Cecil Percival Taylor is world renowned for being one of the progenitors of the free jazz movement that took the jazz world by storm in the mid 1960's. After working with Hot Lips Page and Johnny Hodges for a short duration, Cecil formed his own quartet in 1955 featuring Steve Lacy on soprano sax, Buell Neidlinger on bass and Dennis Charles on the drums. From 1961 to 1986, Cecil primarily performed and recorded with alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, drummer Sunny Murray and Andrew Cyrille. Over the past two decades his recordings have mainly been released on European record labels, with the rare exception of a few select recordings that can be found in the US.
Cecil's approach to playing the piano is with a visceral percussive style that evokes the drumming of Milford Graves or Sunny Murray. I was first introduced to Cecil's music when I heard his fantastic debut album Jazz Advance featuring Steve Lacy on soprano saxophone. While it's been awhile since I've listened to this record, I'll never forget the amazement and wonder of hearing this muscular, violent and earth-shattering music for the first time.
You can imagine that I was ecstatic when I learned that Cecil was playing the PDX Jazz Festival this year. I have often heard that his live performances are one of the most intensely beautiful things to witness in the world of music, and now I could see it for myself.
I opted to get the cheapest tickets for the show, because I was unemployed at the time. However, despite hearing negative things about the Marriott Ballroom, it turned out to be an acoustically perfect place to witness the artistry of Cecil Taylor. My seat was in the back of the ballroom, but I was able to capture an authentic reproduction of the performance on my Olympus recorder. I restrained myself from clapping too closely to the microphone, because I didn't want to create a clipping effect. Unfortunately, you can't control the environment around you, so there are moments of people coughing and rustling in their seats.
After Cecil was introduced, he entered the stage, dressed in all white, shoeless and ready to captivate this sold out audience with a dazzling display of talent and creativity. What we witnessed was nothing short of jaw-dropping. Cecil painted elaborate sketches of sound with his nimble fingers as he hammered at the keys with a fevered intensity. During most of these songs, there are moments of quiet and space that demonstrate the dynamics of his compositions perfectly. At times the piano sounded like a trickle of rain on a windowpane that quickly emerges into a frenetic volcano of tonal clusters. His compositions transported the audience into a winding, twisting labyrinth of sound that is evocative of the surreal sketches of MC Escher. Towards the end of the performance, Cecil performed a humorous spoken-word piece dealing with complex scientific theories about the universe. He played one more piece to end the regular set, but the audience gave him a standing ovation. Without leaving the stage, Cecil proceeded to play a short, pretty song to end the concert on an uncharacteristically quiet note.
This concert was a thing of beauty that seemed to be over in the blink of an eye, but it will resonate with me long after the curtain has been closed. I didn't recognize any of the compositions that Cecil played during the performance, so I am going to assume that they were all untitled improvisations. If any of you were there and can shed some light on the titles of the songs he played, please let me know. This ranks as one of my top three favorite live performances ever.
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