Our Chopin


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.

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.