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Monday, October 31, 2005

CECIL TAYLOR Unit Structures

Blue Note BST 84237 (1966)

Sometimes I feel a little sorry for Cecil Taylor. He's a classically trained pianist who was a pioneer in the advancement of creative improvised music, or "free" music, or "free jazz", whichever term you prefer, and to this day there are still people who say that he can't play, or that what he plays isn't even music. He's the only artist to get dissed in Ken Burns' Jazz series (by Branford Marsalis, in response to a quote from Taylor in which, responding to a question about the difficult nature of his music, he says that, if he must prepare for the concerts he gives, then so should the audience. I'd repeat what Marsalis said, but I'm running a family blog here.).Yet Taylor has persevered, in a career now entering its sixth decade, as perhaps the most important and influential postmodern jazz pianist of all time.

Unit Structures finds Taylor leading a seven-piece group through four of his original compositions. His good friend and longtime musical compatriot Jimmy Lyons plays alto saxophone, as does Ken McIntyre (who also plays bass clarinet and oboe on the album). Eddie Gale Stevens Jr. rounds out the horn section on trumpet, while the rhythm section consists of two bassists (Henry Grimes and Alan Silva) and drummer Andrew Cyrille. In the middle, leading from within, is Taylor, who has already trademarked his unmistakeable sound; frenzied atonal runs up and down the keys punctuated by pounding tone clusters (Taylor's mother was a dancer, and he once said that in his playing he liked to imitate the leaps in space that a dancer makes.)

For the most part, the pieces tend to follow the free jazz model of an opening statement or theme by the group, followed by solos, then a concluding statement which is usually the same or similar to the first one. With Taylor's compositions, it's a little difficult to tell which parts are written out and which are improvised; the band moves so seamlessly from one section to the next that it feels like the music is being created with one mind. The opening track, "Steps", features some furious soloing from Taylor against the sawing sounds of the two basses and Cyrille's skittering percussion, while "Enter, Evening (Soft Line Structure)" opens with elegant, dissonant counterpoint amongst the horns, gradually evolving into soothing Martian nightclub music. "Unit Structure/As of a Now/Section" builds from quiet, swinging interplay between the band members into a frenzied, almost uncontrolled assault. "Tales (8 Whisps)" closes the album with Taylor's piano pitted against drums and bass for a rousing trio finale.

If you've never heard Taylor's music or haven't had much experience with free jazz, you might want to try some of his recordings made before this session, such as Jazz Advance or Looking Ahead!, in which the rhythm section keeps a more traditional jazz beat and Cecil's experimentation hadn't yet reached its full flower. However, if you want to plunge right in, get Unit Structures. The music of Cecil Taylor is definitely not for everyone, but for those willing to "prepare" themselves and open their ears a little wider than usual, a brave new world of sound awaits.

6 Comments:

At 8:52 AM, Blogger Jessica Williams said...

I grew up with UNIT STRUCTURES. And Trane and Miles and Monk and the free cats like Ayler and Sunny Murray. I'm a bit more inside (I'm a jazz pianist) but I love CT. Like you say- he's not for everyone- but anybody who is saying ANYTHING isn't for everyone. That's an old record (did it ever get made into a CD?) and his CONQUISTADOR is also brilliant. Mr Taylor has gotten just about every grant but the Guggy (The Guggenheim... I got one in '95)and he's still soing it. I worked at the New Morning (France) the day after he left (early 90's) and the piano was almost perfectly in tune! There was a WET SPOT, though, on the floor, and the leather on the bench was still wet, because he had sweat so vitally and freely. Right on Cecil! And thank you for mentioning and championing his genius.
-Jessica

 
At 11:25 AM, Blogger Peter MacDonald said...

Thank you, Ms. Williams, for posting here! I have your album The Next Step and have played it on my radio show. It's an honour and a pleasure to hear from you :)

 
At 11:30 AM, Blogger Peter MacDonald said...

Oh, and I have the Unit Structures CD too, and it has a bonus alternate take of one of the tracks.

 
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