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.
Not to imply that the accolades were or are undeserved. Taylor’s music can very remarkably induce a sort of spatial and temporal disorientation, so let’s begin with the facts. He walked onstage about a quarter-hour late without introduction, wearing an untucked check shirt with a tie folded into its collar; his dark pants were tucked into his socks, and he didn’t wear shoes. Shuffling loose pages of poetic verse and his own variation on sheet music-for each extended solo piece Taylor required a single scrappy page of his personal hieroglyphics-the pianist quickly took his place behind a worn grand. And then it began, and continued for well over an hour: a series of compelling, assumedly improvised rubato excursions, ranging from about 10 minutes apiece to roughly 25 minutes, plus a mercurial poetry reading that stretched toward 15 minutes and preceded more piano playing.
The music, like any worthwhile abstraction, rewarded whatever effort and attention you gave to it. For being so indefinable, Taylor’s music can be wholly evocative-like clouds, or starry nights, or noise experiments that assemble bits of the industrial world like puzzle pieces. There was, rest assured, jazz present, and not just because of the principle of improvisation. You could have caught bits of Monk and Powell by way of Duke and the stride masters; wide, curt chords juxtaposed with speedy chromatic runs, delivered with Taylor’s trademarked drummer’s attack. (That roadhouse pummel has tempered some with age, but is still imposing. He stabbed at cluster chords and clawed speedily up and down the keyboard, with a command that suggested a methodical precision of his own devising more than his classical training.)
But the jazz quotient of Taylor’s art is underscored best in group settings, when he’s forced to adapt. Left to his own devices, blues-rooted music took a backseat to European affectations. There were implications of composed material: semblances of singable melody, motifs and loping basslines, as well as cascading Romantic flourishes with plenty of sustain. (When he let his chords drift and resonate, Taylor brought to mind that other historic solo improviser, Keith Jarrett; Taylor’s slow, steady moan also evoked Jarrett’s wordless emoting, though it wasn’t as distracting.) The discordances of the 20th century were also in the atmosphere: twelve-tone serialism, Messiaen’s stunning Catalogue D’Oiseaux. It was an overload of information to make sense of, but when each piece ended, you wanted more.
Taylor’s poetry wasn’t nearly as effective, and its shortcomings boiled down to communication. Though he had a microphone, Taylor opted to mostly hold it by his side and speak haltingly into the air. The largely indecipherable prose poems, introduced and punctuated by the author’s Dada-ist mumbling, centered on pseudo-science-talk of “viscosity,” a “radiating wavelength”-the creative process and the culture of performance. (“Clapping of hands, clapping of hands,” Taylor said. “Arrange song lines.”) Some of it was stylishly pleasing (“One has to find the eye; the invisible, subterranean…) or funny (“The procrastinator leaves only when ready”). It tended to mirror the stops, starts, half-repeats and inwardness of the music, but without the technique and fervor that make accusations of charlatanism moot. It was difficult to hear and understand and seemed willfully indeterminate, like the silliest work of the Beats. Say what you will about Taylor’s music, but at least it’s offered with such weighty conviction that it can’t be mistaken.