Visceral and Cathartic Joy: an appreciation of Cecil Taylor

by Taylor Ho Bynum

Cecil Taylor Orchestra, 2004. Tobias Netta, Taylor Ho Bynum, Cecil Taylor, Stephen Haynes, Amir ElSaffar, Bobby Zankel, Jeff Hoyer, Will Connell Jr., Dominic Duval, Steve Swell, Sabir Mateen, Bill Lowe, Elliott Levin, Jackson Krall, and JD Parran. ©2018 Bob Windy

The balance of logic and passion is one of the defining generative tensions of human creativity, whether that art manifests itself aurally or visually, tells stories abstract or representative, is received in the popular marketplace or in the underground fringes. The massively revolutionary pianist and composer Cecil Taylor, who died April 5th at his home in Brooklyn NY, was one of the preeminent examples of this simple dictum – all his work was built on an unimpeachable, if often inscrutable, infrastructure of ideas, yet that skeleton was fleshed out with a performance practice of bloody, soulful, breathtakingly virtuosic transcendence. He was a monumental force in American creative music – he was part of a movement to be sure, but also a figure sui generis; no one was the same after hearing him play, and no one was the same after playing with him.

I had the visceral and cathartic joy of working in Cecil’s large ensemble for several years in the mid-2000s. Ranging from twelve to sixteen musicians in addition to Cecil, we convened a few times a year, usually for a week-long residency at the Iridium, a basement jazz club in midtown Manhattan. The band’s name was slippery, changing at each engagement, but each title carried some ascribed meaning – Orchestra Humane, Ubuntu Orchestra, AHA! Orchestra. (Even though the club’s listing was usually the generic “Cecil Taylor Big Band,” like Ellington, the maestro always thought of the group as an orchestra.)

The musicians ranged from fifteen to fifty years younger than our leader. Several had been working with Cecil for decades, having encountered him during his short stint in the early 1970s at University of Wisconsin. (He never lasted long in academia – his pedagogical practice was as unconventional as everything else he did – but he was always a teacher, and could be a life-changing one.) Some were long-time veterans on the New York scene, some were younger musicians like myself in awe of our proximity to the master – all of us had been profoundly shaped by his music, and steadfast in our dedication to realizing his ideas.

By the early and mid-sixties, as evidenced on a series of classic albums like Nefertiti the Beautiful One Has Come, Unit Structures, and Conquistador, Cecil’s conception was wholly formed and wholly uncompromising – a shifting mélange of haunting themes and pitch sets, infinitely unfolding and spiraling; bouts of inexhaustible, propulsive energy occasionally landing in moments of unnerving, transparent calm. He developed a template that he continued to explore, evolve, and expand for decades; a sound that permanently changed our culture’s understanding of improvisation and composition. While his solo and small group work is justly feted as some of the most influential music of the past fifty years, Cecil returned to large ensemble projects whenever economically possible. He regularly cited Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson as formative influences – even when his own music abandoned the song forms and swing feel of those earlier masters, the core components lived in that tradition: individual initiative balanced with collective endeavor, the spontaneous shaping of ensemble sound, the organic development of a musical community, an orchestra intuitively responding to the subtlest of cues from a charismatic bandleader/composer.

The rehearsal process was intense – Cecil didn’t use conventional notation, instead dictating notes and clusters from the piano, the musicians furiously scribbling or finding the phrases on their instruments as he sped forwards. (It was hard to find the notes; “E” and “D” and “B” all sound remarkably similar when half-sung in a gravelly, slightly nasal voice over a scrambling big band.) But his embrace of the oral tradition was strategic; each musician had to internalize the rhythms and the articulations, and the compositions always maintained a fluidity of form and orchestration. The music was modular – what might seem to be connected to one section could appear in a completely different context the next day. It wasn’t about creating a fixed product, but about building a shared vocabulary that could be realized as an individual, as a section, and as an orchestra.

The band’s self-described mission was to spontaneously orchestrate Cecil’s ten fingers into our massed instruments. The trumpets might follow the pinky and ring finger of his right hand and the saxophones the forefinger and thumb, as the trombones and tuba and bass saxophone mirrored the left hand’s slow counter line. All the rehearsed materials had to be in the musicians’ minds at all times, yet ready to be abandoned once they had run their course, feeding off the streams of consciousness emerging from the piano. Our other challenge was to attempt to match his singular creativity with our pooled energies. It was easier to individually engage with him as an improviser when you knew you could pass the baton among the ensemble – even in his mid-seventies, his performance stamina remained herculean. He might have been the elder in the group, but he could kick our collective asses. I once described playing with him like trying to surf in a hurricane, but that is not completely true, unless one can find a hurricane with intentionality and control to match its power. The music might happen at any moment. It didn’t matter if it was five minutes before the end of a four-hour rehearsal, or a soundcheck before a gig, or the performance itself – if the spirits landed and the sounds became real, the commitment had to be complete, and might take anywhere from seconds to hours to resolve.

I once asked him what we were going play as we walked onto the stage. With a winking laugh, he said, “How would I know?” and danced to his instrument. In performance, he rarely simply walked to the piano, but stalked it, glided around it, perhaps dropping a tambourine or a rattle onto the strings to add a percussive touch to the sound. He often started concerts with his poetry, shouted or mumbled or incanted, puzzling apart the meaning and sound of the words as he was soon to deconstruct melody and harmony and rhythm. His slight, almost elvish frame moved with grace, belying the immeasurable intensity that emerged once he sat at the keyboard. The orchestra would begin to spark, sections rising to life like flame, into an onslaught of energy that might take seventy-five minutes to burn out. The intensity was there from the beginning, but as the band matured over the years we also found the tranquility – leaving extended sections for Cecil’s own solo explorations, allowing duo and trio conversations to emerge from the maelstrom. We played two or three sets a night, ending each one exhausted, cleansed, transformed.

Cecil was as engaging and enigmatic in conversation as he was in his music. He would hold court for hours, with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other, regaling his listeners with stories of his first time seeing Balanchine, or hearing Ella Fitzgerald sing at the Apollo. The mood might shift from nostalgia to exhortation, in a personal language incorporating mysterious symbolizers and mischievous nicknames. He was a trickster, he used humor and codes, but the import of real art and creativity, of fighting for one’s beliefs and one’s music, was usually the underlying message. He was not always an easy man, and could switch from warm encouragement to cutting dismissal in a heartbeat, but one can see why he attracted such dedicated disciples, his complex and magnetic charisma coupled with the profound genius of his art.

Sadly, Cecil wasn’t the first member of the band to leave us – among the musicians who played with the group over the years, the saxophonists Will Connell Jr. and Marco Eneidi, the trombonist Jeff Hoyer, and the bassist Dominic Duval have all died since we last assembled. The last few months have also dealt heavy losses to Taylor’s earliest collaborators and other heroes of this music. Sunny Murray, one of the drummers most responsible for freeing the instrument from the strictures of fixed rhythmic repetition, passed away in December. The trombonist Roswell Rudd, who brought the joyful vocalizations of early jazz to the ‘60s avant-garde, died later that month. Just a few weeks ago, we lost the virtuosic bassist Buell Neidlinger. All these artists made indelible contributions to Taylor’s music, as well as continuing onto productive careers in their own right. A generation of musicians faced the tumult of the 1960s by crafting fierce, challenging, fascinating, beautiful, undefinable sound, music at once personal and universal – no one more so than Cecil Taylor. He did his work, and his legacy is clear. Now that he is gone, as we face a historical moment of equal import, I hope those of us still here can rise to his challenge.

> back to contents