Live review | Cecil Taylor at the French Embassy: A legend stretches out

Shown in a performance last year, Cecil Taylor played at the French Embassy last week. Courtesy volume12

by Luke Stewart
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What does it take to be a jazz legend? The story of pianist Cecil Taylor’s career has all the answers. Rising through the ranks of bebop in the 1950s, Taylor quickly began to garner his own style. He tweaked each standard with an altered chord, each blues with a skewed rhythm, before delving head-on by decade’s end into the realm of free jazz. Along with saxophonist Ornette Coleman, Taylor helped put the genre on the map, and he’s been stretching it beyond its limits ever since.

Taylor brought his looming presence to the French Embassy on Wednesday for a rare D.C. performance — and he made a profound impression.

Many things have been said about Taylor’s style, some thoughtful and some callous, but he is undeniably a master of the instrument and a true original in his musical approach. In Wednesday’s solo-piano show, his hands carefully and precisely glided across the keys, accenting and punctuating as his compositions developed. Yes, compositions. This expert of so-called free jazz did not simply present an exercise in on-the-spot improvisations, even if his sonic onslaughts seemed deliberately chaotic. He was playing from several charts, compositions written on what looked like spiral-bound sheets of loose-leaf paper.

So every note was not written, but each idea was a well-planned thought revealing a different facet of Taylor’s technique and expression. The ferocity and depth of the compositions would be extremely difficult — dare say nearly impossible — to transcribe. The fact that he’d clearly memorized so much of the complex arrangements speaks to the depth of his greatness.

For the uninitiated Cecil Taylor listener, his playing can be too abrasive or abstract, even scary. His performance at the Embassy, however, was a perfect balance between aggressive, chromatic tone clusters and subtle, expressionist passages. And Taylor punctuated all of his flurries with the disciplined use of silence.

More than halfway through the performance, Taylor stood up from the piano, grabbed his notebook and microphone and proceeded to recite an original poem with a bravado akin to that of a master hip-hop MC. Pacing the stage, he shouted and moaned as he preached. The poem’s conclusion was met with furious applause, the audience moved by this profound surprise and good intermission from the barrage of piano.

The rapt audience — replete with some of the area’s finest impresarios, tastemakers, musicologists and musicians — received Taylor again at show’s end with a standing ovation. Surely, the next time he goes on tour, Taylor will make D.C. a destination. And the city will be better for it.



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