Friday, September 11, 2009

Taylor: Stepping Out in 1958

When lists of pivotal discs (those that introduced a vital new voice or important new movement in music) are published, Cecil Taylor's 1958 Looking Ahead! is seldom included. Critics usually point to Conquistador! or later recordings like Unit Structures for proof that Taylor was taking improvised piano in a new direction.

But, Len Lyons, in his 1980 book The 101 Best Jazz Albums was onto something. He knowingly singled out "Of What" as "the most successful track" and identified it as the first obvious example of Taylor's distinctive use of clusters—"groups of notes more dense than chords, which (Taylor) introduces with a sharp, percussive attack." It certainly stands apart among six tracks as the one on which Taylor sounds like a budding iconoclast. Beginning as a duet with bassist Buell Neidlinger, the piece displays Taylor's lithe conception of movement, with sly, upturned asides and rapid, feline pounces. When drummer Dennis Charles joins, he contains himself to hi-hat and the occasional hand fills until the 4:30 mark of the eight-minute performance. Most interesting is a telling moment around 7:00, when Taylor loses the momentum of his attack but keeps the tape rolling. By 7:15 he's back in full swing again. It's a lapse in forward motion that rarely shows itself in his more-developed works, but illustrates a growing confidence with the high-wire act he was still perfecting. By his own admission, this was a time when he still felt bound by both the jazz and classical traditions, so "Of What" shines as a brave experiment. Coming a year before the clarion calls of freedom by Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, it's impossible not to wonder how this track sounded to listeners at the time.

Elsewhere, the recording more closely fits Howard Mandel's descriptor for it: "amiable."

In his book Miles Ornette Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz, Mandel posits that vibraphonist Earl Griffith (notably absent from "Of What") was the co-leader of the quartet, and he certainly sounds it. The 32-year-old New Yorker, who left little trace beyond this recording, carries as much of the lead work as Taylor. He's also the composer of one track, "African Violets," a pretty, restrained piece whose strong Billy Strayhorn aura forms attractive parallelism with Taylor's "Excursion On A Wobbly Rail," his most-obvious bow to Ellington's influence on his early playing.

"Wallering" is a bouquet to Fats Waller, while the A-minor blues "Luyah! The Glorious Step"—despite its archetypal Taylor title—shows continuing allegiance to Monk.

"Toll" bears special notice for its transitional place in Taylor's early evolution. Written for his concert debut at Cooper Union in February 1958, in its first movement it hints at how he would revolutionize the percussive role of the piano, although the effect is somewhat undercut by the unimaginative rhythm accompaniment by Neidlinger and Charles. Its centre section contains a few of those delightful runs where Taylor sweeps you along, but it's the brief third movement—primarily a piano/bass duet—where he illustrates how he can conjure drama with a few deft passages.

Emerging from his chrysalis, Taylor had not quite taken on his final shape, but it was clear from Looking Ahead!—and most particularly "Of What"—that the final product was going to be a thing of beauty.


daryl said...

Thanks, James. I was recently at the Jazz Record Mart in Chicago and found a copy of this very CD in the used section. I was tempted to get it but had already blown my budget. I will definitely make a point of seeking it out.

David said...

Thanks, James. CT is one of several very alarming gaps in my jazz knowledge. I've just put this CD on and am listening to "Of What" while rereading your posting.


CraigM said...

I've come to Cecil Taylor from the backwards direction -- that is, starting with his wide-open stuff and only now discovering his earlier albums.

I've gone and listened through Looking Ahead now for the first time, and it's fun to hear Taylor's clusters adhering to a swing (albeit a loosely defined one - I like Dennis Charles' touch on "Of What.") Great post, thanks.

James Hale said...

Craig: That was my path of CT discovery as well.