Sunday, December 6, 2009

Listening Session: Cecil Taylor, Unit Structures

Do you find yourself bored by Ornette Coleman's compositions? Are you of the opinion that Eric Dolphy plays it too safe? Then, my friend, Cecil Taylor is for you. There is no one I've listened to that stretches the limit of jazz more than Taylor. Among his many recordings, Unit Structures and his subsequent album on Blue Note Conquistador are recognized as two of his best.

These are not your typical Blue Note blowing sessions. If there's a fault with the Blue Note house sound, it's that it can get awfully formulaic. What separates the Blue Note hard bop albums from each other is the improvisational quality of the soloists. Well, what if you make an album that's total improvisation? No stated melody, no chorus, no obvious time signature. Welcome to Cecil Taylor's world, where everyone is free.

The cool album cover for Unit Structures by the genius Blue Note tandem of graphic designer Reid Miles and photographer Francis Wolff doesn't give away the music inside. However, unusual for a Blue Note album, the liner notes on the back cover isn't written by an esteemed jazz critic, but rather by the artist himself. One wonders whether Blue Note was unable to enlist a jazz critic who could write intelligently about the music. Cecil Taylor certainly doesn't elucidate his music. His notes further mystify. What is the reader/listener to supposed to make of this line: "Rhythm then is existence and existence time, content offers time quantity to shape: color, mental physical participation. Passage is search against mirror held--reveal the waters of greed, running love an older child set to the pain in fire." If you can make sense of those words, perhaps you have a shot of making sense of his music.

Despite the music's obtuseness, there is something there that can hold your attention. I've listened to the album straight through three times. I was just as lost on the third listen as on the first, although by the third listen it was evident that Taylor is a phenomenal pianist. I wanted to hear a solo album by him. Listening to Unit Structure is not a pleasant experience and surely not meant to be. The album feels like a challenge issued by the artist on the complacent listener. It even challenges the old jazz idiom about "it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing". This album certainly doesn't swing. So what does it mean? Perhaps the artist expresses the meaning the best in the final line of the liner notes: "now a lone rain falling thru doors empty of room-Jazz Naked Fire Gesture, Dancing protoplasm Absorbs." Got that?

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