Cecil Taylor Plays Live at the French Embassy

Washington, D.C., November 10, 2010

Cecil Taylor did not require an introduction when he stepped onto the stage to perform for 90 minutes at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C. on November 10, 2010. His solos on the piano were unlike anything he performed at practice earlier that day or the day before during rehearsal when he gleaned, “The piano always changes,” or perhaps he always changes. When it comes to the audience, he reveals, “I like to keep them guessing,” and indeed he did at the concert.

He sprang into action from the onset, and never curbed his candor or authority over the piano keys, an unpretentious Baldwin. The plumpness in his notes, the pressure of his ferocity, and the multitude of layers in his rhythmic patterns were unprecedented even compared to his previous works. He hit one crescendo after another giving the audience little time to prepare themselves to be continually catapulted by projectiles reverberating into a maelstrom of violent eruptions. He did not test the waters like he did at practice but rather dove right into the inferno much like Beethoven, driven by a compulsion that refused to be constrained. Taylor’s improvisations were a series of combustible intervals that blazed in opposite directions as one hand played in one key and the other hand took the diametrically opposing keys.

He understands where his ideas for the intervals come from but not where he they are going to take him until he arrives there. The end result is a vague notion as he shows that it is the journey which engages him the greatest. There is no formulaic rhythmic pattern that Taylor adheres to; it is the freedom of the mind, body and spirit communicating in conjunction which Taylor channels through the piano keys. After performing three solo compositions, he recites a handful of poems beginning with an opus that sets him off into a spontaneous cacophony of peals as if his skin was on fire. Taylor’s poetry is its own breed of beast. Much like his music, it is a series of thoughts, impressions and adjectives that might not normally be found in a dictionary, and yet, they have a meaning which is individual to each person who hears it. The phrasing is fragmented into hundreds of shards that flash ideas into the audience’s minds. Every poem stems from Taylor’s sense of compassion, a compassion for humanity to prevail through the struggles and the wrestling that is inherent to living, the game playing which often bombards people’s existence, and the love which he sees in others who are mistreated for it.

After his reading, Taylor delves into another composition seeming to be re-charged or re-directed into a more abstract realm where his banging on the keys and torrential cascades lessen causing the emotional tides to simmer at a cooler temperature. Without a word, he concludes the composition and rises from his chair to step backstage where he rummages through a heap of loose-leaf sheets littered with ancient Egyptian-style symbols on them and chooses to perform a new score. It is a shorter piece that has his fingers bouncing playfully and vaunting at heights which leave the audience bewildered and yet wanting more. He finishes the piece without saying a word and streaks straight for his dressing room.

The audience sees Cecil Taylor one last time as he comes to the entrance of the theater and greets guests and signs autographs. Afterwards, he recalls one special guest who tells him, “Your time has come.” He laughs but in his heart, he knows it is true.

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Susan Frances