So it was at Lincoln Center, where his sense of proportion and moment equaled his digital precision and amazing energy. The measured chords were followed by two-note tremolos parked in various keys, as though looking for the right room; rhythm figures that pirouetted in the air and landed in splat chords; and his fast-tumbling arpeggios, dispersed so that there was no time to take them for granted. Most remarkable about the first piece was an absence of repetition; one expected, even desired, repeats of the more daredevil conceits, but Taylor, drawing on an apparently bottomless well, insistently moved forward. Only the ending was tenuous; in fact, one couldn't be certain that he wasn't just pausing to peer at the music. As the moment for applause was missed, the recital took on the ipso facto temper of a sonata—only in reverse form, with a sort-of allegro following a sort-of adagio. The more aggressive second piece, or movement, unfolded with cursory melodic fragments, a brief passage that actually swung in a conventional way (he did it again, too, later in the set), a mass of overtones achieved without pedal, and his equivalent of riffs—worked-out figures played twice—before Taylor unleashed an orgasmic, foot-pedaled onslaught, if only for a tantalizing minute or two.

This time, the audience threw caution to the winds and applauded. The third piece, picking up from the second, was teeming and dense, but no less worked out. He used fists and the heels of his hands. One figure required the right heel to bound, quicksilver, over half a dozen clusters; in case anyone thought the passage was entirely serendipitous, he repeated it exactly. Then he began moving big climactic chords from the outer rim to the center, interpolating blues notes and a soupçon of swing, before increasing the tumult and suddenly relinquishing it to stake out a seven-note melody that recalled the theme to The Honeymooners. Overtones were still ringing as he took his bows.

The trio half, with bassist Dominic Duval and drummer Jackson Krall, was an altogether woollier affair, beginning with an interlude of Taylor declaiming words and affecting poses while Krall played on the floor and every other available surface besides the drums and Duval warmed up with double and triple stops. In these episodes, I assume that the words (most of them inaudible) are of less significance than the exercise of voice and body that Taylor conceives as part of the total process of performing. I've come to accept it, patronizingly, as a playful eccentricity, at least on stage, and sometimes on records: I like his baritone recitations on Chinampas, but can not abide In Florescence. Soon enough, he sat down and grounded the piece in bass chords, before applying both hands to contrapuntal figures that had the openness and clarity of ragtime. Really. And then: the deluge.

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