100 Jazz Profiles
1929 - present
Pianist. Determinedly avant garde, Taylor is one of the most controversial figures in jazz - an artist who found it hard to make a living from his conception of the music when it was at its most original, but someone who was lionised in later life as a founding father of the free jazz movement of the 1950s.
He was conventionally trained, and during his time at the New England Conservatory also took part in Boston's burgeoning modern-jazz scene. By the time he arrived in New York in 1956, steeped in many aspects of contemporary classical music as well as jazz, he soon made his mark as an uncompromising free player.
He held down a celebrated residency at New York's Five Spot, and began recording with a quartet that included saxophonist Steve Lacy. Later, he worked with saxophonists Archie Shepp or Jimmy Lyons. These groups were every bit as free and radical in their conception as the contemporary quartet led by Ornette Coleman.
At the heart of their work was Taylor's piano playing, which soon shed any obvious connection with conventional melody and harmony. He produced abstract clusters of sound, hitting the kys in unorthodox ways, and creating unfamiliar combinations of notes.
Even his most abstract playing had a rhythmic unity, and his lenghty improvisations had an underlying shape, as was obvious both from his long and fruitful association with Blue Note records, who documented his work at length, and his association with drummer Sunny Murray and bassist Henry Grimes, who devised appropriate ways to interact with Taylor's playing.
Gradually he found success to go with his critical acclaim, eventually culminating in a McArthur Foundation 'genius' award, similar to that given to Ornette Coleman. In the last thirty years he has worked with a huge diversity of musicians on the world avant garde scene, and secured his place as one of the most inventive, if disturbing, piano soloists in jazz.
A. B. Spellman: Four Lives in the Bebop Business (New York, Da Capo, 1970)
World of Cecil Taylor (Candid CCD 79006)
Suggested track: Air
Sheffield University avant garde jazz website with links to a wide range of Taylor material
on radio 3
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