Review Summary: ultimate silent arena senses ride naked in souls
When offering a retrospective of someone so controversial in their mystique as Cecil Taylor, I don’t know to whom I speak. Newcomers, occasional dabblers, and long-time disciples alike could bear witness, but every gesture towards Taylor feels like an introduction. The famous liner notes for Unit Structures
were idealistic in their poetry, and seemed to ramble. By contrast, Taylor’s creations were erudite, all the more destructive - and constructive; will explain - as the pianist never fell prey to the clout of his own passion. You could listen to Ornette Coleman and, despite the psychological complexity of his work, still come to know him, as his emotions often flared up and branded his music in flashes. Taylor is tougher to peg.
It’s not for lack of personality: he was a bit notorious for his outspokenness within his purview. He offered a cutting critique of composer John Cage for his lack of consideration for jazz, while propping up his own learnedness of European music: “I’ve spent years in school learning about European music and its traditions, but these cats don’t know a thing about Harlem except that it’s there
.” Blunt, certainly, but elsewhere he would write more ambiguously and almost with interdisciplinary artistry, musical and scientific. When introducing you to Cecil Taylor, I’m doing double, triple, and quadruple takes, as his persona seems limitless: at times, earnest and methodical, at other times, radical and even sardonic. But, it would be a tragic mistake to call him, and this particular album, random.
Those newly acquainted with Unit Structures
may be tempted to call it aimless, while being a bit more forgiving to the masterworks of Taylor’s peers, who played with more (perceivable!) emotion and chutzpah (Bill Dixon, Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman). Taylor had conflicting modes, presenting split personalities, but with complete control over their respective behaviours. The music itself is often described as atonal, but not without purpose. Taylor was a self-described constructivist: “The emphasis in each piece is on building a whole, totally integrated structure
.” You can hear it in the paired saxophones (altoists Ken McIntyre and Jimmy Lyons) , who seem intrinsically bound as they alter and syncopate the titular “Unit Structure”. Drummer Andrew Cyrille was a new recruit, better serving as a backdrop for the other players’ controlled insanity. Taylor’s blueprint consists of: anacrusis, plain, and area. Basically, songs begin with a moody precedent, then develop themes, then spotlight soloists, and some variation from then on. There is method to the madness.
The underlying method is, and probably always was, advancing what jazz was capable of, drawing from European styles in the process and developing an identity both individually highlighted and collectively composed. He is sometimes mentioned in the same breath as Béla Bartók, while he personally cites Duke Ellington as inspiration (an American, but one who also drew from European composers). An example would be Taylor’s use of ‘clusters’, differing from traditional chords in their rapid, percussive nature. Prior to the onset of free jazz, relatively conventional forms of jazz were seen treated as mainstream entertainment; many prominent NY clubs stopped welcoming Taylor, as his sound was so European and steeped in avant-garde, despite him often insisting that his sound was a natural progression of black artists in the States.
I’ll admit, I’m not sure how to end this thing. I have a strong aversion to “goodbyes”, especially final ones. There’s a Cecil quote that seems applicable, though: “if you take the creation of music and the creation of your own life values as your overall goal, then living becomes a musical process
.” Cecil Taylor was adamant in this development, and his tenacity - his "rhythm-sound energy” - permeates all corners of his music.
March 25, 1929 - April 5, 2018