Cecil Taylor

This morning I came out of the shower and I smelt of lemons. Somebody got the lemony stuff out and put it in a bottle so it won’t go off, and now it’s on me. Ten minutes later, I’m dry and the smell’s gone.

Cecil Taylor squeezes the lemons out of his music with his bare hands, the juice seeping through long fingers. That smell is on you for life, you don’t have to show off about it, you don’t need a t shirt with a lemon picture on.

I can’t say I have lots of Cecil Taylor’s records, and I’m not an expert. But there’s something in his music that reminds me, after his long life of contrary music making, about what I love about all music. It’s not easy.

When a record like “Jazz Advance” came out, in 1956, that must have been something. I can’t imagine the bravery involved, and above all the conviction, that what you are doing is worth it. I once read a review that pointed out “nods to the post-bop form” on this album. They sound more like raised fingers to me. 1959 has been officially designated the pinnacle of modern jazz recordings, and yet two years before that, Cecil Taylor was already taking that format to the breaker’s yard for parts.

People talk about “clusters” in Taylor’s playing, easy to imagine a fist, perhaps made in anger, thrown at the keys. The thing about punching a door is, it’s not easy to come back and punch it in exactly the same place. For me, virtuosity is not in the speed, it’s in the memory. He comes back to the same spot, like running across sand in ones own footsteps, or landing a space shop on an asteroid. Twice.

To hear this in action, this lightning coherence, is a hard won pleasure. It’s not easy. It is not a Spotify Experience, because you have to concentrate, you must not think about what other music you are missing out on. You have to think that someone taking an idea and working it through- transforming it, spitting it out in meteor showers one minute, low voiced laments the next- is worth waiting for. It has to be worth the work. It’s easy to think he’s “splashing around”, that he’s working with fly swats when actually his fingers are surgical knives. Once one accepts the endless flow of activity in his music (look out of the window, why is it so hard?), it seems as natural as a Spring morning, the seeming chaos of leaves and grass moving at odds with each other.

So what “kind of thing” is it? The truth is, it’s beyond style, it’s the aural manifestation of deep architecture spontaneously generated, which is too cumbersome for a genre title. It’s real lemons, not a cheap scent.

I’m happy for his long life, it must have been hard but, really, what else is there?

Cecil Taylor RIP.

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6 thoughts on “Cecil Taylor

  1. I completely agree with you, there was nothing nice or easy about his music but it made you listen. As hard as he played there was a brilliant precision in it.

  2. Brother, the lemon metaphor is perfect. The music is bracing, sour, an acquired taste. What I am so impressed by is that Cecil Taylor was classically trained. He didn’t have to play like that — it was a choice. And he stayed true to that choice, that voice, all the way to the finish. Here’s my own musical Tribute 2 Cecil Taylor on Soundcloud. Thank you for sharing your tribute!

  3. I’ve only just come across this post, Liam, but it’s pretty much the best thing (along with Alex Ross’s piece in the New Yorker) I’ve read following Cecil Taylor’s death. You’re dead right, of course: it’s not meant to be easy – and it certainly wasn’t easy for CT. Henri Cartier-Bresson had a description of drawing that I’ve always thought gets close to the heart of most worthwhile creative challenges; “un dur plaisir” he called it.

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