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Sound and Fury

L. Corsiglia

By Daniel Piotrowski | Posted 5/16/2001

Cecil Taylor with Tony Oxley

Cecil Taylor with Tony Oxley


The scene looked much more like a rock concert than a recital by a 70-year-old pianist. A hot-and-bothered throng, mostly under 25, packed into the lobby of Johns Hopkins University's Mattin Center, eagerly awaiting the opening of the general-admission auditorium. The kids were drawn out for free-jazz legend Cecil Taylor, as much an icon of the avant-garde as ever.

For those who haven't kept up with Taylor's recordings and performances in the past 40 years, or even the past 20 years, a very different pianist greeted them Friday night at Hopkins' Homewood campus. Paired with British drummer Tony Oxley, Taylor performed to a standing-room-only crowd that reveled in his presence as much as (or more than) it appreciated his performance.

Taylor certainly no longer performs like the pianist who recorded for Blue Note and United Artists in the '50s and '60s, nor is he still the same player who fronted the legendary Cecil Taylor Unit of the '70s and '80s (which counted bassist William Parker, saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson as alumni). As he gets older, Taylor's music is becoming more complex and difficult and less rewarding.

Hopkins had sponsored a week-long "Cecil Taylor Festival" that included discussions and programs prior to a pair of weekend concerts. For the first night, Taylor set up in a half-finished practice space lined with unmounted soundproofing and bare cinder blocks. After a 40-minute delay, Oxley began the show alone, slowly thumping his toms and bass drum. Unseen by the crowd, Taylor made his presence known by chirping his mumbo-jumbo poetry, then did a childlike tiptoe dance out to his piano. Once Taylor sat down at the keys, he and Oxley combined for some intense moments, methodically increasing their combined volume before letting loose and starting the cycle again. Never did the pair involve themselves in anything delicate, nor did they display any intricate communication. This was not a duo concert. Taylor was the leader and played basically on impulse; it was up to Oxley (a lion of the European avant-garde who made crucial recordings in the late '60s with guitarist Derek Bailey and saxophonist Evan Parker) to make it into a collaborative effort. Mostly, though, he just served up a repetitive cycle of cymbal smashing.

Taylor, who likes to break musical rules, also likes to try to break pianos. He frequently pounded the keyboard with his forearm and elbow, making the entire instrument shake. He had a handwritten piece of sheet music in front of him, but the sounds he produced didn't follow any readily observable pattern. Taylor's ability to get from point A to point B has always prevented him from sounding like a toddler banging on a keyboard and made his music sound like rather intense calligraphy rather than scribbling. But ever since the Cecil Taylor Unit dissolved in the late '80s, Taylor has consistently had difficulty playing with other people. In fact, he rarely performs with more than one other musician (1999's mediocre Momentum Space [Uni/Verve] with Elvin Jones and Dewey Redman notwithstanding). In recent years, Taylor has increasingly turned his shows into performance art (the poetry, the dancing), shifting attention from what he is doing to how he's doing it. Much as he was once ahead of his time, Taylor is today not even among the most interesting pianists. Young players such as Matthew Shipp and Craig Taborn are more innovative, while veterans Misha Mengelberg and Andrew Hill are making better records.

After an hour set, Taylor and Oxley returned for a brief second set followed by a 15-minute encore. The second half of the concert was somewhat better, as the musicians seemed more involved with each other. Taylor certainly still has his skill, but unfortunately his days of creating great music--especially with others--are long past.

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