Cecil Taylor is the most iconoclastic pianist in jazz. He's been playing and leading his own groups since the 1950s, and has never swerved from his highly individualistic musical stance. Whether he's called avant-garde, ``out,'' or ``free-bag,'' one thing is clear: He's a jazz original. There are some, however, who would not label Mr. Taylor's music ``jazz.'' Much of it is virtually indistinguishable from avant-garde classical music.
Nevertheless, his jazz roots come through, and in a recent, rare performance at the newly renovated Weill Hall (formerly Carnegie Recital Hall), Taylor left no rhythmic, stylistic, dynamic, melodic, or harmonic stone unturned.
There were samples and hints of the blues, swing, Latin riffs, Chopinesque phrases, and impressionistic interludes - a vast musical smorgasbord. And somehow, with all these stylistic shifts, he managed to create a seamless whole.
If you're only familiar enough with Taylor's name to have heard rumors that he's a wild man who just bangs the piano with his fists, you're in for a surprise. At Weill Hall, he played with plenty of fiery intensity, but also with a passionate lyricism and even fragile tenderness.
The new stage at Weill Hall had an open feeling and was beautifully lit with glittering chandeliers and bright, fresh paint. The lights lowered, and Taylor, dressed all in white with his long braids swinging, danced out and seated himself at the piano. He played two extended pieces, each over an hour long, and four brief, exquisite encores - all with authority, sensitivity, and brilliance. The music poured out of him, as he shifted moods effortlessly, playing uncannily adroit intervals, pretty clusters, rich harmonies and textures, leaving space at just the right moments. The music had its own inner motion, and it was obvious that he and the piano are intimate friends.
Taylor's overall mood at the concert was positively exuberant. As he warmed up, he began to hum, and finally broke into full-fledged singing (or was it chanting, or growling, or hollering?), his voice becoming an adjunct to the images he was coaxing from the keyboard. Some of it drew chuckles from the audience.
What struck me most about this performance was that there was absolutely nothing extraneous in Taylor's playing - everything mattered and made sense. Furthermore, he's a master of surprise, making abrupt and startling shifts in mood, sometimes from a cascading wall of sound to a brief but meditative major chord.
To the uninitiated, the concert might have seemed a little too long, Taylor a little too weird, and the music a little too demanding. But his spirit is so grand, his musicality so entrenched, and his originality so breathtaking, that it's well nigh impossible not to be moved by him.