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Cecil Taylor Unit: The Eighth

Chris May By

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Half man and half force of nature, pianist Cecil Taylor has made his music a mass of opposites and contradictions. Simultaneously exhausting and liberating, primeval and space age, visceral and intellectually rigorous, it's like nothing that went before it and precious little that came afterward.

As revolutionary a stylist as Charlie Parker and John Coltrane combined, Taylor has, like those two saxophonists, overcome initial incomprehension to take his rightful place as an acknowledged titan of contemporary music. But his total rejection of traditional structures and sonorities, and his refusal to countenance such a frailty as listener fatigue, has meant that his following has remained a small, albeit devoted one.

This 24-bit reissue of Taylor's brilliant 1981 live album, The Eighth, shows why. "Calling It The 8th" is a 59-minute double-fisted, elbows-on-the-keyboard, off-the-gauge hurricane of passion, counter-rhythm and chromaticism. Its ten-minute reprise, "Calling It The 9th," achieves the same level of overwhelming intensity. But if you can surrender yourself to the onslaught and stay the course, you'll emerge invigorated and uplifted, bloody but stronger. It's a prize worth fighting for.

Taylor's sound is so gigantic and sui generis that it's hard to pin down in words. He's frequently cited Bud Powell and Duke Ellington as primary inspirations, yet their influence is far from explicit. He shares Powell's dense intensity, but not his overriding darkness. He matches Ellington's genius for structure, but on an in-the-moment canvas. Taylor's approach is arguably closer to Little Richard's—but with a Zeus-like keyboard technique and a headful of off-planet hallucinogens.

Like Ellington, however, Taylor values longevity in his band members. Alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons had been playing with Taylor for twenty years at the time of this recording (and would continue to do so until his death five years later), and the interaction between the two is so attuned it's practically subliminal. Their four ten-minute passages of dual-core improvisation are the high peaks of the performance. Bassist William Parker and drummer Rashid Bakr are foregrounded less often, but do more than keep up.

Taylor makes just two concessions, if they can be called that, one to listeners, the other to form. "The 8th" is digitally divided, during brief moments when the band cool down to regroup for a further assault, into three sections, each lasting about 19 minutes—bite-sized portions by Taylor's standards. "The 9th" closes with two minutes of almost conventional, pretty melodicism.

Apart from that, you're on your own. Next time the force is with you, you could try sticking the headphones on and going for it.

Track Listing: Calling It The 8th; Calling It The 9th.

Personnel: Cecil Taylor: Bosendorfer piano; Jimmy Lyons: alto saxophone; William Parker: bass; Rashid Bakr: drums.

Title: The Eighth | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Hatology

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