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Jazz 101

Jazz 101: Cecil's Units

by Seth Colter Walls

Jazz 101: Cecil's Units


Jazz history is massive enough at this point to be a touch intimidating. With so many box sets and so many compilations to choose from, where to start? We've got you covered, era by era, with our Jazz 101 series, which you can follow here. Each daily playlist offers up five-star performances, and tips you off to albums with plenty more gold left to explore after the intro course is over. Enjoy.

Do not be afraid of Cecil Taylor. Though Unit Structures and those late-period piano destructions tend to get all the press, the man who turned the piano into 88 tuned drums -- and who seemed to play them all simultaneously, at full blast -- began by interpreting some classics, including Ellington's "Jumpin' Punkins" and Monk's "Bemsha Swing." By marrying Art Tatum's lightning-fast technique with Monk's radical approach to spacing and adding dense cluster chords to rival anything in experimental classical music, Taylor helped open up the space for jazz's avant-garde.

Even in his early years, though, sparks flew from Taylor's hands: Just check out the modernist opening of his 1959 version of the Cole Porter tune "Love for Sale." And when the swinging drumbeat comes in, Taylor pivots, showing a facility for the pure blues textures from which he would subsequently move further and further away. (His soloing on "E.B." shows where he would soon be headed.)

What you can hear in those first albums -- Jazz Advance, Looking Ahead! and Jumpin' Punkins (on which swinging percussionist Billy Higgins rides hard) -- is the sound of Taylor preparing for a death-defying leap off the summit of jazz as it was then known. Less interested in tunes than some other avant-gardists were, he did for rhythmic and harmonic complexity what Ornette Coleman did for melody. (But Taylor could compose well, too; see "Bulbs.") After a pair of legendary Blue Note albums -- Unit Structures and Conquistador! -- Taylor found bookings to be sparse, and retreated from the scene. By the 1970s, though, with his experimental textures accorded genius status by the next wave of jazz heavyweights, he returned, bringing ferocious marathon solo concerts documented on albums like Indent and Silent Tongues. His late-period Feel Trio with Tony Oxley and William Parker was memorably preserved on the box set 2 Ts for a Lovely T.

And Taylor's still with us, showing up every now and again to wow audiences the world over, from Germany to Brooklyn. Catch him if you ever get the chance, but in the meantime, see the appended playlist for samples from each phase of Cecil Taylor's radical career.