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Cecil Taylor

During a 1981 performance an improvised piano solo by Cecil Taylor is captured on camera.


Cecil Taylor, the pianist and poet was born March 25, 1929 in New York City. Classically trained, Taylor is generally acknowledged as one of the pioneers of free jazz. His music is characterized by an extremely energetic, physical approach, producing complex improvised sounds, frequently involving tone clusters and intricate polyrhythms. His piano technique has been likened to percussion, for example described as "eighty-eight tuned drums" (referring to the number of keys on a standard piano). He has also been compared to "Art Tatum with contemporary-classical leanings."

Taylor began playing piano at age six and studied at the New York College of Music and New England Conservatory. After first steps in R&B and swing-styled small groups in the early 1950s, he formed his own band with soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy in 1956.

Taylor's first recording, Jazz Advance, featured Lacy and was released in 1956. It is described by Cook and Morton in the Penguin Guide to Jazz: "While there are still many nods to conventional post-bop form in this set, it already points to the freedoms which the pianist would later immerse himself in." Taylor's Quartet featuring Lacy also appeared at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival. He collaborated with saxophonist John Coltrane in 1958 (Stereo Drive, currently available as Coltrane Time).

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Taylor's music grew more complex and moved away from existing jazz styles. Gigs were often hard to come by, and club owners found Taylor's approach to performance (long pieces) unhelpful in conducting business. Landmark recordings, like Unit Structures (1966), appeared. With 'the Unit', musicians developed often volcanic new forms of conversational interplay.

By 1961, Taylor was working regularly with alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, one of his most important and consistent collaborators. Taylor, Lyons and drummer Sunny Murray (and later Andrew Cyrille) formed the core personnel of The Unit, Taylor's primary group effort until Lyons's premature death in 1986. Lyons's playing, strongly influenced by jazz icon Charlie Parker, retained a strong blues sensibility and helped keep Taylor's increasingly avant garde music tethered to the jazz tradition.



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