At 65, pianist Cecil Taylor is a lion in early winter, writes Howard Mandel. In this exclusive New York interview, one of the pioneers of black freedom expands on his ideas of music sonic architecture, spiritual intake and bodily transcendence. this article originally appeared in The Wire 124 (June 1994).
Cecil Taylor at 65? The small, exquisitely spry man with greying dreadlocks and penetrating gaze, this man of cosmopolitan intelligence, expansive thought and unrivalled intensity, this artist long outcast though lately much honoured, has the air of a lion in early winter.
Onstage at a solo concert at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall in New York back in March, he was robed in splendour and mesmerising in performance. He knew so many ways to approach, press, caress and pummel the piano's keys, so many methods of chasing an idea through music's labyrinths, so deep an understanding of his (and our) moment and its celebratory potential that one dared hope this is what aging is about: mastery and the courage to deny it in the push ever onward.
That's what Taylor has achieved in a musical life spanning some 40 years, more than 50 recordings, and the globe. The amazing technique he has constructed has never been an end in itself - his lightning speed, revolutionary finger work, utter control over vast dynamics, and his distinctly personal vocabulary involving myriad echoes, cross-references and reflections all seem to be at the service of an all-consuming quest. His musical energy - though it may sometimes have seemed self-aggrandizing - has focused on intellectual, aesthetic, philosophical, spiritual, mystical and mythological investigations at the core of all enduring artistic endeavours. From Jazz Advance, which Taylor issued on his own Transition label in 1956, to the new FMP trio release, Celebrated Blazons, Taylor has made enemies of polite conventions, standard operating procedures, received opinions and discouraging words. In the process he has gained many fascinated followers - including this writer, who sat on a floor in Taylor's sumptuously furnished Brooklyn brownstone earlier this year, listening while he conjured pearls of wisdom and offered them with evident satisfaction.
Taylor has spent the last six months living in New York. It's the longest period he has stayed in the city in eight years. For much of the 90s he has been living and performing in Europe and Asia. In 1990 he received a grant from the German government to stay, compose and perform in the country for a year. A year and a half ago he went to Japan to perform with Min Tanaka and do other concerts. A few months after that he took his band to perform at the Miro Museum on the island of Mallorca. Taylor had met Miro at the Foundation Maeght in 1969; the artist gave each member of Taylor's group at that time - Jimmy Lyons, Sam Rivers and Andrew Cyrille - an original lithograph ("Same design but different colours for each", says Taylor) and he left it in his will that the pianist should be the first to play at the museum when it was completed. "We've had a very interesting artistic career outside of this country," says Cecil. Is it the kind of career he envisioned for himself?
"You never know. You just try to prepare yourself, and there are political or economic signs in any culture or civilisation that give you a clue as to where you're going to be placed in that milieu. You just do the work, then the opportunities come about that allow you to see what you have achieved in your time.
"You know, when you see a really great artist, all time stops. The largesse of their spirit lights you inside, your inner sensibilities, so you recognise this is a vision, a spiritual presence, that can only further your own development as an artist. Empires fall, but the highest achievements of empires are really what the artists create within them. Some art work transcends the dominance of empires.
"When you attempt to build through composition - and when I use that word I mean a kind of architecture by using sonorities to create the three dimensions - there is a commitment, and the commitment comes from sources you're not even aware of. Since it is not intellectually accountable, then it must be a repository of one of the greatest forces of nature that come to realisation within oneself. Since we are, after all, human beings who are co-existing with plants and animals, mountains and rivers and streams, perhaps one of the purposes of our life is to achieve the nobility of that moment through transcendence in which we return to the point of our beginnings.
"So poets who perhaps attempt to levitate - the process to achieve that, the thing that all poets have in common, the internal material - is the development of the senses to respond to the particular media you're working in. And since that kind of work has no basis in commercial reality, then the activity must be about developing those monuments to the flowering of the senses. When you're talking about dealing with that, the next level would be the transcendent one, which, if it is achieved, is the purpose for one's living. And it has ramifications in terms of one's humanity.
"Of course, I can only speak for myself, but music, which in many ways saved my life, led me to literature, to dance, to architecture, finally to people. So if you make a commitment to one, you begin to see there is no single art, and if you get into different kinds of art they nurture you. If you're fortunate, they lead to an expansion of your knowledge. And it's like a river or an ocean, it continues to move. So that one's life is more rewarding as one is allowed to get older. There is a deeper joy, and because of the joy there is an understanding."
Is that what he tries to communicate to audiences? "There are two things we start to realise when we get older: that there is a duty to serve - the inner self, but also to serve those who would be listening - and that the reason one serves is because one wants to express the joy of living, and so it becomes a celebration of life. The parameters of that go beyond the viability of that which is commercial."
Even disregarding the question of commercial viability, some people are unprepared to confront the complexities and possibilities in Taylor's music. How does he respond to this? "There are generations of listeners who know the music that they know, and they are quite cognizant of all the levels of music that they're into. Indeed, I've found many times friends who I've known over the years had a very interesting perception of music which always fascinated me because they weren't musicians but it seemed to me they grasped in their own way a fullness of the dynamics within the sound structures that was always appealing and enchanting because it was arrived at through their love, and that love furnished them with insight that could not be denied. On many occasions I've found myself reacting to a poignant sound the same way they did."
Are there limits to his musical interests? "I'm interested in only one thing: music that is good. Definitions of music should perhaps be left to those who really love it. That doesn't necessarily mean musicians. I mean, Stevie Wonder wrote incredible music at one time. Aretha Franklin was an incredible musician and did extraordinary work, and then we get to men like James Brown and Marvin Gaye,who certainly were without peers, for me at least, in that division of the music. All of the music that I love, there are common touchstones to it, you see." And is he part of that musical continuum? "Oh, I don't question that."
Many of Taylor's works, particularly the mid-60s albums Unit Structures and Conquistador, seem to be so much about planes, architectures... "I find I get more gratification out of looking at an architectural drawing than I do most musical scores. The point being that for me there is not much mystery in looking at a musical score, because the process becomes pretty much the same. If you look at one, you know the procedures. The point is really: does music exist as a note, or does it take its point of beginning, its genesis, from someplace else? One of the distractions has been this idea of written music. It divides the senses, though some people might say it increases the options. But I mean if you look at a piece of music - notes - that means your eye must be directed outside the body.
"There's always been this wildly inaccurate way of describing people who play by ear. What other way is there to play? One can add things to it. But there seems to be a bit of misconception about what constitutes musical literature. What is this mythology about composition? What is the body supposed to be doing while one is performing?"
Does he have a rigorous practice routine? "I don't know if I'd call it rigorous. There are certain procedures one must exhibit, and it's a matter of preparation. One gets up in the morning, then one must work at developing the mind. There are certain things one must study in order to write words, then there is usually at least an hour spent doing various exercises for the body. Then the most glorious meal of the day, for me, which is breakfast. I might mop floors. See what the telly is saying. And then one composes, one practises, and one has achieved a state of highness. That's the way I enrich my life." How often does he practise? "Every day is different. This is a very intense time because I'm preparing for something specific. But after all, it is my life's work. It's a heightened time now, a time of spiritual intake. I practise to be able to perform."
Taylor is an avid consumer of the performing arts. What has he seen recently that has excited him? "In the last two or three months? I went to see the originator of the Bhuta at the Japan Society, a very interesting gentleman, 87 years old, who was incredible. About two weeks ago I went to see Abbey Lincoln at the Blue Note. There are many riches one can take part in, and that is a nurturing experience, too.
"I like the voice. The voice was either the first or the second instrument. Certainly Lena [he has a photograph of singer Lena Horne on the wall] is a very interesting performer. I first saw her in the stage when I was 12; she had just done Cabin In The Sky and Stormy Weather, and remembering how Lena looked in Hollywood films - but to see her on stage, it was amazing. I can still remember when she came out the audience gasped. See, there are no margins when you're really dealing with something so close to perfection. Certainly Marvin Gaye was a man who fully transcended boundaries, in terms of his continuous development. I have many favourites."
Taylor's favourites in his own constituency of black free jazz (or at least the music that has developed out of what was called black free jazz during the 60s) include Bill Dixon, Sunny Murray, Don Cherry, Butch Morris, Reggie Workman, William Parker, Charles Gayle. "These people are all extraordinary," he says. "It would be interesting if the corporate moguls who determine who attains visibility were clever enough to be open to the expansion of their economic field.
"But I think that those who determine what is commercially viable are on a different plane. That's not what I'm interested in, and when one realises finally the nature of the ingredients that go into that kind of mentality, you realise what it is that has given you the most joy, and you continue to do that. And that brings development in your own mind and feeling. When one realises that, that's when generation begins. The important thing is to realise that no matter where you live, the world is available."
Taylor refers to those musicians who had an early or long and profound influence on his work as "my nurturers", and goes on to cite Benny Goodman's pianist and arranger Mary Lou Williams, arranger Gil Evans and percussionist Max Roach, with whom he recorded the 1979 Historic Concerts (recently reissued on Soul Note). He calls Roach "one of the finest percussionists the world has ever known." Did he absorb specific rhythmic impulses from working with Roach?
"I think the manifestation of rhythm is the reason that life begins. Rhythm never stops. It is perhaps - at least - one of the most vital aspects and one of the compositional grids that shapes the nature of a culture's music." What about melody? "There are different kinds of melody. If you hear Coptic or mbouti [pygmy] melody, or kabuki, you realise it's unbounded. Same with harmony. The organisation of vertical structures is in ongoing change."
Would he like to have an influence on younger musicians? "I don't have any aspirations there. For those who would be interested, if I can assist them in any way... The first obligation is to the music, and the hopeful development therein, and that is part of the personal legacy that goes into the continuum. The thing that has shaped my particular attitude is people like Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, and certainly Billie Holiday. That which has saved us - we are responsible to it and we cannot defame it by doing less than we feel is our all." And those who don't walk it like they talk it? "As one grows older one becomes more understanding of it all, and then one understands it is not easy, but it is so worthwhile and brings so much joy. One can only hope that those who are not will eventually see that if it is not a noble pursuit, then it is not worthy of human effort."
Does he ever get frustrated about documentation of his work, or the lack of it? "No. No... One of the things you realise is you just do the work, and you prepare for the most beneficial events in relation to the things that happen. For instance, those 12 CDs that I did with Jost Gebers of FMP - what is that popular song, "The Best Is Yet To Come"? One becomes aware of good fortune, that spirits have been kind enough to endow you with the ability to continue working, and the personal sense of fulfilment, and the want to continue. It is enough. That which is external to that perhaps could be Machiavellian. What is important is that when light is thrust out, it has no parameters. And when the time is right, when it is to happen, these things do happen."
It feels like I've caught Taylor in a mellow mood. "I'm under the spirituality of all this work I'm doing. I'm very excited by it; I try not to think too much about it. Now I'll get up, make a soothing tea, and get back into it again." Does he still get stage nerves? "The most difficult time for me will be in the limousine going to the concert. Of the beneficial things that spirituality has given me, the concept of ritual - which is very much a part of my performance - is the one which takes the effervescence out of the stomach."