Cecil Taylor at the Whitney: Storming Places, Like He’s Always Done

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Pianist Cecil Taylor performing with dancer Min Tanaka during “Open Plan” at the Whitney Museum of American Art/ All Photographs © Paula Court

If you arrived on Thursday night at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s fifth floor, Cecil Taylor was there to greet you.

Elevator doors opened and there was Taylor—his image, anyway—in towering proportions as projected on a massive screen, moving fleetly about a piano’s keyboard while wearing a white knit cap, as captured in Ronn Mann’s 1981 documentary, “Imagine the Sound.”

The night’s real attraction was an increasingly rare invitation—the chance to see and hear Taylor, who recently turned 87, perform in person.

And in glorious context, no less: At the far west end of an imposing venue—the largest column-free museum exhibition space in New York City (more than 18,000 feet of open space), at a Bösendorfer grand piano set against floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Hudson River.

A yet deeper context was on display. Taylor’s concert was the prelude to a lovingly curated and wisely broad-minded exhibition and residency at the Whitney through April 24, dedicated to the full range of Taylor’s artistry. “Open Plan: Cecil Taylor,” the first of five such Whitney programs, places Taylor in the company of a wide range of creative souls: installation and performance artist Andrea Fraser; painter Lucy Dodd; sculptor/earth artist Michael Heizer; and video/filmmaker Steve McQueen.

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Photographs © Paula Court.

While awaiting a seat on Thursday, you could connect with more than one Cecil Taylor, representing several periods, via video and headphones: Taylor in his late thirties, wearing a black turtleneck and dark glasses, at the piano, from “Les Grand Repetitions,” a mid-Sixties French TV documentary that featured Taylor as well as composers Olivier Messaien and Karlhenz Stockhausen; Taylor, with dreadlocks flailing as he played, in a video excerpt from “Erzulie Maketh Scent,” the solo-piano finale of an immense and immensely satisfying FMP Recordings boxed set recorded during a landmark 1988 residency in Berlin; Taylor, playing piano in oddly intimate union with the movements of dancer Min Tanaka, during “Works & Process,” outside, on Mercer Street, in Manhattan in 1994.

There was a vast library of Taylor recordings at the Whitney’s fifth floor, spanning a half-century of Taylor’s irrepressible and often uncategorizeable music making as well as a fair share of the companies, from major labels to small independents, that release music. (Many of these recordings were on loan from Ben Young, director of Columbia University’s WKCR-FM, who will lead one of several “listening sessions” at the Whitney devoted to Taylor’s music on April 23). The fifth floor holds evidence of Taylor’s many collaborations with dancers and poets, painters and theater directors, including Ralph Lee’s four skull-like masks, used in 1976 production of “A Rat’s Mass/Procession in Shout,” an operatic restaging of Adrienne Kennedy’s one-act play with music composed by Taylor. (“Open Plan” will present a new staging, on April 21, directed by Hilton Als.)

It was hard, also, to ignore the beauty and integrity of Taylor’s music simply as visual representation if you peered into the glass cases containing hand-drawn scores in manners that defy conventional notation. Or the power of Taylor’s poetry, which he often recites during concerts, as displayed in another case through handwritten pages of calligraphic grace.

All this was useful background, and yet also unnecessary to the concert on Thursday. Taylor’s music, which some critics describe as “difficult,” is really quite the opposite. It is powerfully and easily available to audiences especially if you are not prepared or if you willingly dispense with your so-called preparation. Though it’s interesting to be aware of Taylor’s influences—Ellington, for instance—as well as the many artists he has worked with or influenced (drummer Andrew Cyrille, who performed in this exhibition on Saturday, or bassist Henry Grimes, who will perform on April 21, together with poet Nathaniel Mackey), and while it’s enriching (wildly so) to have concentric circles of artistry, criticism, history and politics within which to frame his intentions and achievements, all that is perhaps distracting. The sound of Taylor’s music, along with its energy flow and spiritual heft, are best taken in wholly and purely, breathed in without overwrought consideration.

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Photographs © Paula Court.

Before Taylor walked to the piano Thursday night, slowly and with the aid of a cane and an assistant, Whitney staff scurried around. A drum kit was delivered and assembled. “This is actually two concerts,” announced curator Jay Sanders from the stage. Taylor, who generally does what he wants without inhibition, had apparently changed the script. His performance with longtime musical associate Tony Oxley and Tanaka would be followed by a surprise hit—a set by Taylor’s New Unit, a free-jazz septet.

Taylor has long histories with both Oxley and Tanaka. As a drummer, Oxley has engaged in thrillingly charged collaborations with Taylor in many contexts spanning four decades. At the Whitney, he sat before a tabletop electronics console. Taylor has worked since the 1980s with Tanaka; just as Taylor’s music has clear roots in jazz but can’t be defined by that descriptions, Tanaka’s approach to dance includes early training in the elemental Japanese style of butoh yet is a distinctly personal vehicle that defies classification.

At the piano, Taylor began softly and gently, as if rippling along the surface of a body of water. Yet this was no sign of frailty. Soon enough Taylor struck keys with percussive power to create dissonant chimes and scribbles of loud sound; if these measured explosions were not enough to make the case, Taylor’s sustained force through a performance that was mostly meditative yet finely and unceasingly focused made its own case for stamina and power.

Taylor is a master collaborator, and he manages in each exchange to radiate generosity and compassion without leaning into deference or uncertainty. He simply knows how to listen or, in the case of Tanaka, to watch closely and move in tandem. Which doesn’t mean that there was anything obviously referential in the connection between Tanaka’s movements, sometimes slow and gestural and sometimes frenetic, and Taylor’s piano playing. Like Taylor, Tanaka employs a language that is best understood on an intuitive level, free of hard associations. If the communication between he and Taylor was inscrutable at times—as when Taylor created feverish scrawls of notes while Tanaka moved slowly and then froze, grimacing—it was also undeniable.

Oxley mostly used his equipment to issue sounds that contrasted with Taylor’s pianism—hollow chimes, metallic pings and clangs—though sometimes also distinguishable wisps of Taylor’s playing, sampled, filtered in. He joined in tentatively at first, and then sat silent for a long stretch. When he re-entered, he seemed to have found his way. He and Taylor connected, not as if in conversation but as if in consonant arcs on a common sonic orbit.

There were passages during which Taylor seemed in duet with Tanaka, or, at other times, with Oxley. For some stretches, they functioned as an unlikely trio. There were sections that took the form of a solo piano recital, with Tanaka and Oxley shaping something of a vague but affecting environment. And there was one final section, with Oxley laying out, when, Tanaka, seeming to have exploited nearly all manner of bodily and facial expression, curled up behind Taylor, first in near embrace and then on the floor behind his piano bench. Taylor, who had played with great restraint and a delicate touch through much of the performance, here offered a yet further degree of tenderness, one we had neither yet heard not; finally, sustained overtones gave way to silence.

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Photographs © Paula Court.

Taylor’s New Unit was a septet that included three saxophones, cello, bass and spoken-word poet Jane Grenier Balgochian. Though Tanaka returned as part of this unit, too, here motion was a more implicit thing, which is always one theme of Taylor’s playing, at any speed and in any context. Here, the speed was mostly fast, the flow like wave upon wave of ecstatic squall. Which isn’t to say the music lacked structure or definition. Balgochian’s (and Taylor’s, at some points) recitations were obvious keys for ignition; Tristan Honsinger’s bowed cello lines and Bobby Zankel’s often pungent and terse passages on alto saxophone wove through it all purposefully. Yet mostly this was a group statement, somewhat of a throwback to a free-jazz revolution that never really ceased while also simply a celebration of Taylor in the present moment. Taylor clearly reveled in it all, sometimes crashing his forearm into the keys to sound tone clusters and mostly smiling broadly. Near its end, Taylor reached for drumsticks that were on his piano, but then set them down, and said into the microphone, “OK, thank you, gentlemen.”

The New Unit’s raucous sounds were likely quickly forgotten. Not that they didn’t make a point or achieve moments of odd beauty, but rather in deference to the supreme resonance and depth of what had preceded, which amounted to an astounding display of unbound pianism in an entirely fresh context.

In some sense, Taylor’s entire career has been an astounding display of unbound pianism in an entirely fresh context.

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Photographs © Paula Court.

On Sunday afternoon, I returned to the Whitney for one of the exhibition’s listening sessions, led by painter and muralist Archie Rand.

Rand, who was formerly chair of the Department of Visual Arts at Columbia University and is currently the Presidential Professor of Art at Brooklyn College, said that he’d met Taylor while in his teens. Once he got to know him, Taylor would let Rand sit near the piano while he practiced for hours on end. He once asked Taylor how he could sustain an improvisation for hours and make it sound as if composed. “If the music is true,” Taylor told him, “the form takes care of itself.”

Rand explained that Taylor’s music—his approach to music—informed “not just how I conduct my studio practice but the way I conduct my life.” He found in Taylor a sense of liberation from an art world increasingly dominated by strategy and ideology. “Cecil has remained free from these pressures,” Rand said, “and he has always been angry about them.” That anger, Rand suggested, is a guard against complacency and conformity.

Listening sessions involve listening, of course. Rand made a persuasive case for, if not a connection, then at least a parallel between Johnnie Johnson’s piano playing on a Chuck Berry’s 1958 alternate take of “I’ve Changed” and Taylor’s playing that same year, leading a group that included John Coltrane, on “Shifting Down,” from his “Hard Driving Jazz” album, and between boogie-woogie pianist “Big Maceo” Merriweather’s playing on a 1946 version of “Chicago Breakdown” and what Taylor played during a much-discussed 1997 duo-piano concert with Mary Lou Williams.

Rand pointed out that, in his spoken-word performances, Taylor had an advantage over poets: He dealt with words as pure sounds with associative meanings; he didn’t assume knowledge or context on the part of the listener. Same with Taylor’s music, according to Rand. “Cecil expects no sympathy from the audience,” he said. “You just sit there and eat.”

“Anyone who doesn’t ‘get’ Cecil’s is willingly lying,” Rand said at one point.

I think he meant lying to themselves, really.

Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of improvised piano while sitting on portable seating in art museums. Last month, I wrote about pianist Vijay Iyer’s month-long “Relation” exhibition at the Met Breuer, the Met’s new outpost for contemporary art.

“The history of creative music is kind of like the history of storming places,” Iyer said. “So that’s what we’re doing. We’re announcing that we’re here. And if you hadn’t thought that we belong in what you call an art world, you’ll have to deal with us now.”

Taylor has been storming places for a very long time. He’s storming them still.

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Photographs © Paula Court.

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