When I glanced at the calendar to see who was passing through town for the Earshot Jazz Festival some time back, the one performer that caught my eye as a must-see was the legendary free jazz pianist Cecil Taylor.
Last week presented a rare opportunity to see him perform as a solo pianist at Seattle's Town Hall, and perform the free jazz magic ball of yarn he's spun throughout a career spanning over 50 years...that's right, 50.
I arrived about a half hour prior to show time, and caught myself a second row seat at stage right, so I'd be able to see what he was doing with his hands. Not long after 8PM, the director of the Earshot Jazz Festival gave his introduction.
To thunderous applause, a shorter man then shuffled onto the stage with a folder of papers, sporting a black button down dress shirt, blue pajama pants, and rainbow colored foot stockings. He gave a short nod of acknowledgment to the audience as he shuffled through some paperwork, standing over the side of the Steinway grand piano onstage.
He then proceeded to read...and my brain cells started to fry like sausage on a griddle.
Cecil Taylor started shouting what sounded like various numbers, and at first came across as someone with Teret's. He then morphed into a diatribe for about ten minutes about mathematical definitions, Western metaphysics, and other theories that were barely understandable through his machine gun rate of speech...somewhere in there he also spoke of the definition of velocity. This went on for about 10 minutes.
I soon figured out that he was framing the tone for the show, especially for those who weren't familiar with his work...he was explaining to the audience that his theory on the piano involved partly that of mathematics; a concept first brought out by jazz pianist Thelonius Monk in the 1940s, and furthered by Taylor and some of his peers in the avant garde free jazz movement of the 1960s.
One might say he brought all that magic out of the top hat last night.
For more than an hour and a half, Taylor led the audience through the most dynamic and dramatic free form piano improvisation that anyone could ever serve witness to.
It's hard to describe the piano work of this man...but the one concept that keeps coming back to me is this: unadultered freedom.
He did not speak to the audience, nor announce the titles to any of the songs; perhaps because they had no real titles. His work on the keys is all about improvisation; it spanned from blinding fast movements across the piano keyboard to light delicate textures emphasizing the space between notes...then back to dramatic pounding.
Taylor's style features an ebb and flow quality...he binds mayhem together with tonal passages and patterns. One can pick up on the different movements tying it all together...
...but it requires your undivided attention.
In all, Taylor put together a 40 minute passage, flanked with two passages of about 15 minutes apiece. He then came out for two encores spanning about 10 minutes apiece. At the end of the regular set and both encores, he bowed to the audience as they showed him the great appreciation this legend deserved.
Needless to say, my brain felt like mush by the end of all of this. It was -- hands down -- the most exhausting musical exercise on my senses that I've ever experienced.