Artist obituaries can often be somewhat reductionist but this one contains two key “educational moments” that can clue us into what separated Cecil Taylor’s musicianship from many of his peers and the imitators that followed:
1) “Classically trained, he valued European music for what he called its qualities of “construction” — form, timbre, tone color — and incorporated them into his own aesthetic. ‘I am not afraid of European influences,” he told the critic Nat Hentoff. “The point is to use them, as Ellington did, as part of my life as an American Negro.'”
The “construction” that Cecil is referring to is the firm grasp of voice-leading and melodic contour that he displayed, even in his most “chance” based moments of improvisation. If one were to “freeze frame” random sections of his work, we would readily identify the dominant presence of standard harmonic movement between all of the notes in the lower, mid, and upper-registers. This is a clear example of why all jazz musicians chart a course of parallel study based in classical harmony.
2) “With renown came a particular kind of scrutiny. In 1959, Gunther Schuller devoted a long essay in The Jazz Review to the question of whether Mr. Taylor’s music was atonal. ‘Listening carefully to his playing leaves no doubt of the fact that Taylor indeed does think tonally, but the result of his thinking most of the time cannot be analyzed on tonal terms,’ he wrote.”
Like any great improviser (free or standard based), Cecil clearly worked within tonal centers. In fact, I never knew that this was even a point of contention until 10 minutes ago. While most of us work toward establishing the ability to outline changes, we inevitably develop techniques that lead us toward extending the harmony. Cecil often did this without the burden of a set harmony but the principles remain exactly the same.-Tone