I’m not one of the people for whom free jazz was an acquired taste; I liked it all along.
I think timing had a lot to do with it. I first came upon free jazz recordings in my teens in the mid ‘70s. The pop music I was listening to was changing. Except for Joni Mitchell’s increasingly ambitious work like Hejira and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, I had bored of the singer songwriter discs that I explored voraciously when I was fourteen or fifteen (there’s only so much Linda Ronstadt a teenager can take). Punk was exciting, but it was far, far away from my Dallas home. Funk was turning into disco and I was no dancer back then. With the release of Aja, Steely Dan was no longer my little secret. Jazz, on the other hand, was still something I could explore on my own. I had delved into my parents Ellington and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross recordings, and made a cassette from my sister’s copy of John Coltrane’s Impressions.
From this experience, I knew that jazz was more complex than the pop music I listened to, and I hadn’t developed any expectation that it was music I should be able to tap my foot to. Secondly, free jazz was readily available in my main North Dallas record stores. Sound Warehouse and Peaches had plenty of copies of Freedom Records releases as they’d been reissued by Arista, the label that had somehow signed Anthony Braxton. Thus his recordings and those by Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, and others made it into heavy rotation in my bedroom. The hard dissonances that put many people off of the music attracted me. To me they had a ferocious extremity that made them jazz’s equivalent what I liked so much in The Clash or the Sex Pistols.
Cecil Taylor was the only cat I didn’t immediately take to. I bought Indent and Silent Tongues and enthusiastically gave them a spin which left me mystified. It seemed like notes were piling on notes and clusters upon clusters and pretty soon it was like driving into the sun, a brilliant vista absolutely, but blinding too. The beauty of buying records in the mid and late ‘70s was that they were cheap. On a shopping trip a few weeks later, I saw a copy of Cecil’s Nefertiti, The Beautiful One Has Come for $5.99. Why not, I figured; the music cost just less than what I made in an hour of working.
Nefertiti, which documents a concert in Montmarte from 1962,was the recording that opened Cecil’s genius to me. It showcased Taylor’s genius at a crucial stage. He was working in a trio with two very sympathetic musicians, saxophonist Jimmy Lyons and drummer Sunny Murray. Murray’s didn’t drum in a traditional time keeping sort of way; instead his rhythms rumbled and erupted with fascinating unpredictability. Lyons was clearly of a lineage of alto saxophonists that ran through Bird, Jackie McLean and others, but his acerbic tone had a quality that easily abstracted without losing its emotional verve. This was the perfect frame for Cecil. His fleet right hand was all abstraction and beauty, flashy predecessors like Oscar Peterson or Art Tatum yanked into a dissonant modernity. His left hand kept the music so grounded in an elegant tradition that it seemed like a Cole Porter cover might happen at any moment (in fact the band plays the Bobby Haggart nugget, “What’s New” during the show). The recording made Cecil’s unique vernacular clear to me.
The lone disappointing aspect of the recording is that it stands so alone in the Taylor discography. In the early ’60s, musicians entered the studio almost monthly, but not Taylor. He recorded a few discs in the late ’50s and 1960. Nefertiti is his only document until Unit Structures and Conquistador four years later, by which time his ensemble language had taken another turn.
A few months ago, I joined Spotify. I had resisted for fear that it would render my rather large music collection somewhat meaningless. Instead, I was pleased to discover that it was an ideal supplement. Curious to test out my new toy, I went to the Cecil Taylor section and though I was disappointed to find that I could not contrast the master’s early ’70s solo recordings, the site did have Nefertiti and not the Arista Freedom version but a two CD reissue from Revenant that included several tracks not on the record I bought as a teenager. I dove in with excitement.
To my delight, I found that the recording stands up wonderfully, especially “D Trad, That’s What,” a 21 minute opus that offers episodes of Lyons, Taylor and Murray playing crisp, intelligent and scintillating music in clearly defined episodes that allow each man’s style to shine through. Cecil’s call and response between his left and right hands is brilliant and detailed. Lyons tones run the gamut from aching to celebratory in logical fashion and Murray underpins it all with cascades of rhythms. Only the sketchiness of Verizon FiOS internet connectivity kept me from challenging Spotify’s song repetition limit.
More joy from my new toy came on my second visit. I discovered the four CD box set of Cecil Taylor’s early work, The Complete Nat Hentoff Sessions. This was music I knew via album released in the early ’60s and reissued in the ’70s, and those mostly showcased a young innovator struggling to make his ideas heard within the structure of other songs. This new box contained hours of new material that illustrated Taylor and his bandmates abandoning traditional structures and finding their voices in his material.
Although I was eager to use Spotify to listen to music that was reissued while I was either too poor to purchase a copy or too out of the loop to get a promo, Buffalo Springfield, to name a prime example, would have to wait. My computer had turned into the Cecil Taylor in the early ’60s festival. From the Hentoff sides, you can hear the ensemble logic forming that would guide Unit Structures and Conquistador and perhaps even late ’70s classics like 3 Phasis.
These early recordings enabled me to connect the dots between a great pianist’s development and unlocked the key to understanding the first two decades of his work. Now the next challenge is to connect this stellar music to the subsequent 30 years of Taylor’s work. I might have to resort to something as old fashioned as CDs, but it’ll be worth it.
Martin Johnson used to write about music and film for a living; now he writes about them because it makes him feel a little more alive. His work is still occasionally published in the Wall Street Journal.