Thinking about Cecil Taylor
It was 1996, maybe July. Cecil Taylor and Min Tanaka were giving an afternoon performance at Jacob’s Pillow dance center. We were living in the region and so of course I went. The performance was terrific, remarkably spare for what I had come to expect from CT. Tanaka’s dance was quite minimal and quiet, he generally moved quite slowly, at times holding a still pose.
I found myself thinking back to his event the morning after an afternoon visit to the Cecil Taylor retrospective at The Whitney Museum in New York City. A large space along the walls and in display cases of an entire museum level was filled with Taylor album covers, concert posters, poetry drafts, and memorabilia. Concert films could be viewed on small monitors and on a large projection, behind which was a performance space. A small room to the side was dedicated to listening sessions, such as the two I attended, guided by Ben Young. Ben explored Taylor’s evolution from playing “tunes” for which he developed his own musical approach, to the small and large ensemble, and solo works populated by Taylor’s “unit structures.” That methodology, of drawing upon a vocabulary of brief modular musical gestures to build larger, intuitively unfolding forms, has been Taylor’s trademark for decades. This approach offers enormous transparency to Taylor’s playing and to the nature of the interactions between musicians within his ensembles. A 1965 Newport Jazz Festival trio sound example (with Andrew Cyrille and Henry Grimes) provided a terrific example of an entry point into Taylor’s body of work. I hear Taylor’s music quite visually, like keenly shaped shapes etched into wood blocks or in metallic squares, endlessly spinning in variations and combinations. The solo and small group recordings allow the listener to easily observe each musician articulating these shapes as well as the dazzling interplay that results of their intersections, juxtapositions, and parallel activities.
Thinking back to 1996, I’m reminded that Jacob’s Pillow is a dance center; thus, the official focus on that occasion was Min Tanaka. There was (oddly to me) little fanfare around the presence of Cecil Taylor. After the performance, the audience walked around the beautiful grounds, finding places to picnic. I found Taylor relaxing at a nearby table. I introduced myself and asked if I could say hello. He welcomed me and we began to chat. I thanked him for coming to Massachusetts and I told him how important his work had been to me over the years. He was charming, relaxed, and charming. I told him that I was a rabbi in the area who had been a pianist, but in recent years only very occasionally played. He responded that everybody needs to find their own path but that I should not give up on being a musician. Maybe it would happen in its due time. We spoke about the challenges of being private people who functioned in the public sphere. He said that this isn’t really how he thinks of himself but that he understood. We spoke about the experience of playing solo piano (“Indent,” recorded at Antioch had a particularly strong impact on my playing. Recently, I have come to use it as a college teaching example). After a while, we shook hands and said farewell.
I walked to my car that afternoon appreciating – more than anything – my experience of Cecil Taylor’s sweetness and, surprising to me, humility. I appreciated the opportunity to witness, minutes apart, the intensity of his performing self and the relaxed qualities of his private self. I was struck by Taylor’s willingness to speak with a complete stranger in such a personal manner. Clearly I was not your typical passerby, but one with an obvious sympathy for and comprehension of his music. It would be another decade before I returned to playing the piano, but in a sense, it was this encounter that helped make that decision possible.
Cecil Taylor recently celebrated his 87th birthday. While he has provided us with a huge recorded legacy, may we have many more years of his physical presence among us.