02. Charge 'Em Blues 11:15
03. Azure 7:35
04. Song 5:19
05. You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To 9:15
06. Rickkickshaw 6:05
Recorded in Boston in September 1956.
Bass – Buell Neidlinger
Drums – Denis Charles
Piano – Cecil Taylor
Soprano Saxophone – Steve Lacy
Soon after he first emerged in the mid-'50s, pianist Cecil Taylor was considered one of the most radical and boundary-pushing improvisers in jazz. Although in his early days he used some standards as vehicles for improvisation, Taylor is largely known for his often avant-garde original compositions. To simplify describing his style, one could say that his intense atonal percussive approach involved playing the piano as if it were a set of drums. He generally emphasized dense clusters of sound played with remarkable technique and endurance, often during marathon performances.
Born in 1929, and raised in Corona, Queens in New York City, Taylor started piano lessons at the age of six, and attended the New York College of Music and the New England Conservatory. His early influences included Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck, but from the start he sounded original. Early gigs included work with groups led by Johnny Hodges and Hot Lips Page, but, after forming his quartet in the mid-'50s (which originally included Steve Lacy on soprano, bassist Buell Neidlinger, and drummer Dennis Charles), Taylor was never a sideman again. The group played at the Five Spot Cafe in 1956 for six weeks and performed at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival (which was recorded by Verve), but, despite occasional records like 1958's Looking Ahead, work was scarce.
In 1960, Taylor recorded extensively for Candid under Neidlinger's name (by then the quartet featured Archie Shepp on tenor), and the following year he sometimes substituted in the play The Connection. By 1962, Taylor's quartet featured his regular sideman Jimmy Lyons on alto and drummer Sunny Murray. He spent six months in Europe (Albert Ayler worked with Taylor's group for a time although no recordings resulted) but upon his return to the U.S., Taylor did not work again for almost a year. Even with the rise of free jazz, his music was considered too advanced. In 1964, Taylor was one of the founders of the Jazz Composer's Guild and, in 1968, he was featured on a record by the Jazz Composer's Orchestra. In the mid-'60s, Taylor recorded two very advanced sets for Blue Note, but it was generally a lean decade.
Things greatly improved starting in the '70s. Taylor taught for a time at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Antioch College, and Glassboro State College. European tours also became common. After being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1973, the pianist's financial difficulties were eased a bit; he even performed at the White House (during Jimmy Carter's administration) in 1979. He also recorded more frequently, delivering albums like 1976's Dark to Themselves, and 1979's Cecil Taylor Unit. Taylor also started incorporating some of his eccentric poetry into his performances.
The death of longtime associate Jimmy Lyons in 1986 was a major blow, but Taylor remained active over the next few decades, issuing albums on labels such as hatART, Soul Note, Leo, and FMP, including 1986's For Olim, 1993's Always a Pleasure, and 1996's The Light of Corona. He also formed a trio with bassist William Parker and drummer Tony Oxley. During the 2000s, the pianist slowed little, often working often with his various ensembles, including his trio, and his big band. Having never compromised his musical vision, Taylor's stature grew in his later years. He was the subject of a 2006 documentary All the Notes, and in 2013 was awarded the Kyoto Prize for Music. In 2016, the Whitney Museum of American Art hosted a retrospective of career titled Open Plan: Cecil Taylor. Taylor died on April 5, 2018 at his home in Brooklyn at the age of 89.
Max Roach, the master bebop drummer and one of the most most highly regarded percussionists in all of jazz, first worked with Taylor in 1979 and continued to duet with him into the 2000s. In 2001, he spoke to Howard Mandel about Taylor, an interview excerpted in the author's book Miles Ornette Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz. "Cecil is one of the most challenging musicians I've ever worked with," Roach said. "To put it in lay terms, it's like being in the ring with Joe Louis, Jack Johnson or Mike Tyson. It's like being on a battlefield," he continued. "But it's warm music."
I like early Cecil Taylor recordings – it doesn’t feel as though we need a PhD in musical physics to appreciate them. That doesn’t mean that I think Jazz Advance is better than, for instance, Conquistador! or Olu Iwa, but preparing to listen to his later albums can feel a bit like preparing to jump into an icy sea: you know it’s going to be exhilarating, but you have to get your nerve up and be in the right mood. Taylor’s earlier recordings were more open to mood: Jazz Advance is fun and (mostly) relaxing and I can listen to it whatever mood I’m in. That the first Cecil Taylor album opens with a Thelonious Monk tune is fitting: Monk’s influence on Taylor is obvious: both are lean, percussive, disruptive. And, as with Monk, the rhythm section, bass and drums, keep everything relatively simple: Taylor might want to jump and skip, but Buell Neidlinger and Denis Charles keep him on a clear road. But we should also note that while Taylor sounds as though he is influenced by Monk, he never sounds as though he is imitating Monk: his command and style and musical personality are formed and confident and unique: he sharply evolved over the next few years, but this was the platform. My favourite track is probably Charge ‘em Blues, one of the two numbers where Steve Lacy joins the trio. I know little of Lacy’s work other than his recordings with Taylor and he is a perfect partner, seemingly totally attuned to Taylor’s musical imagination. Perhaps the most interesting number, in that it is closest to Taylor’s later style, is the long solo response to You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To: there is an abundance of ideas, but maybe an overabundance because, at least for me, it never quite coheres into a consistent musical work. And if I have been emphasizing that this album sounds ‘normal’ or accessible compared to Taylor’s later work, maybe we should put Taylor’s playing back into the context of its times and imagine how weird it must have sounded to most listeners in 1957...that’s a couple of years before Ornette Coleman announced he had found the shape of jazz to come. It feels like Cecil Taylor was already laying the foundations.
The Transition label and the then new music of Cecil Taylor were perfectly matched, the rebellion in modern jazz was on in 1956, and the pianist was at the forefront. Though many did not understand his approach at the time, the passing years temper scathing criticism, and you can easily appreciate what he is accomplishing. For the reissue Jazz Advance, you hear studio sessions in Boston circa 1956, and the legendary, ear-turning set of 1957 at the Newport Jazz Festival. A young Steve Lacy is included on several tracks, and while revealing Taylor's roughly hewn façade, the few pieces as a soloist and with his trio of bassist Buell Neidlinger and drummer Dennis Charles are even more telling. At his most astonishing, Taylor slightly teases, barely referring to the melody of "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To," wrapping his playful, wild fingers and chordal head around a completely reworked, fractured, and indistinguishable yet introspective version of this well-worn song form. Taylor is also able to circle the wagons, jabbing and dotting certain vital notes on the melody of "Sweet & Lovely." When inclined to turn off putting dissonant chords into playful melody changes, he does so, turning around Thelonious Monk's "Bemsha Swing" delightfully, and then scattering notes everywhere in his solo. Lacy's soprano sax is more than up to the task in interpreting Taylor's personal "Charge 'Em Blues" or laying out the straight-ahead mood on "Song." Neidlinger is the hardest swinging bassist on the planet during "Rick Kick Shaw," boosted by the Asian flavored piano of Taylor and especially the soaring punt-like drumming of Charles. The Newport sessions allegedly sent the crowd reeling with stunned surprise, as the quartet takes Billy Strayhorn's "Johnny Come Lately" starkly further than Monk might have, while Taylor's original "Nona's Blues" sports a jagged edge in what he called a "traditional, shorter form" as they were "at a jazz festival," and his original "Tune 2" is a ten-and-a-half minute languid strut, most Monk like, and a departure from any norm previously established. With Jazz Advance, the revolution commenced, Taylor was setting the pace, and the improvised music world has never been the same. For challenged listeners, this LP has to be high on your must-have list.