Let’s face it, Cecil Taylor’s music isn’t what you put on the hifi to unwind after a long day at work— google the pianist and composer and you’ll find words like frenzied, cacophonous, and “acquired taste” used to describe his particular brand of free jazz, a genre he pioneered – along with Ornette Coleman—during late-’50s performances at the legendary Five Spot Café on the Bowery.
Taylor is pretty much the polar opposite of #Netflixandchill—his is the kind of music you need to go hear live (an increasingly rare opportunity given that the pianist turned 87 last month), or at least in a monastic environment where you’ll feel guilty about checking your Twitter feed. That’s why it’s great that the Whitney has dedicated its entire fifth floor – said to be the largest uninterrupted gallery space in New York – to the works of the master composer. Through April 24, you can spend an afternoon there, lounging on a comfortable couch and surveying the skyline as Taylor’s frenetic work flood your ears.
Taylor once said of soloing that “what makes jazz unique is the compression of that energy into a short period of time, and that, in turn, is a reflection of what the machine has done in our lives in metropolitan areas in America.” It’s rather perfect, then, that you can sit back to an epic view of the High Line and the city beyond it and contemplate your place in that machine as you listen to, say, 3 Phasis, his 1979 recording with longtime collaborators Jimmy Lyons (alto sax) and Raphe Malik (trumpet). Or watch big-screen showings of films like And When I Die I Won’t Stay Dead, the 2015 documentary about Bob Kaufman, the Beat poet who influenced Taylor’s merging of poetry and music.
You can plug into video recordings of Taylor’s work as well, and watch him tinkle (more like trample) the ivories at the Jazz Festival of Paris in 1984 or perform with dancer Dianne McIntyre in 1982, at Judson Memorial Church in the Village. Taylor’s collaborations with another dancer, Min Tanaka, are central to the exhibit— Tanaka performed during the show’s opening as Taylor played a piano picturesquely situated in front of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Hudson. The dancer/actor will be back for more performances in the coming days.
Whenever you’re ready to come up for air, there’s plenty of eye candy as well. This isn’t the memorabilia assault that the Ramones exhibit is, but there are plenty of album covers, dozens of photos, and even some scores, though Taylor considered written music a “distraction” since it required the musician’s eye to be directed outside of his or her body.
As you browse the materials on display, you’ll see the degree to which Taylor has been part of the downtown fabric. There’s a recording of “A Rat’s Mass/Procession in Shout,” the improvisational jazz opera adapted from Adrienne Kennedy’s play and staged by Ellen Stewart at La MaMa in 1976. Masks from the production are displayed on a wall nearby.
Taylor wasn’t exclusively a creature of downtown venues like the Living Theatre—he did gigs uptown as well, three times at the Whitney’s old location. The first, in 1969, part of the museum’s New Dimensions in Jazz series with Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman, was “widely viewed both as an artistic milestone,” according to the museum, “and a sign of the broadening understanding of modernism within the Whitney, with modern jazz and free improvisation coming to be seen as part of the legacy of Abstract Expressionism.”
Indeed Taylor’s music and poetry has influenced artists and writers like downtown poet Steve Dalachinsky, who will be part of a “Poetry and Music” program on April 21. Others performing during the exhibit’s run include poet Anne Waldman, bassist Henry Grimes (who played with Tayor on two Blue Note albums: Conquistador! and Unit Structure), poet Tracie Morris, and bassist William Parker, who was part of the Cecil Taylor Unit in the ’80s and ’90s.
The full calendar of events can be found here. Perhaps the highlight: on April 21, New Yorker writer Hilton Als will direct a new staging of A Rat’s Mass. Als has called Taylor an “utterly brilliant and unique American artist.” He writes: “Taylor, whose hard and sinewy free-jazz improvisations make Ornette Coleman sound like Ravel at his schmalziest, defies such sentimental notions [of making concessions to invite the audience into his world]; his relentless modernity is based, in part, on jazz’s first principle: that whatever happens is part of the music if you make the form swing.”
Open Plan: Cecil Taylor, through April 24 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking District.