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Cecil Taylor
Seattle WA, 26 October 2000

There is beauty in discord and chaos.

Although it has seen steady use in the last hundred years, atonality is rarely well received as a facet of composition. Schoenberg was mocked when he threw tonal-centered caution to the wind in favor of this radical innovation as a central piece to authorship. The same can be said of Cecil Taylor. Nearing almost five decades of public performance, Taylor continues to demonstrate, at least to the non-believer, that the absence of a tonal center can function beautifully and poetically in music not only as a means of expression, but also as an acceptably stylistic approach to composing. However, it might be perverse to think of Taylor's music as demonstrations. His performances in the studio or onstage are axiomatic entities established on their own terms.

Taylor established one such entity recently in Seattle, at the Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall. The 540-seat venue, a complimentary leg to the larger Benaroya Hall, is a space constructed to serve solo artists and small ensemble performances. The interior is almost entirely constructed of cherry wood, providing for acoustics that resonate from the stage and up through the audience, reflecting and refracting from triangular columns that line the auditorium's walls. The atmosphere is visually appealing, providing a peaceful environment for the performer and the audience.

Naked save for the centrally placed, polished Bosendorfer piano, the stage was ready for a rare performance. Cecil Taylor arrived fashionably late and was met with an uproarious reception. Clad in black sweatpants and tube socks, an untucked dress shirt and black headband, he read from a prepared script of non-colloquialisms that would be referenced throughout the evening. Since the appearance of 1966's Unit Structures, the revolutionary work that would blaze the trails for pioneers of deeper creative music in the late 1960's, Taylor has been recognized not only for his skills as a musician, but also as a gifted writer/orator capable of formulating surreal philosophical fragments that often come together, like his music, as cohesively as a piece of successful abstract visual art. While reading he simultaneously expressed himself with tai chi-like dance movements, stopping to ponder himself, or the audience, and quickly resuming his psychotext, not missing a beat. Pausing before seating himself at the Bosendorfer, he softly uttered the phrase, "Leaves turning". A short succession of percussive taps and strums from a number of strings inside the piano followed.

The Bosendorfer, a piano rarely used by jazz musicians, is equipped with eight extra keys in the bass end, a valuable asset for solo composition. This is especially true for Taylor's style of playing and the pianist left no tone, no key unturned in the first exhibition of the evening. A series of unrelated intermittent notes established the mood of the first piece, a seventy-minute tour de force that had the audience whirling through an array of sonic climaxes and crescendos. As if lacking sufficient feathers for flight, Taylor repeatedly captivated the assemblage with adventitious leaps into new territory on the keys. Between long stanzas of the piano-generated message he stood to recite. Seating himself again, emitting perpetual huffs and grunts, he seemed a madman rising to the zenith of this almost entirely improvised set. Toward the close he played a bastard waltz, relying heavily on the bass side yet augmented with delicate accents in the treble. Bellows and whispers of ONE-TWO-(three-te-tee) ONE! TWO-(three) and the mood reversed. Ponderous single notes immediately collided with angered sweeping arpeggios, the roots of the music in and of its own unfoldings. An abrupt block of sound that could just as easily have been sounded by a sledgehammer ended the set and Taylor signaled the intermission with a slight perfunctory bow.

Taylor returned to the stage rejuvenated and reflective. I wondered where he held his energy. Again he read using otherworldly metaphors and symbolism that would echo through his second, more extensive set at the bench. It was transcendent in that his dance and spoken phrases would act as hints, involuntarily accessed as pictures that paralleled the music. "Transfigured, as a sphere surrounded by an axis…" The second set was more melodious with nods to modal structures, but incorporating unique scaleology and bits of blues. His playing was unrestrained, fluid and light-hearted. The hands conspired at the middle keys. Foreign chords became the duty of the right while the left took the role of estranged partisan. Transfigured, as he suggested.

As in the first set, Taylor rose periodically to dance and pacify us with sotto voce recitations, making the connection between word and music both latent and omnipresent. When he resumed his place at the piano he was on fire, his restless theatrics exuberant and captivating. Interconnected atonal themes revealed themselves as our brains conjured his previous utterances. Seizing on the mesmeric nature of the music he became restrained and the energy that had been buzzing throughout the venue subsided. But quickly enough an effortless string of staccato notes in the middle and high registers erupted. Connected by slight pauses and tempoless emphatics these notes ran a circular pattern and then glided into silence. A series of triplets emerged from all available octaves and the set ended with a solitary, low resonant bass note.

After five (!) encores of various lengths, the last of which was a single riff, Taylor left the stage. The audience applauded the music, applauded the experience, and applauded the Bosendorfer left quietly alone on the slightly dimmed stage. My mind attempted to reconfigure from a confused bliss, as if I had been dreaming in Portuguese, not previously knowing the language. The performance had been almost completely devoid of tonality or a maintained tempo, yet the music was more satiable than "Bolero". It defied theory, became theory. Nearly three hours had slipped away, dominated by talent, spoken word and ninety-six keys. It was an entire education in metaphysics.