Of a Cat at the Window and Cecil Taylor’s World of Sound
By Stuart Mitchner
The sound is already in us and that sound is based on the heartbeat. — Cecil Taylor (1929-2018)
A six-month-old male tuxedo cat is gazing out the window, mesmerized by a frenzy of birdsong, like a dawn chorus at dusk. He’s poised, tensed, all at once frustrated, excited, delighted by the sounds he can’t see. Since the birds are nesting in the hedge outside, the hedge seems to be singing, and so attentive is the cat in his search for the source of the song, it’s as if he’s finally, actually seeing it. He’s on his hind legs now, primed to pounce, except he’s a house cat, he’s never been in the wild, he’s hunting the sound not the birds, it’s all new to him, and the quick, shrill piping little cries he’s emitting are more like mimicry than mewing. He’s calling to the invisible birds and they’re calling back.
Fifteen years later, the pianistic fervor of the late Cecil Taylor’s “Spring of Two Blue-J’s” reminds me of the cat at the window, not so much because of the title — anyway, the birds nesting in the hedge were not bluejays — but because of the man whose playing, in the words of his longtime advocate Gary Giddins, “exonerates my mind for wandering — because anywhere it wanders is sanctified by the music that takes it there.”
One night in 1961 at the Five Spot, Cecil Taylor’s all over the piano, beating on it, pounding up a storm, and I’m standing so near the epicenter of the disturbance, I can feel the vibrations coming up through the floor. I don’t know what’s going on. I have no way into this music, no way to either enjoy it or dismiss it like the people smirking as they flee the premises. I have no choice. It’s all new to me. It’s happening and I’m enduring it, warily, uneasily, at once attracted and repelled. The whole time, I’m looking down: the pianist could be building and toppling his towers of sound on a subway platform or at the bottom of an elevator shaft.
Walking west on Eighth Street I’m experiencing aurally what happened visually when I came out of Antonioni’s Red Desert into an alarmingly lucid world, as if the film had weaponized my sense of sight. Now it’s happening with sound: I’m hearing everything too clearly, my own breathing, the beating of my heart, my ears awash with the echo of a thousand crashing cymbals, a chaos of voices from a bar, a woman’s laughter, water dripping from an air-conditioner — it seems Cecil Taylor has opened the door to a less lethal version of “the roar that lies on the other side of silence” in George Eliot’s Middlemarch.
Driving Under the Influence
Three times a week for three years now I’ve been driving the same route from Princeton to Kingston, making the same left turn on to Snowden from All Saints Road. I’ve made that turn with Beethoven’s Hammerklavier on the stereo, with “I am the Walrus,” with Mozart and Mahler. No matter what’s playing, the music’s in the car, I’m in the music, and I always look both ways before I turn left. Or so it’s been until the morning Cecil Taylor is ringing all 88 of his black and white bells in a piece he calls “Crossing,” wherein he’s ascending to some pinnacle of sheer unmitigated virtuosity, like an ecstatic Quasimodo swinging from bell to bell in the belfry of Notre Dame. This is what’s happening when I see the stop sign at Snowden that’s of no more consequence in the soundscape than a piece of red paper blowing in the wind. Cecil Taylor’s busy right hand is pulling me toward the right turn I don’t want to make when I come to what remains of my senses and swerve sharply to the left in mid-turn even as a black SUV from hell comes honking out of nowhere, bearing down on my stalwart 18-year-old CRV and staying on my tail down Snowden to Herrontown Road, the invisible driver cursing me all the way I’m sure. By then I don’t mind. To me the SUV is the blaring personification of everyone who ever called Cecil Taylor a charlatan. As I turn up the volume, I’m thinking of the oft-quoted comparisons of Taylor’s keyboard to “eighty-eight tuned drums” and of Rashied Ali’s tale of the time Taylor literally “broke in” a secondhand piano, “the keys shooting out of it like bullets.”
Gary Giddins blows through the “charlatan” claim in a 2004 interview, pointing out that “anyone just watching him could see the digital precision: the fact that here’s a guy who plays faster and looser than almost anybody I can think of, and yet his fingers never fall into the cracks, you never hear those minor seconds that Thelonious Monk made famous,” and “the fact that he will play something totally mind-bending and then he will do it exactly the same way, so you know that this is a man who is completely in control.”
There are enlightened celebrations and explications of Cecil Taylor throughout Giddins’s collected writings, from Riding On a Blue Note (1981) to Visions of Jazz (1998) to Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of Its Second Century (2004), where he takes another shot across the bow of the charlatan crowd. Titling the piece, “Our Chopin,” he writes, “I have no interest in whether Taylor’s music will survive the next century as handsomely as Chopin’s did the last, but I do suggest that in the realm of uncontained piano ecstasy, he is the modern analogue — fittingly, one more likely to nuke romance than dwell upon it.” In the context of Taylor’s “rare American forays into concert halls,” Giddins writes of the way he begins “his extended piano works with poised motifs, building variations stolidly in a kind of foreplay before letting loose the climaxes of pianistic frenzy, the cascades and avalanches that sate the gallery and torment the disaffected.” At a Lincoln Center concert, “The measured chords were followed by two-note tremolos parked in various keys, as though looking for the right room; rhythmic figures that pirouetted in the air and landed in splat chords; and his fast-tumbling arpeggios, dispersed so that there was no time to take them for granted.” Taylor was 73 when Giddins pictured him “immersing himself in a no-holds-barred three-way rocket-launching extravaganza” that was “one of modern music’s tonic wonders.”
Listening online to the solo side of the Spring of Two Blue-J’s album (Unit Core 1974), from a 1973 Town Hall performance by the Cecil Taylor Unit, it’s tempting to take a Peter and the Wolf approach, imagining our cat Nick as the pouncing left hand, the birdsong the antic right, the window the place where the call finds the response. Maybe that moment in 2003 was really only about a young cat who was frustrated because he couldn’t get at the birds, or maybe he was simply agitated because they could sing so well and he was just learning. As far as I know, it was a one-time-only recital by a cat whose 15 years of life came to an end the same week as Cecil Taylor’s 89 — one more than the keys on a piano.
As there are no Cecil Taylor CDs at the library, I looked for what I needed and found it, as on so many occasions in the past, at the Princeton Record Exchange, which will be celebrating the 11th Annual National Record Store Day this Saturday. The quote at top is from a January 1995 WHRB interview with Taylor. The keys as “tuned drums” analogy apparently originated in Valerie Wilmer’s book, As Serious As Your Life: The Story of the New Jazz. The Rashied Ali reference is from Jazz Anecdotes, edited by Bill Crow (Oxford 1990).
For recollections and insights, visit Gary Giddins Backstage Interview on Cecil Taylor and/or Conversations with Gary Giddins on jerryjazzmusician.com. Additional in-depth studies of Taylor’s work can be found in Jazz (W.W. Norton 2009) by Gary Giddins and Scott DeVaux, which is available at the Princeton Public Library.