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A Gift From Cecil Taylor

Taylor, who turns 73 on Friday (March 15), is ageless, and the image of him immersing himself in a no-holds-barred three-way rocket-launching extravaganza of the sort he has been doing for almost as long as I have been sentient is one of the modern world's tonic wonders. But unit music is another side of Taylor. The variational logic and overall symmetry of his solo piano works have a classicist sensibility. The combination of compositional finesse and beguiling virtuosity is hard to resist. I recall a classical musician in the late '60s comparing Taylor's recitals to Mozart (I still don't get that) and Ravel (sure), but balking after a few minutes of his band. No matter how you slice it or what you call it, a Cecil Taylor unit of any size plays unequivocal avant-garde jazz. That means that the whole concept of structure changes from motific development to group interaction. Whenever I felt my attention bludgeoned into insensibility, as I concede it was, I worked my way back in by focusing less on Taylor's exertions than on how Duval and (especially) Krall were responding to them. The monolithic blitz breaks down into component parts and, soon, such virtues of the solo set as variety and contrast reassert themselves.

But let's face it, details aren't as important in this context; it's partly the experience of being washed in blood that makes a Taylor juggernaut invigorating. He laid out after the climax, allowing bass and drums to bring the piece to ground. The follow-up was a brief, ancillary, and understated example of controlled mutuality. The first of two sweetness-and-light encores began with a minute of solo piano, joined in lockstep by Krall and Duval, who used a stick to stop the strings—quadruple stops. The second was Taylor alone, virtually whispering the notes and finishing with a rumble in the bass. The standing audience continued to cheer, but Taylor—I swear I never thought I would get to write this—knew when enough was enough and disappeared with one final bow.

The encore is always a special moment at a Taylor concert, because its very brevity has the effect of raising the wizard's curtain and letting you glimpse, in relative isolation, a few of his tricks. They have been highlights of his records since Silent Tongues, in 1974, and may have inspired—along with his 1978 triumph at the White House, when he stunned his detractors with a seven-minute performance—the shorter pieces that figure in several of his best solo albums, including Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! in 1980, For Olim in 1986, and the "Stone"/"Old Canal" sequence (five pieces, each under two minutes) on In East Berlin in 1988. Over a dozen years later, The Willisau Concert is on a par with them, and a major statement of Taylor's maturity. You hear nothing of the halting melody of, say, Air Above Mountains (no matter if it does recall "The Very Thought of You"), or the waspish anger of, say, In Florescence. From the first notes, you know you are in the hands of an absolutely confident composer. The piece works its way through short, self-contained units, set off by inhalation-like pauses, but never loses a variational integrity that keeps the work focused, and its routines are less like riffs than the repeats in a sonata. He even tosses in a Jerry Lee Lewis gliss. If you think listening to a piano piece for 50 minutes is daunting, consider the concentration required to keep it moving and coherent. Of course, you can always work your way backward from the encores. In either direction, this is a recital to hear.

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