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Cecil Taylor at the French Embassy

French Embassy, Washington, D.C.; Nov. 10, 2010

Will Cecil Taylor ever stop being confounding, perplexing, bewildering? That question probably chases every performance by the pianist and avant-garde patriarch, and a recent solo recital at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., was no different. The answer, as always, was a pounding, sweeping, resounding “No.” Taylor arrived in the 1950s as an iconoclast, a musician whose work contained fewer obvious reference points than any other artist I can think to name. In his 81st year, not much has changed-except, of course, the attitudes and culture surrounding his work.

When he was, to use musicians’ parlance, getting his thing together, Taylor worked lousy day jobs and presented his otherworldly voice to fellow musicians whose reactions were either hostile or incredulous. Even in the decades following his recorded debut, the jazz establishment pushed back. On Nov. 10 he played for a few hundred fans whose focus bordered on hypnosis. They paid $45 each for admission, and a delay in door time allowed them to get well acquainted with their programs and Taylor’s institutional achievements: Guggenheim Fellow, NEA Jazz Masters Award, MacArthur “genius” grant. At the close of the performance, a standing ovation felt compulsory.

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