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Recalling The Athletic Style Of Pianist And Composer Cecil Taylor


This is FRESH AIR. Pianist and composer Cecil Taylor died last week at age 89. Taylor was known for his highly-animated piano recitals and group improvisations, and sometimes used his fist or forearm on the keys to play dense clusters. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Taylor's music could sound wild but was tightly organized.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Prowling up and down the keyboard, Cecil Taylor was the most athletic of jazz pianists. He was partly inspired by the physicality of flamenco dancers and also by architecture - arts of drawing shapes in the air and structuring space. Taylor had very fast hands, which made a cartoonish blur at the keys, but there was nothing hit or miss about his high-speed cascades. His fingers were pistons. The young Taylor loved percussive pianists like Brubeck, Ellington and Monk. But he was well on his way to his own style when he first recorded in 1956, already mixing the forceful and delicate, the loud and soft, the dark and the light.


WHITEHEAD: Cecil Taylor with drummer Denis Charles and with bassist Buell Neidlinger, who died in March, on Thelonious Monk's "Bemsha Swing." Taylor would play a few standards for a few more years, but ultimately he found circular song forms too confining. He had a breakthrough in 1961 when he teamed up with alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, who sounded like a free jazz Charlie Parker. Lyons was whippet-fast like the pianist and just as ready for extended improvised conversation. Sunny Murray is on drums.


WHITEHEAD: Cecil Taylor, 1962 - in the decades that follow, his group music became more intricately organized. He and his players built improvisations around little kernels of written melody that might be inserted anywhere in any key or octave - infinitely rearrangeable (ph) building blocks. Those materials kept his musicians focused and alert. Altoist Jimmy Lyons was still there in the early 1980s when bassist William Parker began anchoring the band. The music's sheer velocity and density were exhilarating.


WHITEHEAD: Cecil Taylor preferred big, loud bosendorfer pianos for extra thunder. He liked to loose the whirlwind, but he also loved working with Japanese butoh dancer Min Tanaka, with his powerful sense of stillness. No one improvised denser music at the piano than Taylor. A rush of ideas, lightning stroke runs and thick blocks of sound. But he could contain himself once in a while as on a 1988 duet with quiet English guitarist Derek Bailey.


WHITEHEAD: The pianist wasn't always so polite. Years earlier, Cecil Taylor played a duo concert with veteran pianist Mary Lou Williams. Taylor loved her playing, but they had an audible tug of war onstage - almost like two concerts going on at once or like one of avant-garde composer Conlon Nancarrow's densely layered player piano rolls.


WHITEHEAD: For a while, some jazz watchdogs insisted Cecil Taylor was doing it all wrong. That is propulsive, improvisational, variational music - wasn't jazz at all, having wandered too far from tradition. But tradition, as poet T.S. Eliot pointed out, expands to encompass what innovators bring to it. According to that view, tradition is flexible, capacious and conceptually slippery, rather like Cecil Taylor's music. He demonstrated new possibilities as an instrumentalist and a composer, which is why his vast influence on modern jazz extends way beyond piano players.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?" Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about why our cities have become unaffordable to poor people and how that's led to more evictions. My guest will be Matthew Desmond, whose book "Eviction" won a Pulitzer Prize. His new project The Eviction Lab is based at Princeton University where he teaches. It's collected millions of eviction records to help understand evictions' causes and consequences. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.