The Cecil Taylor Unit
02. Serdab 14:13
03. Holiday En Masque 29:41
Recorded in April 1978 at Columbia Recording Studios, 30th Street, New York, NY.
Alto Saxophone – Jimmy Lyons
Bass – Sirone
Drums – Ronald Shannon Jackson
Piano – Cecil Taylor
Trumpet – Raphe Malik
Violin – Ramsey Ameen
In a career marked by artistic triumphs, one might just as easily track Cecil Taylor’s long journey by highlighting his periods of exile. He was still scrubbing dishes in a food joint even while Down Beat gushed over his performances. The Five Spot Cafe kicked him to the curb after drink receipts for his six-week engagement failed to break even. An early 1970s academic gig teaching music at the University of Wisconsin ended in disarray when he flunked over half of his barely-attendant class. Large chunks of decades whizzed by minus any historical documents from this most rapidly-evolving of visionaries (as Spencer Richards glumly summarizes in stand-alone paragraphs from his liner notes for Cecil Taylor Unit: “There are no Cecil Taylor recordings from 1963 to 1966”; “There are no Cecil Taylor recordings from 1970 to 1973”). And although it would be glib to link Taylor’s own queer identity to this sort of perennial outsider aesthetic, there’s little doubt that the pianist was always adjudged an over-educated, Eurocentric, ballet-loving curiosity by too many of swing’s more macho gatekeepers. Yet even the moldiest of figs bowed before his keyboard technique, and despite those long periods of inactivity (inactive at least on the concert circuit and in recording studios), he managed to make his mark on each decade: 1956's Jazz Advance being among the music’s most astonishing debuts and 1966's Unit Structures perhaps the most fearsome venture by Blue Note into New Thing statements of intent. But everything really came together in 1978, when the nearly fifty-year-old Taylor decided to drag his own ensemble into a studio for the first time in over twelve years, once again returning to knottily structured improv after honing his solo piano act. Several intense sessions would yield both 3 Phasis and Cecil Taylor Unit, plus inspire a European tour which would eventually offer up several of the Unit’s finest in-concert documents: Live in the Black Forest, One Too Many Salty Swift And Not Goodbye. It was his year.
Ever the Ellingtonian, Taylor mapped out these three lengthy explorations with specific players in mind, from altoist Jimmy Lyons comprising the Johnny Hodges role to recent Prime Time addition Ronald Shannon Jackson bringing the free funk (although Taylor rarely let passages drift into a groove, Jackson sneaks some inside: that brief funky detour in “Idut,” a burst of rock-solid 4/4 at the 16:30 mark of “Holiday En Masque”). Front-line reports from Taylor’s mammoth rehearsal/recording sessions sometimes registered surprise at the presence of sheet music, a bit of conservatory décor at odds with the free-form maelstrom at work. But only the most hostile of audiences could fail to hear the tight discipline at work, fully integrated performances as neatly choreographed as any of Taylor’s beloved modern dance troupes?—?compare the strict loud/soft delineations of “Idut” to even so notable a free jazz document as John Coltrane’s “Ascension,” which for all its rightly celebrated sturm und drang still at times finds players working at cross purposes. And yet, for all of Taylor’s formidable Bösendorfer technique and clear application of theory, the Unit sounds like rambunctious populists in comparison to some of Bill Dixon’s Third Stream landmarks. You can lose yourself in the percussive Monkian attack of “Idut” or the tidal flow of abstracted beauty in “Serdab.” Or you can simply hang on for the ride that is “Holiday En Masque.” Over the course of thirty unrelenting minutes, the ensemble rises and rises, attaining cacophonic grandeur before the squall departs on a series of trills and two gentle jabs from the maestro. Both titanic and graceful.
The Cecil Taylor Unit (band and album) announces itself with “Idut,” a piece running just under 15 minutes. The first sound we hear is Ameen’s violin, bolstered by Sirone’s bowed bass. The two men attack the strings in sharp and jagged fashion, reminiscent of an Elliott Carter string quartet. After a few seconds, Malik’s trumpet enters, a fountain of rich, full notes like a fanfare announcing a king. Lyons, for his part, offers boppish phrases full of life and joy. This is an erupting music.
Behind everything else, Taylor is there, striking the keyboard with great force, rumbling at the low end of a ninety-six key Bösendorfer, similar to the instrument he plays on the solo albums Air Above Mountains and The Willisau Concert, from 1975 and 2000 respectively. This is an imposing instrument, the ideal vehicle for a player of Taylor’s intensity and rigor. But it’s best heard by itself; surrounded by other sounds, its strength is diminished slightly. At the 90-second mark, when all the other instruments drop away, leaving only the piano, the purpose of all that hurtling exposition becomes clear—the band was setting the stage for Taylor, whose high-speed runs and teeth-rattling rumbles are accented by thunderous rolls from Ronald Shannon Jackson. The piece shifts again and again in this manner, offering solo piano passages, duos between Taylor and various other bandmembers, duos and trios, and explosive sections involving the entire band.
The album’s second track, “Serdab,” is much quieter. There are still moments of thrilling fire and fury, but Taylor’s solo passages are longer and more frequent, with Jackson pitter-patting behind him, creating rhythm (he’s a totally unique jazz drummer in that he plays marching-band and militaristic rhythms as often as he swings or grooves) without imposing it. It’s an interlude of gentle beauty, a bridge between the opening fanfare and thunder of “Idut” and the cataclysm that is the album’s second half.
“Holiday en Masque” is a half-hour, album-side-long avalanche of sound. The liner notes to the album, written by Spencer Richards, describe it as a “masterful achievement in ensemble playing,” and it truly is that and more. The dominant voices are Taylor’s and Ameen’s, with Jackson rattling and crashing in the back. At times the horns and strings and piano are so loud the drums can barely be discerned, even though they’re being played with as much energy as any other instrument in the studio. At other times, Jackson’s rhythms are quite clearly audible, his kit sounding more like one belonging to a hard rock drummer than a jazz player. He’s got a massive kick drum sound going on, and his toms slam like heavy wooden doors battered by a hurricane. Unison passages, arising out of the overall storm of sound like rainbows arcing between thunderclouds, reveal the scored nature of this music and the intense, focused rehearsals Taylor called before the recording began. As Ameen, who also contributed liner notes to The Cecil Taylor Unit (and was the only member of the band to do so), points out, “Because in fact he has continued to make music of overwhelming originality, Cecil Taylor has been increasingly successful in exercising his right to determine the working conditions such music requires—in particular, pianos of the best quality, and extensive practice and rehearsal…This record was prepared under Taylor’s artistic direction and is a document not only of his power of musical expression but also of the success of the comprehensive working methods and the fierce independence he has developed and maintained during the past quarter of a century.”