Cecil Percival Taylor

I wrote this essay about Cecil Taylor as composer together with two other essays (on Jelly Roll Morton and John Lewis) for the two-volume International Dictionary of Black Composers, edited by Samuel A. Floyd Jr., published in 1999 by Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, Chicago (p. 1093-1102)

1. Jazz Composition before Cecil Taylor

The term „composition“ in jazz relates to aesthetic ideals which are considerably different from those of „composition“ in European based art music. Jazz emphasizes improvisation, and thus the main task of the jazz composer was often limited to the creation of a framework setting the atmosphere for and structuring the performance. One does not necessarily need a composer or arranger for making a jazz performance more interesting harmonically, melodically or rhythmically. These elements can be just as well controlled by the interpreter, the improvising musician. After all, even the harmonic progression on which the chorus of a song is based, does mainly constitute the formal frame for the ensuing improvisations. The task of the composer, then, was to provide the larger formal structure and/or the melodic theme. Even composers of popular jazz standards often were by far not as well known as some of the musicians achieving a successful interpretation of their tunes. Hardly any jazz fan, for example, remembers Johnny Green, the composer of Body and Soul, but nearly everyone knows Coleman Hawkins‘ classic interpretation of the piece.

The main function of composition in jazz, thus, is to provide a structural frame. When the language of improvisation became more and more complex within the stylistic developments of the 1940s, some musicians were dissatisfied with the limitations of form in jazz — especially the prevalent chorus structures of repeated twelve or thirty two bar chord progressions. The Third Stream movement of the 1950s and early 1960s tried to alert musicians and composers to the fact that whereas improvisation in jazz had highly developed within the last twenty years, jazz composition had hardly kept up with it. Gunther Schuller and John Lewis envisioned musicians who were aware that within classical music there existed examples for compositional procedures which jazz musicians could learn from. Third Stream’s aim was a musician equally well versed in both traditions of African American and European musics and thus able to use whatever fitted his musical plans and ideas.

Jazz composers from Jelly Roll Morton to Duke Ellington, John Lewis, Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor usually followed two aims: They wanted to impress their own individual stamp, their stylistic identity as composers and at the same time give the musicians the freedom of contributing their own individuality as improvising soloists. One of their obstacles was to mediate between the worlds of composition and improvisation. Ellington wrote pieces fit for the individual style of his musicians and made this style part of his own sound. Monk wrote themes and provided accompaniments which always kept his personal stamp on the pieces. The same holds true for John Lewis who with sparse, blues-tinged accompanying phrases gave a counterpoint to Milt Jackson’s virtuoso elaborations and provided structural unity. Ellington and Lewis sometimes moved away from the usual twelve or thirty two bar chorus form. Cecil Taylor in his music proceeds even further changing the whole function of composition in jazz. His compositions no longer are mere formal outlines for ensuing improvisations but provide his musicians with a predetermined (which seems like a better term than the word „composed“) vocabulary of phrases, technical procedures, dynamic suggestions from which to choose, if not at random, at least in relative freedom.

2. Cecil Taylor as a Free Jazz Musician

The term „free jazz“ used for the music by many of the young musicians developing a new style in the early 1960s turned out rather to confuse than to define the understanding of jazz at that point. Free jazz was by far not as „free“ as the term seemed to imply. The music of Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor had its roots in the history of African American music, in jazz. The aesthetic concept of many of the young musicians proved to be on a line with that of Duke Ellington, John Lewis, Charles Mingus or some of the Third Stream composers from the 1950s. By different means they tried to either bring together the most contemporary forms of improvisation and composition or to develop new forms and compositional procedures more suited to contemporary improvisation. Many of the avantgarde musicians of the early 1960s had been in close contact with some of the more important figures in the Third Stream. Ornette Coleman had studied with Gunther Schuller. Coleman and Eric Dolphy had participated in many projects by the Orchestra U.S.A., an ensemble founded to feature the new musical aesthetics of Third Stream. Cecil Taylor had studied the histories of jazz and contemporary European art music and was well versed in both traditions. In interviews he acknowledged influences from composers and musicians such as Duke Ellington, Lennie Tristano, Dave Brubeck, Arnold Schoenberg or Igor Stravinsky. He summarizes: „Everything I’ve lived, I am… I’m not afraid of European influences. The point is to use them — as Ellington did — as part of my life as an American Negro.“ [Taylor 1958]

Together with Coleman and John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor stands for the „classic“ period of American free jazz. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Taylor developed a musical language of composition and improvisation which seemingly broke with many of the musical traditions of jazz — more so than in the cases of Coleman and Coltrane, it seemed at that time. Ornette Coleman in most of his music still retained a steady beat and often relied on an obvious „swing“ feeling. John Coltrane developed his style of playing gradually by extending the harmonic and formal language of jazz by means of modal improvisation. Cecil Taylor, though, in the early 1960s brought forth a new concept. In his music the forward motion usually achieved by „swing“ was substituted through an extreme rhythmic energy. Melody was mostly discarded in favor of short phrases or repetitions of phrase fragments. The harmonic basis consisted neither of changes as in traditional jazz nor of scales as in modal improvisation, but rather — if at all — of short tonal centers around which the improvisation developed. The formal outline of his pieces was neither a more or less notated structural frame nor complete structural freedom within stream-of-consciousness-like improvisations, but a distinct formal vocabulary working with short, predetermined structural units. Taylor explains: „This is not a question of ‚freedom‘ as opposed to ’nonfreedom,‘ but rather a question of recognizing different ideas and expressions of order.“ [Hentoff 1965]

More than with earlier jazz composers, though, with Taylor terms like „composition“, „improvisation“, „form“, „rhythmic energy“ have to be newly defined. Taylor’s music — in his solo as well as his group performances — is built upon a concept of structured free improvisation. His dynamic concept has been termed „energy play“ – a rhythmic-dynamic process which replaces the functions conventionally fulfilled in jazz by „swing“. Whereas traditionally jazz musicians refer to an underlying, though not always stated pulse, Taylor gives up this reference point. In his early recordings (up to 1960/61) he often played with musicians who insisted on the rhythmic basis, who did swing, while Taylor obviously followed a different ideal. Taylor himself calls the dynamic element in his music „energy“ and equals its effects with those of conventional swing, „swing meaning the traditional coloring of the energy that moves the music“ [Spellman 1966: 71]. He states that swing is „black energy brought to music… It has to do with how different people think about rhythm, about time, how they see themselves in space; what they think the body is.“ [Taylor 1979]. In his programmatic liner notes to the album Unit Structures from 1966, Taylor in his typical poetic language equals „Creative energy force = swing motor reaction exchange/fused pulse expands measured activity relating series of events. Explosive dynamics filter graduated tempi/a molecular condition of bearing/special levels qualitatively diverse and special/emerging event holds traditional recording men’s actions in heat life variable knit accord history a language in balance, direction.“ [Taylor 1966]. Energy play is not only a substitute for swing but a distinct formal ideal. Whereas swing represents mostly a continuous forward motion, the dynamically defined energy of Taylor’s music builds up to dynamic culmination points, is an active ingredient in his formal concept. Taylor himself defines the different musical ingredients — form, rhythm, musical communication — in their relation to each other: 

„The Ensemble Exists
 beginning microcosm
 germ expanding simultaneously
 in 3 areas: outer curve
             – intra section (density)
             rhythmic eclipse (time)
 Resulting weight produce organism thrust
      event  energy

[Taylor 1976]

Taylor’s concerts consist of long sets in which the players find together in passages of intense musical conversation. De facto, though, these sets are built upon carefully planned compositional ideas – compositions, though, very different from the composed „opus“ of European music, and different just as well from the theme composition or mere arrangement which one usually encounters in jazz. In recent years, Taylor has recorded some of his compositions in short versions which allow a more detailed analytic study of their concept. 

3. Composition with Cecil Taylor

Taylor’s recordings from the early 1960s onward show him experimenting with group sounds, trying to find a new way of playing together, to establish a dense musical texture not hitherto heard in jazz. His music contains clear structures – not in the sense that one finds in notated, analytical compositions or arrangements but in the sense of a structuring of musical time. Taylor does rarely use notated music. In numerous interviews he argues against notation: „The eyes are really not to be used to translate symbols that are at best an approximation of sounds. It’s a division of energy and another example of Western craziness. When you ask a man to read something, you ask him to take part of the energy of making music and put it somewhere else. Notation can be used as a point of reference, but the notation does not indicate music, it indicates its direction.“ [Spellman 1966: 281-282]. Or, more concisely: „Western notation blocks total absorption in the ‚action‘ playing. The eye looks, mind deciphers, hands attack, ear informs.“ [Taylor 1966]. Taylor’s way of „transmitting ideas“, as he calls it, is the oral concept. Saxophonist Jimmy Lyons reminisces: „Sometimes Cecil writes his charts out, sometimes not. I dig it more when he doesn’t. I don’t know how to say this, but we get like a singing thing going when he teaches us the tunes off the piano. It has to do with the way Cecil accompanies. He has scales, patterns, and tunes that he uses, and the soloist is supposed to use these things. But you can take it out. If you go into your own thing, Cecil will follow you there.“ [Spellman 1966: 44]. Here, Lyons explains more than just the oral „transmission“ of ideas as opposed to interpreting notated music. Taylor is more interested in the musical process, in the direction the music takes than in the actual nameable (repeatable) result. At one instance, he states, „Music is a head game, and the idea is that all things that prevent complete absorption of the sound should be cut away as much as possible. We’ve devised different ways of organising the music, to get to musicians very quickly so that they can absorb the ideas and get it playing around in their heads and operating“. [Wilmer 1977: 48]. Taylor’s musicians are not supposed to blindly follow a compositional plan but to absorb musical ideas and influence the musical process to an even larger degree than with standard procedures in jazz. One may find Taylor preparing a concert by playing a certain motivic cell, spread over the whole keyboard, over and over again for hours, absorbing its possibilities. This motivic cell may then function as the point of reference for the evening’s concert, although it is hardly ever stated during the live event. To interpret for him means to absorb the musical idea. In 1957 Taylor recorded Nona’s Blues at the Newport Jazz Festival. He relates this story about his view on musical notation: „I’ve had musicologists ask me for a score to see the pedal point in the beginning of that piece. They wanted to see it down on paper to figure out its structure, its whole, but at that point I had stopped writing my scores out. I had found that you get more from the musicians if you teach them the tunes by ear, if they have to listen for changes instead of reading them off the page, which again has something to do with the whole jazz tradition, with how the cats in New Orleans at the turn of the century made their tunes. That’s our thing, and not composition. There are periods when I go through that and periods when I don’t, depending on the score and the musicians. But ‚Nona’s Blues‘ I did not write out. And the musicologists found that hard to believe, since on that tune one section just flows light into the next. That gives the lie to the idea that the only structured music possible is that music which is written. Which is a denial of the whole of human expression.“ [Spellman 1966: 70-71]

4. The Unit – Band and Solo

The term „unit“ was used as a name to many of Taylor’s ensemble since 1966 as well as a description of some aspects of his musical aesthetics. As a band it was a unit of individuals relating to each other and to each other’s personal and musical history: „When I say the Unit, it is not piano virtuoso or drum virtuoso or alto soloist, but a community of men feeding each other, relating to each other, and speaking to each other in musical architectural sounds which have been passed on to them through reverence of Sidney Bechet, Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins, with due respect for Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, if you happen to be Jimmy Lyons… or through the love of Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, Erroll Garner, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, if you happen to be Cecil Taylor… I mean, that’s what improvisation is. It is the ability to communicate with the geniuses that have prededed us and to come with reverence to obtain some personal meaning from their universe and translate it for ourselves to give to those who follow.“ [Taylor 1979]

While this quote emphasizes the importance of historical awareness in Taylor’s music, in his liner notes to the album Air Above Mountains (1966), Taylor explains the moment of individuality and the very personal sides of improvisation in his own and his group’s music:

„Improvisation is a tool of refinement
 an attempt to capture ‚dark‘ instinct
 cultivation of the acculturated
 to learn one’s nature in response to
 group (society) first hearing ‚beat‘
 as it exists in each living organism.“

[Taylor 1976]

Taylor himself, without doubt, is a virtuoso pianist. He has total command of the keyboard but applies it according to his own stylistic concept. The percussive quality of Taylor’s piano playing has often be singled out as a special characteristic of his style. Taylor often uses a technique involving fast cluster movements covering the whole keyboard of his instrument. He holds his hands, finger pressed together, in a hammerlike position and moves them, one hand above the other, across the whole or part of the keyboard. Taylor uses clusters in several ways depending on their structural task: In improvisatory parts these clusters help producing highly energetic results. Another cluster type produces melodic or rhythmic motives, sets recognizable patterns and functions as a motivic unit and as such as an element of form in Taylor’s music. Such clusters are mostly used in the thematic parts which can be freely combined by the musicians. Taylor himself characterizes his piano playing analytically: „The piano as catalyst feeding material to soloists in all registers, character actor ‚assoluta‘. Attitude encompassing single noted line, diads, chord cluster, activated silence (motion in the dark light square) it is played percussively (stiff bodied fingers) …“ [Taylor 1966]. His ideal of piano solo playing is to sound like an orchestra — an ideal not too rare with jazz pianists. In his solo pieces the three structural categories which Taylor calls „anacrusis“, „plain“ and „area“ are clearly discernible by their different pianistic character (as discussed below for Air Above Mountains). Within the ensemble, the unit, Taylor usually worked together with musicians who were able to relate to his dynamic concept of improvisation. Some of the musicians stayed around Taylor for a considerable time, the saxophonist Jimmy Lyons for instance for more than twenty years.

5. Unit Structures – Cecil Taylor’s musical program

Taylor — and with him other exponents of the „new thing“ — did rarely play „standards“ with fixed harmonic progressions (i.e. with a preset formal outline). Taylor looked for new ways to structure improvisation in order to find an alternative to the conventional form (and structuring) in jazz. 

In Taylor’s music from the 1960’s into the 1990’s one often hears similar melodic and motivic elements. Listening to his recordings one soon discerns a distinct motivic vocabulary. There seem to be not too many „words“ in this vocabulary, as one encompasses similar formulas over and over again. There are motivic cells like a rhythmic octave pendulum motive; there are typical harmonic progressions like Taylor’s fondness for chromatic passages; there are formal conventions such as the static-energetic repetition of small motivic units. 

The single constituents of Taylor’s stylistic vocabulary are the structural units. Unit Structures — also the title of Taylor’s first album for the Blue Note label from 1966 — was a musical program based on more or less defined structural units. This unit concept becomes the most important feature of Taylor’s formal language throughout the years. Starting with Unit Structures and Conquistador (1966), Taylor developed the unit concept in his group as well as in his solo projects. A „unit“ in this concept is an isolated musical occurence, a time unit, a formal entity. Taylor exlains in his liner notes to Unit Structures: „Rhythm-sound energy found in the amplitude of each time unit. Time measurement as isolated matter abstracted from mind, transformed symbols thru conductor, agent speaking in angles…“ [Taylor 1966]

Taylor introduces terms for three formal elements central to his compositions: 

  • „anacrusis“: „Anacrusis“ is a thematic introduction which, as Ekkehard Jost explains, „defines above all the emotional level of the ‚collective compositions’“ [Jost 1981: 77]. Anacrusis, then, is not the thematic material for improvisation but rather an introduction setting the atmosphere for what follows.
  • „plain“: „Plain“ are short motivic cells which constitute the most recognizable part of Taylor’s music, the „vocabulary“: composed or predetermined parts which can be combined by choice. Taylor explains the „plain“: „architecture, particular in grain, the specifics question-layers are disposed-deposits arrangements, group activity establishing the ‚Plain‘.“ [Taylor 1966]. Typical „plain“ cells include simple octave pendulums, chromatic changing note passages, repeated chordal phrases, fast harmonic arpeggios often covering several piano registers. 
  • „area“: The „area“ is the field for improvisation, leading from the surrounding structures into an improvisatory exploration of given material — though the material itself does not necessarily have to be the basis for improvisation. Taylor explains: „… where intuition and given material mix group interaction. (…) The players advance to the area, an unknown totality, made whole thru self analysis (improvisation), the conscious manipulation of known material“ [Taylor 1966].  

A fourth element in Taylor’s universe of composition is called „strata“ and defines the personality of each musician, his musical approach and his individual sound. Taylor: „Each instrument has strata: timber, temperament“ [Taylor 1966].

The use of the three structural elements „anacrusis“, „plain“ and „area“ results in a recognizable overall structuring of Taylor’s music, which nevertheless allows for extreme personal freedom of the individual musicians. Taylor explains: „From Anacrusis to Plain patterns and possibility converge, mountain sides to dry rock beds, a fountain spread before prairie, Form is possibility; content, quality and change growth in addition to direction found.“ [Taylor 1966; emphasis is mine]. Or, in less metaphysical words: „My music is constructionistic, that is, it is based on the conscious working-out of a given material“ [quoted in: Jost 1981: 75].

6. Conquistador! 

Conquistador! is the second of two albums Cecil Taylor recorded for the Blue Note label in 1966. The Blue Note deal was Taylor’s first contract with an established company. All musicians of the date had played with Taylor before. Taylor had used the two bassists Alan Silva und Henry Grimes since 1964; Jimmy Lyons had worked with the pianist since 1961; drummer Andrew Cyrille, whose second album with Taylor this was, would stay with the pianist into the mid-1970s. The years before the recording had been relatively successful for Taylor, who, for instance, held an engagement at the prestigious Village Vanguard in New York for five consecutive weeks. The reviews of Taylor’s first Blue Note album (Unit Structures) had been mostly positive. The album Conquistador!, though, ended Taylor’s contract with Blue Note. Conquistador! contains two extended compositions: the title piece as well as With (Exit), both almost twenty minutes in length. 

–> Conquistador (YouTube link)

Conquistador begins with a short cascade-like piano introduction. This is followed by a repetitive unison theme stated by trumpet and saxophone (see ex. 1) and accompanied by vivid piano phrases. The piano takes over with another melodic figure repeated in chromatic downward sequences, soon to be accompanied by long notes from the horns. 

Jimmy Lyons takes his solo from here, beginning on top of the repeated rhythmic piano phrases. Whereas the unison theme in the beginning clearly states a gb (minor) modality, the alto solo stays in an eb (minor) surrounding. Lyons‘ solo itself works with repetitive structural elements, short phrases which are repeated, changed, interrupted by cascade-like runs, changed into new, related phrases which again are repeated. All this happens on top of a very active piano accompaniment, on top of irritating drum accents, on top of an ever-moving bass line — all of which veils the repetitive elements, giving the structure much more of a nervous appeal than it really holds. The repetitions of the saxophone and those of the piano do not necessarily coincide, Taylor‘ phrases often beginning at different time intervals from Lyons‘. Still, these repetitive elements constitute the structure of the long alto saxophone solo. The musicians refer to a common phrase vocabulary as may be noted when Lyons starts a sequence of intervallic triads (see ex. 2) similar to the intervallic structures often used by Taylor — and which the pianist actually plays not more than 30 seconds after the saxophone passage in question.

A change of atmosphere introduces a lyrical, nearly ballad-like trumpet solo in c minor, accompanied by sparse and much more harmony-oriented piano phrases, arco as well as pizzicato basses and single drum accents. Taylor’s accompaniment does not contain any of his typical cascade-like runs. 

The short interlude-like trumpet solo is followed by a piano „vamp till ready“ section in eb minor preparing for a 4/4 theme which is stated by trumpet and alto saxophone in unison. After the first two measures this theme breaks out of the 4/4 structure and holds its own clear melodic line (ex. 3) against repeated piano phrases. This second theme has a strong hardbop feel. A „bridge“ constantly repeats a simple two measure phrase (first in f minor, then in ab minor). 

From here Taylor starts his solo with sparse phrases on top of equally sparse drum accents and a dense bass carpet. Taylor repeats short phrases and single chords. His solo is structured harmonically in four parts: an a minor part; a second, more cascade-like part changing between G major chords and chords on its chromatic upper second (ab); a third part returning to the opening a minor; and a final part in g minor.

This leads back into a reprise of the second (hard bop) theme which after Taylor’s „vamp“ is shortly (just once) stated by the horns. 

The following section features the basses. Fore- and background seem to be changing constantly. The texture becomes dense, has the effect of a constant dialogue between the two basses, piano and drums. After a while saxophone and trumpet enter with held notes (still in an eb minor feel), followed by an unaccompanied bass duo which more and more calms down, until piano and alto enter quietly. 

The piece ends with a short motivic reminiscence of the opening theme. Ekkehard Jost’s conclusion of his analysis of Unit Structures holds true for Conquistador: „Beneath the emotional impact of his music, which is what the listener primarily responds to, is an intricate network of formal relationships. These inner formative aspects — created by composition and agreement, as well as by spontaneous interaction on the part of the players — are utterly independent of traditional schematic demarcations and thus have only a low degree of predictability for the listener.“ [Jost 1981: 83] In Conquistador, Taylor presents different thematic, atmospheric, improvisational approaches from which his musicians can choose. The larger formal outline is progressive rather than repetitive even though the second (hardbop) theme functions as a formal frame for part of the performance. The stylistic language of Taylor and his musicians in Conquistador comprises rhythmic and melodic repetition, pronounced tonal centers as well as a distinct negation of such tonal centers, solo passages and collective improvisation, aggressive accompaniment and lyrical melodies. Here as in other recordings by Taylor one meets phrases, melodic and rhythmic figures which form the basic vocabulary of Taylor’s music. In his solo recordings Taylor keeps mostly within such a vocabulary whereas in the group recordings his musicians have the freedom to contribute their own ideas within the given stylistic frame. 

7. Air Above Mountains (Buildings Within)

Air Above Mountains (Buildings Within) was recorded in August 1976 during a solo piano concert in Austria. It was released on the German Enja label in two  fragments, each of which covers about 26 minutes. 

In his essay accompanying the extensive CD documentation of Cecil Taylor’s one-month stay in Berlin in August 1988, Ekkehard Jost [Jost 1988: 93] analyses the development of Taylor’s solo piano language from his earliest solo album (Praxis) from 1968 to his recording of For Olim in 1986. Jost notices a development from a cluster-emphasized highly energetic playing in earlier years to a stronger emphasis on short tonal centers and chromaticism, a development aiming at structural diversity and timbral variety. One might add that with the years Taylor obviously made more conscious use of certain of his „vocabulatory“ phrases, a development resulting in the solo/trio miniatures of the album In Florescence from 1989. Also, in recent years Taylor’s solo as well as his group projects have made more and more use of his own poetry recited either before or in the middle of his pieces, sometimes even accompanied by his own percussion or piano playing (Double Holy House, 1990, FMP CD 55).

–> Air Above Mountains (YouTube link)

In Air Above Mountains, Taylor uses an alternation of „plain“ and „area“ passages involving the following structural ideas:


  • octave pendulums, usually spread over up to four octaves but sometimes over the whole keyboard;
  • chromatic changing note passages, sometimes involving two, three or four neighboring notes, often played in forcefully attacked octave pendulums covering several octaves;
  • chordal phrases, usually hammered in frequent repetitions of single chords (sometimes spread over several octaves) or, as Ekkehard Jost describes them as „a motive consisting of two chords moving in parallel or in counter motion. When two hands are involved, each hand mirrors the other.“ (see ex. 4, taken from Jost 1988: 91);
  • fast arpeggios with a clear harmonic center, often played alternating with similar arpeggios a second above or below (chromatic shift). These arpeggios often only comprise a single octave, are repeated and then dissolved into an octave pendulum a second higher or lower as in ex. 5, taken from a phrase near the end of the second half of Air Above Mountains.


  • cascade like improvised passages, played rapidly with both hands creating a seemingly single melodic occurence. These extremely fast passages often are hammered by Taylor in his unusual piano technique described above.

„Plain“ and „area“ sections as well as the single „plain“ units usually are easily identifiable. Single units are rarely longer than half a minute; passages of improvisational cascades lasting for more than two minutes as they occur in both halves of the recording stand out in the context of the performance. Sometimes the alternation of different techniques leads to frame-like structures. This is the case during the middle of the first part of Air Above Mountains, when Taylor plays a signalling passage reiterating „d“ (as a fifth in G major), then proceeding to a cascade-like improvisational passage which is followed by a clear reminiscence of the earlier frame. Only rarely do we encounter distinctly structured melodic lines or rhythmical phrases reminiscent of more conventional jazz playing. If any tonal identities are established, they don’t last long — usually not more than a couple of seconds before being discarded in favor of chromatic shifts or sudden change of technique. Structural changes are abrupt, there are no connecting interludes, no improvised transitions between the structural units. 

Taylor’s solo piano performances tend to be more coherent than his group recordings. Relying on just himself as improvising soloist, Taylor often cuts „area“ sections to a minimum giving himself more room to explore the „plain“, to develop dynamic tension out of the the unit vocabulary. In general, with Taylor composition is neither aim nor frame but point of departure. Improvisation can be achieved on different levels: in the more „conventional“ free improvisations of Taylor’s „area“ passages; but also in the individual use and interpretation of the different „plain“ units. 

It would be a mistake, though, to understand the limited motivic material in the „plain“ parts as musical center of Taylor’s compositional concept. The „plain“, the compositional reservoir he uses and let’s his musicians use is comparable to the vocabulary of a language, which in itself does not make sense but only in a semantic surrounding. Taylor’s motivic cells are tools to develop the energetic process of his pieces. Many performances use a similar vocabulary, and yet the results are extremely different, because the musical development as such is largely independent of the precomposed units. These have a function comparable to bricks in the building of architecture. One brick looks like the other, and yet one building will be a church and the other a hotel. (Taylor, by the way, is highly interested in architecture and dance. Both stand for ideals within his own musical thinking: architecture = structuralism; dance = rhythm, processual form.)

8. Ell Moving Track

In 1989 Cecil Taylor recorded the trio album entitled In Florescence containing fourteen pieces. Each composition is introduced by Taylor with short poetic lines. Many of these seem programmatic, for instance the lines preceding Charles and Thee: „How many ways can one note, its resonances physically impelled to produce a myriad of inflections, timeless in the glare of an absidian blade.“ All compositions on the album are miniatures compared to usual Taylor performances, lasting between 48 seconds and 11 minutes and averaging around 3 to 5 minutes. Many of the miniatures, though show a formal outline similar to the structural development of much longer concert performances. Thus, In Florescence kind of represents a dictionary of Taylors formal and compositional vocabulary. The short compositions show harmonically, melodically and rhythmically clearly structured forms. The skeleton transcription of Ell Moving Track in ex. 6 tries to direct the listener to the formal and structural development, notating only such elements (bass lines, chords etc.) which best identify single units. (Some of such units, it can be deduced from this skeleton transcription, center more on chordal playing, some on harmonic/chromatic figures, some stand out through clear melodic phrases, while others feature  a distinct rhythmic character.)

–> Ell Moving Track (YouTube link)

Taylor opens the short performance (Ell Moving Track lasts for only 5’15“) with a recitation of two poetic lines: „Instrument always less than the music, spirits engulf blood to make“. The piece itself can be analytically structured in five sections. It begins with homophonic lines, hardly rhythmically stressed, increasingly interrupted by breaks and played in opposite motion by both hands (blocks 1-8 in the transcription). A second section (blocks 9-13) consists of chains of broken chords in the right and a clear bass line in the left hand. Notice a split second — barely discernable — of a swinging rhythm within block 11. A third section (blocks 14-16, 17) has a clear formal task: a passage reminiscent of ragtime figures frames a chordal improvisational passage. The fourth section (blocks 18-28) features improvised cascades framed by motivic „ritornellos“; in between there are motivicly related improvisations with clear — and for Taylor rather rare — melodic and harmonic references to the blues. Also one hears a distinct harmonic basis: blocks 18-19 indicate E minor, blocks 23-28 Gb minor. The last section (blocks 29-44) again features broken chords over distinct bass lines and is clearly reminiscent of section 2. Again there are tonal relationships, again one finds repetitions of various melodic/thematic groups. 

The „composition“ of the whole piece results in a strong feeling of formal unity. The musical process can be deduced to relatively simple structural ideas which make up the single sections. Rhythmic intensity and with it a feeling of rhythmic development is not achieved by the jazz-traditional means of swing but by a more or less of musical energy. The high point doubtlessly are the improvised cascades in section 4. 

The main traces of stylistic traditions from jazz history are rhythmic and harmonic references towards blues, ragtime, a swinging rhythm. These, though, nearly vanish behind the strong personal style of the pianist. Still, they stress the importance of African American musical heritage for Cecil Taylor: „The determinant agent of this music has to do with ancestor worship, it has to do with a lot of areas in terms of a feeding process. It has nothing to do with energy except that one tries to keep one’s body in shape. It has to do with a language of sounds that are exchangeable depending upon one’s knowledge of the tradition.“ [Giddins 1981: 282-283]. The pianist acknowledges different influences, some of which can be heard in his music, some of which can only be experienced in his live performances: „The elements I draw from include the blues, the conservatory and even the Japanese Kabuki“ [Taylor 1979]. Taylor can often be seen in concerts of musicians from a broad stylistic variety of African American music. Tradition with him is an aesthetic as well as a technical prerequisite. 

„technique is weapon to do whatever
must be done/ is self-determined
reflective of conscious application
of ancient ritual within family“

[Taylor 1976]

From a traditional understanding of music it may seem odd that Taylor gives different titles to pieces which obviously make use of the same motivic/melodic elements. A title with Taylor is no longer the name for a single, identifiable piece, but the name for a unique improvised process. This becomes especially clear in the rare cases in which Taylor uses a title twice, such as on his solo album Silent Tongues. Live at Montreux ’74 (Arista Freedom Al 1005) in which the encores Jitney No. 2 and After All No. 2 mirror the original Jitney and After All from the same concert only in atmosphere — After All for example clearly identifiable as Taylor’s idea of a ballad. On the other side, it may be enlightening to compare the structural elements of a composition such as Ell Moving Track to recordings making use of similar material. In November 1989, for instance, Taylor recorded a solo album (Looking (Berlin Version) Solo, FMP CD 28) which features elements found in Ell Moving Track: In a short piece (just 1’22“) entitled Section 3 one finds a passage not unlike the one in blocks 9 to 11 from ex. 6: chromatic, chordal passages, a signaling motive and a short, slightly swinging rhythm. Section 4 from the same concert (length: 3’45“) might be compared to the fourth block from Ell Moving Track with the alternation of a ritornello frame and short, then increasingly longer cascade-like improvisations. In both Section 3 and Section 4 Taylor uses a glissando as another structural point de vue, this time one not heard in Ell Moving Track. 

The vocabulary used in Ell Moving Track, thus, has not been coined especially for this piece. Taylor has used it before and since. An earlier example can be hear in the second piece of Taylor’s Iwont£nwonsi. Live at Sweet Basil (Sound Hills SSCD-8065), recorded in 1986 (released in 1995). Many of the above mentioned structural units are easily identifiable — the first fifteen minutes of the piece which lasts for slightly more than 44 minutes seem mostly like an enlargement of elements found in Ell Moving Track –, even though the units are combined differently. „Each piece is choice“, says Taylor in 1966 [Taylor 1966]. With Taylor, the term „composition“ can be traced back to its literal origin „com-ponere“: to combine a specified musical vocabulary. In his compositional aesthetics, Taylor moreover combines musical traditions from the European as well as the African American heritage. As composer and performer Taylor succeeds in arriving at highly energetic performances which, inspite of the limited musical material used as basis, are largely unpredictable to the listener. Taylor’s music, without doubt is demanding to the listener. But for those who take up the challenge, his compositions never loose the highest risk of an improvised jazz performance and yet bear the individual mark of an original composer.

Wolfram Knauer (March 1996)


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