Noah Stoneman (b.2001) is a pianist and composer from North London. His music has been performed at festivals and venues including Brainchild festival, Manchester Jazz Festival, La Petite Halle in Paris and Somersby Festival in Lisbon. For the latest in LJN’s series in which musicians write about recordings by their idols or formative influences, he writes about Cecil Taylor (1929-2018). As Stoneman writes, “I became addicted to Cecil’ Taylor’s music when I learned to embrace the ‘screaming’ – to find immense beauty, catharsis and jubilant celebration in the unequalled power and ferocity of his playing.“
Noah Stoneman wrtes: Cecil Taylor has been frequently at the front of my mind for a few years now, especially whenever I sit at the piano. For a long time he was a deeply coded enigma I just couldn’t crack. Initially this was out of sheer fear of the power and ferocity of his ‘eighty eight tuned drums’, and later on it was because of how dense, entrancing and epic the structures of his compositions can be, and the disorienting effect they would have on me. And I think this is what I have learned most from Cecil; to let fear become love, to love the chaos and love being disoriented.
Not yet a subscriber of our Wednesday Breakfast Headlines?
Join the mailing list for a weekly roundup of Jazz News.
Cecil was an incredible and singular musical voice and by all accounts a larger than life human being. No one came close, or has since, to creating such an individual world with its own logic, rules, freedoms, character and intensity at the piano as Cecil did in the early 1960s, in tiny lower Manhattan lofts and bars (before the concert halls later on). And no one, in my opinion, was so uncompromising in their musical vision against those trying to dismiss his genius. According to bassist Chris White in Val Wilmer’s wonderful book As Serious as Your Life, Cecil was forced to work in places he shouldn’t have had to’ and up until the late 1970’s was ‘one of the best kept secrets in town’. I hear this in his music; a man who’s vision could not and would not be contained, no matter how hard people tried. If some pianists deal in ‘cascades’ and ‘flurries’ Cecil dealt in tidal waves, mushroom clouds, tectonic plates. What he does at the piano needs to be experienced to be believed, and even that feels like an understatement.
Cecil says in the same book ‘In white music the most admired touch among pianists is light. The same is true among white percussionists. We in black music think of the piano as a percussive instrument. Europeans admire Bill Evans for his touch. But the physical force going into the making of Black Music – if that is misunderstood, it leads to screaming.’ I became addicted to Cecil’s music when I learned to embrace this ‘screaming’ – to find immense beauty, catharsis and jubilant celebration in the unequalled power and ferocity of his playing.
- “Duets, Pt.1” from Historic Concerts (1984) with Max Roach
Although this wasn’t the first Cecil Taylor I ever heard, this was the first time I felt really felt moved by his music. Maybe move isn’t the right word – shaken. As soon as Max breaks into ‘time’ just before the 1 minute mark, I knew what this was. I hear, above everything, two musicians who couldn’t stop playing if you pulled them off the stage. There’s a force of absolute forward motion- there is so much to say and yet at every moment it feels like they are only just scratching the surface.
2. “1” from Calling It the 8th (1983)
This is a great record to introduce yourself to the ceremonial aspect of Cecil’s concerts. This track begins with 2 minutes of singing, chanting, body percussion and laughing from the group. It’s theatre. When Cecil’s stabbing clusters enter, you feel the music is not separate from the band’s general existence, its an extension of their breathing, walking, chatting. Cecil carried himself like a performance artist wherever and whatever he was doing; the stage just membrane for him to pass through.
3. “Abyss (First Movement)” from Silent Tongues (1975)
My favourite solo Cecil Taylor record, this suite is a richly composed maze recorded live at Montreux Jazz Festival. It’s an incredible example of Cecil’s writing in how the motifs grow deeper and more complex with each reprise. It’s an incredibly visual album, strange monoliths rapidly moving through space, collecting growth in the process. Cecil’s compositions are temporal illusions; time becomes physical and more like one explosive moment. You can never say how much time has passed between statements of material.
4. Cecil Taylor Unit – Copenhagen 1969
I have been watching this video on repeat since I discovered it this year. It’s incredible. A perfect example of the unbelievable endurance musicians like Cecil and Andrew Cyrille possessed when playing this music. The intensity they reach is maintained for over 25 minutes at a time, it only goes up and up – never dropping in energy. I really do believe this is on the edge of what is physically possible for musicians. It inspires me every time I watch it.
5. “Free Improvisation #3” from Ron Mann’s documentary Imagine the Sound (1981)
This is another video only available on YouTube. I come back to this a lot because I think it’s a fascinating look at Cecil really bringing out the most idiosyncratic parts of his voice to create a miniature piece of perfection in front of a documentary crew. You see the mechanics of his compositional mind working so clearly, and its amazing watching his hands too. He really had the most extraordinary technique, right down to his posture and presence.
6. “Conquistador” from Conquistador! (1968)
This was when I really got Cecil’s writing, if that’s really possible. Long stretches of improvisation interspersed with a Coltrane/McCoy-esque vamp and a strangely alien melody messily floating over the top. Although it’s not really interspersed, it’s all composition here. Like Anthony Braxton none of the writing is discreet, it’s modular and all
informs itself as one grand organism. The same can be said for the Copenhagen video. It is all material; Cecil’s music is a complete and robust being.
7. “Four” live in Copenhagen with Albert Ayler (1962)
Like the Max Roach duet album, I love this recording for hearing these two giant personalities distinctly shining through the music, as well as the sum of both parts. It would be reductive to hear this as a student/master dynamic, but by all accounts Cecil’s ‘Unit’ was a real institution by this point, and Albert looked up to him greatly. To hear such a fully formed voice piercing crystal clear amongst Cecil’s unmatched bed of noise is immensely gratifying.
Noah 10 Tracks LJN new
8. “Love for Sale” from Love for Sale (1959)
I absolutely love anything where I can hear how Cecil approaches other music. The intro of this standard reveals so much about his genius for bringing out the most beautiful and flamboyant aspects of a tune, decorating it in ways only he can with unmistakable percussive vigour and joyous brutality. His solo afterwards just blows my top, he is playing some things that even now would be too far out in the future for anyone else to hear and express in real time.
9. Cecil Taylor performing at Ornette Coleman’s memorial (2015)
Caius Williams showed me this video and I think it is one of the most beautifully haunting pieces of music on the internet. The reason I love it so much is because it allows you understand deeper what is beautiful to Cecil. He loves music so much and hears the whole range of textures and colours as equally gorgeous and heart-rendering. It is a stunning tribute to one of his dear friends, performed with as much grace and poise as ever.
10. Cecil Taylor All the Notes Documentary
Ok, so this isn’t strictly music but it is still essential listening/viewing, and I really couldn’t do without it. This is an excerpt from the best Cecil Taylor documentary on YouTube. Just hearing him talk about music and life, with his larger than life flamboyancy and commanding diction, gives me the same feeling as when I hear him play; it is the same music. A personal favourite highlight for me is seeing him dance around his apartment to a beautiful old vocal record at 6:00.