Cecil Taylor returns, and stuns the Issue Project Room

Cecil Taylor. (Michael Hoefner, via wikimedia commons.)
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Where has Cecil Taylor been? In the decades after the birth of “free jazz,” the answer has been a constant one for over half a century: Taylor has been in the thick of the tradition, inescapable, the pianist with whom any newcomer has to grapple—even if that grappling ends with rejecting Taylor’s radically distinct approaches to rhythm and harmony.

Out in the physical world, the answer has been more mysterious—despite the fact Taylor has been living in his Fort Greene home for decades, even as, in recent years, the number of his appearances and recordings has slowed to a halt. When an NPR correspondent visited him at his townhouse before this month’s rare slate of Taylor concerts and tributes, the paint was reported to be peeling off the gate—a worrying reminder of how, over the last few seasons, various fund-raising concerts and festivals have been announced for the purpose of restoring Taylor’s home and turning it into a living museum, before being cancelled altogether.

During that time, he’s been missed in New York even as he’s remained in our midst: before last week, Taylor hadn’t played live since two dates at the Village Vanguard in 2008. So now that a few years have passed, the question feels ever more urgent: what does the master of freely improvised piano playing sound like today?

On the basis of Saturday night’s concert at Issue Project Room’s new location, on Boerum Place, the 83-year-old is in grand health. And still evolving. The briefest hints of Romantic-infatuated playing that appeared in Taylor’s thick, gesso-like mixture of styles and tones during those 2008 Vanguard dates with drummer Tony Oxley—excerpts of which have been released in an expensive, limited edition vinyl run by the label Triple Point Records—have flowered into something even more opulent. And, on the evidence of a German radio broadcast from Neuburg an der Donau late in 2011 that has made the rounds online (again in a duo setting with Oxley), these tonal fascinations have not amounted to a fly-by-night occurrence in Taylor’s sound-world.

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Because the new Issue Project Room space, a European-style chamber hall that seats roughly 200, has yet to be acoustically optimized, Taylor had an opportunity to press his recent ideas even further—making full use of the hall’s resonant echo via a liberal application of the sustain pedal during the first half of Saturday’s hour-plus concert. Perhaps the solo setting, in which the choice of exactly how percussive the music would be was entirely up to Taylor, had something to do with this choice, too. Freed even from the highly adaptable companionship of Oxley, Taylor seemed to treasure the solo environment, very gradually adding traces of his typical, pounding extremity into the mix.

His first three improvisations, based on sketches composed in Taylor’s private notated language, featured a variety of intervals and progressions that brought to mind to Schubert’s first Impromptus, though obviously scrambled through Taylor’s ritualistic play with dynamics—in which a hushed, tender-sounding figure can be interrupted, run backward, then transposed down into a rumbling bass realm before morphing into a fearsome cluster-chord requiring both of the pianist’s hands.

At the rough midway point, Taylor departed from the piano to recite one of his mystical-poetic texts. Not all of it was discernible at a textual or recitative level, or meant to be—though the word “radius!” was given several clear, enthusiastic shouts—but its rhythms were musical in a way that seemed inseparable from Taylor’s pianism: full of surprise pauses, repetitions, and revisions of articulation.

When Taylor returned to the piano for the two improvisations that made up the second half of the concert, he was in a more restless state. The Romantic language had largely been abandoned for a pricklier, more 20th century classical sound—one often featuring atonal single-note gallops, up and down a craggy, challenging mountain. But with Taylor as the sherpa, the terrain seemed more than just accessible: it was also revealed as a field of incomparable delights. As soon as the pianist smashed the reverie of the listeners’ collective dreaming with one of his trademark quick-jab, “and now it’s done” endings, the crowd, which had been brought to a near-boil when Taylor first appeared, delivered an enthusiastic standing ovation. While there was no encore, there were some microphones strewn along the margins of the stage, igniting hopes that Taylor’s public might have the chance to hear the performance again as part of some future recording. Whether in the flesh or via some home-audio format, Taylor’s is a presence that still feels essential for contemporary jazz, let alone experimental art on the whole, to keep checking in on.