The World of Cecil Taylor


The trio with Jimmy Lyons and Andrew Cyrille is widely held to be one of the great groups of all time. Video has surfaced of an extraordinary gig in 1973. At the seven minute mark the music finally begins in earnest and the camera angle on the piano is appropriate. Peak Cecil thunder. Nobody else played like this.


Jimmy Lyons was so great too, damn. Truly in the top tier of underrated cats. As the video continues, it becomes obvious why Lyons spent so much time simply inside the Taylor vortex. Lyons plays just how he wants to play, so unforced and so beautiful.

Cyrille is also perfect. Swinging like crazy but not a steady tempo in sight.

Lyons and Cyrille sound like jazz musicians. Their connection to Charlie Parker and Max Roach is obvious. Cecil didn’t sound like that. He had another kind of poetry, some other kind of sheer strength of will. Cecil never played as a sideman and probably he just couldn’t do it. The direction of the ensemble music had to come from him. Period. (The set with Mary Lou Williams is my least favorite Cecil, he just storms over her throughout.)

“I am the artist” was Cecil’s credo. That kind of assertiveness was relatively new in jazz when he showed up to wage war on convention. Perhaps this approach had a stronger dosage of European aesthetic in the mix than the previous jazz masters, although it is also important to remember that Pablo Picasso’s cubism was inspired by sculpture from West and Central Africa.

Certain listeners have compared the tempests of Taylor to noisy European composers. I personally go back and forth: sometimes I can see the direct connection of Cecil to something like the Jean Barraqué Piano Sonata, other times I think C.T. is just painting in broad African strokes. (These are not mutually exclusive conceits, of course.)

Actually the most “European” Cecil I ever heard was just recently at the Ornette memorial. What is he doing here? Reading an unpublished Debussy salute to the gamelan? It is stunningly gorgeous, and all the more eerie for being preserved only on bootleg video with oblivious other photographers fussing about, a jarring cellphone going off,  etc.  It sometimes feels like jazz can’t catch get a break…


The Cecil I listened to the most as a youngster were two of his earliest albums. The World of Cecil Taylor has a version of “This Nearly Was Mine” that can be placed on the Mount Rushmore of Deconstructed Standards.

(This may be bassist Buell Neidlinger’s most valuable contribution to the discography as well; Richard Williams has a fascinating commentary on Neidlinger, who also died just recently.)

Three tracks on Into the Hot, “Pots,” “Bulbs” and “Mixed,” are gems of bluesy horn composition. This is from 1962 but still sounds exceptionally modern. “Bulbs” in particular is my jam. I usually think comparing Cecil Taylor to Duke Ellington is a superficial cliché, maybe even worse than comparing him to Messiaen, but on the head of “Bulbs” I accept the Ellington-to-Taylor continuum.


If there hadn’t been a Cecil Taylor, we would have needed to invent him. Fortunately he was ready and willing. He held it down.

More on DTM about Cecil soon…