An Exhilarating Set of Cecil Taylor’s Jazz Arrives, 49 Years Later
Creative jazz at its best is a music of discovery: improvisers caught up together in a moment that’s passing even as they conjure it, with the next already materializing between them.
The jazz business, meanwhile, is often about rediscovery, as newly issued recordings from canonized greats frequently outsell and out-stream the releases of contemporary musicians, even those certain to be canonized themselves someday.
This Tuesday’s digital-only arrival of a mostly lost concert from the innovative pianist Cecil Taylor exemplifies both points. Recorded at the Town Hall in New York on Nov. 4, 1973, the music gushes as if it were an uncapped fireplug. Previously unreleased, the relentless 88-minute track “Autumn/Parade” catches the inexhaustible Cecil Taylor Unit in the grip of one revelation after another, playing free jazz, a style of improvisation, in the purest definition of free.
Unburdened by the boundaries of keys, structures, time signatures and the dictates of each piece’s composer, Taylor, Andrew Cyrille (percussion), Jimmy Lyons (alto saxophone), and Sirone (bass) formed an organic whole, making — discovering — one torrent of sound together.
“He never told me what to play,” Cyrille, now 82, said of Taylor last week. “He would say, ‘Play what you hear. Play what you want.’”
Or, as Cyrille put it at a 2020 Village Vanguard performance, such in-the-moment musical freedom is “playing life.”
Free jazz liberated rhythm sections from the traditional role of keeping time in favor of making sound, as Cyrille does throughout “Autumn/Parade.” Taylor, who died in 2018, famously hit his keys with a percussionist’s force, and for all the considerable harmonic excitement of his runs, what’s most immediately striking on the new release is the Unit’s restless, driving polyrhythms, pulsing clots of tones and beats.
“No other pianist I know plays with such physicality at the piano,” Kris Davis, a singular improvising pianist and composer in her own right, said in an interview. “Every idea, whether gestural, melodic or harmonic, is expressed through rhythm.”
Davis noted that Taylor’s technique of composing fragments of notes in “cells” that he then would “develop, expand and turn upside down” at times appealed more to classical musicians than to jazz musicians, though today his influence is heard widely among improvising pianists. (She cited an expansive list, among them Marilyn Crispell, Jason Moran, Craig Taborn, Myra Melford, Alexander Hawkins, Angelica Sanchez and Vijay Iyer.)
But on the nightclub scene of the ’60s and ’70s, genius didn’t always mean drink sales, and being in the vanguard of a new approach meant it could be a challenge finding suitable collaborators. Oblivion, the label putting out this release, has called it “The Return Concert” because in ’73, Taylor, then 44, had been mostly absent from recording and being in the New York scene for five years as he pioneered another aspect of avant-garde jazz life: turning to academia. (He taught at Antioch College and the University of Wisconsin, not without controversy.)
The taping of the Town Hall concert was another feat of improvisation. Taylor had recorded significant LPs (“Conquistador!,” “Unit Structures”) for Blue Note in the late 1960s, but, at this point, was independent. Planning a release for Taylor’s nascent Unit Core label, his sort-of manager, David Laura, turned to an unlikely source: a Columbia student, Fred Seibert, who had recorded concerts for the university radio station and released several blues LPs on the independent Oblivion label with cohorts from a Long Island record store.
With borrowed equipment and much youthful confidence, Seibert took the gig — and faced a torrent of music. “I felt like I was under Niagara Falls with every sound coming at me from 360 degrees and fighting for space in my head,” said Seibert, who would go on to engineer and produce records for Muse Records before leaving the music industry at the dawn of the 1980s for Hollywood, where he became a storied producer of animated television. (Series launched under his aegis include “Dexter’s Laboratory,” “Powerpuff Girls” and “Adventure Time.”)
For Taylor, “free” also meant freedom from the restraints of the commercial music industry. Releasing the first set would have demanded making a double LP and fading down the music at the end of each side, which Seibert considered contrary to its spirit. A shorter second set proved a better fit: Split between a 16-minute solo Taylor piece and a side-length band workout, the encore performance had a limited 1974 release as “Spring of Two Blue J’s.” One of the 2,000 copies made it to the critic Gary Giddins at The Village Voice; he called it “probably my favorite album made in the last year.”
The other 88 minutes of music remained on Seibert’s tapes, though he always hoped to put them out in the world. Now, taking advantage of digital music’s lack of physical limitations, he’s unleashing “The Complete, Legendary, Live Return Concert” on the newly reconstituted Oblivion Records. Seibert’s conviction not to fade or shorten the first set, “April/Parade,” and his disinterest in taking on the hassle of traditional distribution has led him to rule out the deluxe CD or vinyl package that such rediscoveries typically enjoy.
Critics and fans often view jazz history as a succession of giants making artistic breakthroughs, as the music itself changes in their wake. That accounts for some of the trepidation and revulsion that, decades ago, some critics expressed toward free jazz in general and Taylor in particular — was this the direction it all would go? It perhaps also explains the tendency of some of Taylor’s champions to emphasize what was new in his music (especially techniques inspired by classical composition) to the detriment of its roots in Black American jazz.
“He didn’t just come out of the blue and say, ‘I’m Cecil Taylor. I’m doing what I do, and it’s always been this,’” Cyrille said. “He learned from a lot of other people. He played with Johnny Hodges and Hot Lips Page. He observed Thelonious Monk. Now, the concepts were different, but all of those musicians before him played who they were, too — they played their freedom.”
Almost 50 years after that Town Hall concert, Cyrille is still doing the same. At Dizzy’s Club on Feb. 5, his longstanding group Trio 3 — with the bassist Reggie Workman and the alto saxophonist Oliver Lake — played its last-ever concerts, with guest appearances from Iyer and the altoist Bruce Williams. Cyrille, though, will continue playing live and recording, and he has performances scheduled at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tenn., in March.
Cyrille calls playing “therapeutic” and refers to the music he has made with Taylor and so many others throughout a 60-plus year career as “democratic.” Whether in the ’70s with Taylor or with his own groups today, “It’s about self expression,” he said, “and the spiritual signature of the players.”
He recalled the Taylor of the Town Hall era, hearing the other players’ discoveries, which then fed his own. “Whatever the rest of us played, he used it,” he said. “He absorbed music. And in his playing, you hear how he would deal with it as it entered his body, and how he felt about what was being offered to him. It all came out through the piano.”