The Wire

In Writing

The unit structures of Cecil Taylor. By Alexander Hawkins

April 2018

“The joy of shaping, forming and organising materials is at the heart of Taylor’s work... it is strange he should be pigeonholed as a ‘free’ player”

I never met Cecil Taylor, although he has rearranged my mind on several occasions. Excepting a sheepish smile and mumbled “thank you” towards him as he shuffled past in a New York club one evening a decade ago, my relationship to his music has been purely as a fan, listener and student. When I was a young musician hived away from the live music epicentres and developing an obsession for the music of the past via records, I was developing a conviction as to the centrality of trying to look ahead to newer forms. Taylor’s output functioned as some kind of Rosetta Stone: a way to orientate myself, by showing how a love of all these other musics could be reconciled into something reminiscent of them in spirit (and occasionally in literal ways) and yet be utterly personal.

I couldn’t get enough of his early albums on Candid. At this distance – I only issue this qualifier so as not to diminish how radical they must have sounded at the time – they intuitively make sense to listeners steeped in Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver and Art Tatum. But it was on encountering tracks such as his contributions to the 1962 Into the Hot album with Gil Evans that new worlds of possibilities started to present themselves at every pass of the material. Here was a way to understand how the careering, headlong swing of Bud Powell, the granite lyricism of Monk, the playful chordal work of Errol Garner and the swagger of early James Brown could be assimilated into something which nonetheless sounded like nothing other than itself. There were deep influences from classical music, such as in the orchestration of the opening of ”Mixed”, yet an almost shocking prescience of funk. And of course, Ellington looms large – Jimmy Lyons’s saxophone is often seen as a brilliant development of Charlie Parker’s language, but at times here, he seems to play Johnny Hodges to the leader’s Duke. But there is no sense of pastiche: the whole is coherent, daring, and nothing but Taylor.

Indeed, if he had never written anything after 1961 – including other early masterpieces such as Unit Structures – he would nonetheless have to be regarded as a great composer. If the above relates primarily to influences in Taylor’s language, the actual notes, then it’s crucial not to overlook the revolutions he was also instigating in the structural organisation of music. A composition such as "Bulbs" from Into The Hot hardly fits the ‘head-solo-head’ orthodoxy of most contemporaneous jazz; the wildly eclectic thematic material reveals something much more intriguing, and much more radical. The joy of shaping, forming and organising materials is at the heart of this and all of Taylor’s work. It is strange that he should be pigeonholed, whether dismissively or not, as a ‘free’ player. This is free in the sense that Sonny Rollins, for instance, is also a free musician, when cutting loose in the playground of his favourite chord changes.

As a keyboardist – although his playing and composition existed in a symbiotic relationship, as they did for Monk – Taylor was dealing with patterns and organisation. The prevailing orthodoxy of mainstream jazz was, and remains, for the pianist’s hands to be deployed in some form of ‘melody and accompaniment’ texture. Taylor not only looked back to Tatum, Earl Hines and others by reasserting a two-handed approach, but also brought a patterned beauty to the relationship between the hands. Symmetry was one concern, as when they would simultaneously trace outwards towards the extremes of the keyboard; but parallelism was also reinstated, as when his two hands harnessed together would construct lines out of volleys of shifting clusters, distant cousins of the block chords of Garner and the comets which streaked throughout Tatum’s universe.

Many will point to the ruthless precision Taylor exhibited at the keyboard; he worried and manipulated pitch sets with absolute rigour. On the surface, the music could appear furious, but the underlying flow of a Taylor performance is more stately and architectural – just as a block of flats may show hundreds of windows to the world, but their organisation is clear, logical and outlines geometric shapes.

Yet there are always thrilling occasions in a Taylor performance in which those tightly organised clusters reach some kind of breaking point, and alchemically morph into a more purely gestural language, described by fists, palms and forearms. This transition can be almost imperceptible, like that moment during take off on a plane where you can’t tell whether or not the wheels are still in contact with the runway. This language is all the more devastating because it has emerged from such organisation (compare too the impact of the ‘free’ sections in Stockhausen’s Gruppen).

Poetry and movement were also integral to Taylor’s performances, such that it makes sense to think of him more broadly as a multimedia artist, whose main concern was to find new and beautiful ways of ordering and making sense of things. Sound was the primary thing he sought to order; but he also looked to make sense of physical space with dance, and of his own universe with his words. I don’t necessarily mean this in a mystical sense: it is striking how many of his written and spoken texts almost take the form of manifestos as to how his music works.

For all its single-mindedness, Taylor’s is also a social music. This becomes clear when hearing from those who experienced his ensembles from the inside. Instructions were often delivered in such a way (cryptically, speedily) that instrumental sections within the ensemble would find themselves negotiating and deciding among themselves how to interpret them; in other words, they were forced to organise themselves and decide on a course of action, within the overarching structure of mutual enterprise. Just as Taylor’s gestures at the keyboard generate language for instrumentalists, and just as the ‘words’ generate the ‘paragraphs’ within the music, Taylor is interested in scalable ideas. His bands – groupings of autonomous actors with a common enterprise organising themselves and having some fun along the way – begin to look like models for society.

As I write, I realise that I have used those architecture and aeroplane analogies in another piece of writing. Maybe the ideas have become some of my own ‘unit structures’ for conceptualising music. The context was writing about Anthony Braxton, and this is perhaps instructive as to some of the directions in which Taylor’s ways of organising can point. Braxton is a musician who has run with these ideas of facilitating/requiring self-determination within the ensemble, of simultaneous differing rates of flow of information. But Taylor’s influence is not just conceptual. Especially beautiful to my ears is the way his ballad playing seemed to seep into the ballad language of Henry Threadgill, and how Taylor’s techniques of mutating pitch sets and intervals seemed to find distant relatives in that musician’s work.

Meanwhile, Taylor’s influence on pianists is a book in itself. A strain of piano playing has developed which has taken the headlong, cluster-based and gestural elements of his style as a starting point, but it seems to me that relatively few have taken a somewhat cognate language and developed it into something wholly personal: Marilyn Crispell, Irene Schweizer and Myra Melford would be three excellent examples of pianists with large amounts of Taylor in their make-ups. But just as fascinating are the pianists who intuitively seem to have deep affinities with Taylor’s work, and as such, only very rarely actually sound anything like him: Kris Davis, Kaja Draksler, Vijay Iyer, Matt Mitchell, Craig Taborn, Pat Thomas, to name only a handful of examples who come to mind. In these cases, the influence seems to be in the single-mindedness, and the more broadly organisational or generative aspects of Taylor’s language – that is, the syntax and grammar, more than the literal vocabulary.

Cecil Taylor always represents the playful and the unpredictable. His work can be by turns brutal and romantic. It has austerity, and yet is streaked through with glee and mischief. He is one of the masters at structuring an hour of music; but listening to his encores: did anyone ever structure the single minute with such devastating beauty?

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