FMP/FREE MUSIC PRODUCTION - An Edition of Improvised Music 1989-2004


Hanno Rempel


Cecil Taylor plays piano solo - as we learn from his more or less chance recordings, he has been playing solo since the second half of the sixties, and more often in the seventies. This trend has continued to the present day. Parallel to this switch from ensemble to soloist performances, a new tendency can be seen in his works, which until now was a mere side-line. We are talking about a deeply thoughtful trait, a certain lyricism which has nothing to do with the traditional jazz-ballad we normally associate with this term. Echoes of Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and especially of Alexander Skrjabin can be detected - transformed by Taylor to reflect his own musical personality, they become echoes of himself more than of any past musician.

This contemplative-lyrical tendency is very evident in his solo recordings - not that he could not, or would not, put it over in his ensemble music. In a group situation Taylor is always the dominant character. This is due to his personal aura, the unbelievably intensive psycho-physical dynamics he emanates in his music. But it seems as though Taylor, when playing in an ensemble, feels he has to resort to other methods, to find ways of driving his fellow musicians on - or pull them along behind him, depending on which way you look at it. In doing so he turns first and foremost to those forceful, even "violent" sounds which have emerged since the end of the fifties - to concise sounds and complex rhythms which form the basis of his highly energetic music. One could almost say the other musicians are completely and utterly at his mercy.

We have now come to the principle feature of his music - expansive, eruptive, expressive, ecstatic. These characteristics have retained their central significance in his music to the present day whilst, at the same time, newer, more lyrical elements have been added. In other words, since the late sixties his musical vocabulary has been fundamentally expanded, but not basically changed. This results from his adherence to those qualities established around 1960, which produce an overwhelming consistency of style and method. This has nothing to do with a conservative or even reactionary adherence to old, established achievements. For: thirty years ago Taylor took such a colossal step forward, that even today he can use his (statistically) three decade "old" sounds to create "young" music.

Ever since the mid-fifties his jazz music has been avant-garde. By 1960 its beginnings had condensed into a very independent and unmistakable trend of piano playing and music which was qualitatively new in the jazz world. He rid himself of the traditional chorus concept and did away with the hitherto mighty dominance of harmony and rhythm as they proved too constrictive for his ideas. This new style, this new music, was first documented on the LP "The World of Cecil Taylor", which was released in 1960. On this recording the traditional rhythm section irritates more than it supports.

To this day Taylor has remained true to these basic principles- of making music without any regular use of chorus, without any metrical, tonal restraints. Taylor has never resorted to playing popular, superficially attractive or lucrative, traditional-conservative music as numerous "avant-garde" colleagues of his have done for various reasons - and this despite financial crises and artistic isolation, not of his own making.

The accusation made against Taylor, that he has not, or has scarcely changed his style since the sixties, takes on the nature of a compliment. In the sixties Taylor was so far advanced of his contemporaries - and of the pianists in particular - that hardly anyone chose to emulate him for the next decade, and there was no sign at all of a "Taylor School". He held this lead for a long time. He still is ahead, although his lead has decreased as new methods lead has decreased as new methods of playing and improvisation have in the meantime developed - particularly in Europe. This should in no way diminish Taylor's achievements. On the contrary, his example was an essential stimulation for European development. In the last few years this impetus has been underlined and intensified by personal appearances (particularly in Berlin).

Seen from both the American and European points of view, Taylor is unsurpassable. The only way to escape from, to survive the fascination of his music, is to compare it with alternatives of a completely different nature.

Referring to the accusation made against Taylor - much of that which Taylor developed in the sixties and still employs today is more advanced and promising than that which later (especially in the seventies and eighties) called itself "new" and "modern" but which was in reality merely fashionable, and of fleeting interest. What is more, Taylor has changed - all be it within consciously self-imposed and retained boundaries.

Although Taylor's music is very forward-looking, he still pays tribute to traditions. He dips into certain traditions, but never allows them to swamp him. His music would be inconceivable in its present form, were it not for "Blues" and "Boogie-Woogie" - however, it never actually sounds like "Blues" and "Boogie-Woogie". He does not use tradition in the sense of drawing on styles or even imitating sounds, but rather he uses tradition as a mediator - much as Arnold Schoenberg or Anton Webern do. On the surface their music has few similarities with the European classics, but in a deeper, more spiritual sense it has more in common with them than other contemporary music which borrows from the style of Bach / Haydn / Mozart / Beethoven / Schubert. Taylor was inspired by the piano music of Bela Bartok and Igor Strawinski, but first and foremost his mentors in the world of jazz were Art Tatum and Thelonious Monk. He managed to combine their very different styles of music to form a new direction - linking Tatum's technical brilliance and accuracy with the peculiarities of Monk's style;

Many elements of Taylor's music were first used and developed by others often outside the realms of jazz. He has placed these various elements in a new context. In doing so he has not only created a new form of piano playing which extends far beyond the stylistic and historic boundaries of jazz - but he has brought to life a new form of jazz. He was not alone in doing this, granted, but he is more important and relevant than many music historians are willing to admit.

Translation: Margaret Neuendorf

zurück / back