The late Cecil Taylor was one of the most original and daring pianists in jazz – he regarded his instrument as a set of “eighty-eight tuned drums” – has died at the age of 89. A pioneer of free jazz Taylor was also a controversial figure and his fiercely atonal music, deemed deeply challenging by more conservative listeners, meant that there were times, especially in the 1960s and ’70s, when he found it difficult to find places to perform his music.
Taylor, born in New York City in 1929, came from a family with a deep appreciation of music and at the age of sic was encouraged to learn the piano. Such was his talent that he went on to study music at college, first in New York, and later in Boston, where his main focus was composition. Taylor returned to the Big Apple in 1955 and formed a jazz quartet with saxophonist, Steve Lacy, making his first recording, appropriately titled ‘Jazz Advance.’ As the 50s moved towards the 1960s, Taylor’s music became increasingly exploratory and complex. He recorded with John Coltrane in 1958 and also released a groundbreaking album called ‘Looking Ahead,’ which showcased his highly percussive use of the piano and ultra-modernist approach to the jazz lexicon. Come the early 1960s, after Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy had legitimised free jazz, Taylor also sought to break new ground, rejecting orthodox notions of melody, harmony, and structure. After a stint at United Artists and the independent Candid label, Taylor landed at Blue Note in 1966, recording two albums – Unit Structures and Conquistador! – that rank among his best work. Through the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, Taylor proved to be a prolific recording artist. His output slowed down in later life and his final album, ‘The Last Dance,’ was issued in 2009.
Though a divisive figure, Taylor was much admired for his brilliant originality and the fact that he never compromised his art or diluted his music for mass consumption. Above all, he always stayed true to himself.
CECIL TAYLOR R.I.P. 1929-2018