Don’t be afraid of Cecil Taylor; he won’t hurt you, he just wants to make beautiful music. He’s earned a reputation as a challenging jazz musician, instrumental (along with Ornette Coleman) in ushering in “free jazz” in the 50’s and 60’s. But mostly the music that’s made him notorious came later than this, after a 1962 breakthrough where he found rhythm sections ready to go out on a limb with him and try something new. In the years leading up to that from his 1957 debut Jazz Advance, through the great 1958 release Looking Ahead! to his 1959 albums Hard Driving Jazz (later issued under John Coltrane’s name as Coltranetime) and Love For Sale, Taylor charted a course that challenged some but still worked within the boundaries of what people referred to as jazz, mainly held to the earth by solid bass and drum support. But after fairly indifferent sales for those albums he connected with the jazz writer Nat Hentoff, whose position as A&R man at the newly formed Candid Records meant that he could sign and give artistic freedom to a number of musicians working outside the mainstream of jazz. And Taylor didn’t waste the opportunity, producing several albums’ worth of material over a few recording sessions in October 1960 and January 1961, starting with this release. As with the titles of his first couple records (or Ornette’s similarly forward-thinking The Shape of Jazz To Come or Change of the Century) Taylor’s title promises a new world and a new approach to jazz here and he delivers it.
Though earlier on in his career Taylor took flack from critics unwilling to give his new music a shot, by this time he didn't really have anything more to prove to anybody - you take him seriously if you hear him play, simple as that. You may not like it, but there's no denying that he's for real. The record kicks off with “Air” where drummer Dennis Charles announces the opening with a drum fanfare into which Cecil drops athoroughly discordant but rhythmically solid (albeit tricky) melody. Charles and bassist Buell Neidlinger come back in with a cooking rhythm and the young saxophonist Archie Shepp takes the lead solo (two years before his debut album), sounding somewhat tentative here with Taylor comping menacingly behind him – or maybe that’s me projecting because when Taylor takes the lead Shepp's hesitant take on things is blown out of the memory within a few seconds, as he dissects the rhythm like a master surgeon, and plays around a tonal idea and stays challenging and dissonant without going completely atonal and aleatoric. Taylor and Charles trade off phrases as the piece draws to a close and Shepp reappears to say goodbye – but he’ll be back for the closing track, don’t worry. Next up is the lovely Rodgers & Hammerstein ballad "This Nearly Was Mine" (from South Pacific), performed as a trio with Neidlinger and Charles. In Cecil's hands it retains its beauty but it's edgy and works the extremes of the instrument and can jangle your nerves if you're the sort to let it get under your skin instead of immersing yourself. But if you immerse, you will find yourself right in his world. We also have "Port of Call," a Taylor original that's got a nice melodic line (which of course he immediately clutters up and subjects to changes) and might be the most accessible thing here for a listener looking for something more traditionally jazzy to hook into, though Taylor’s pixellated solo still may rattle the unwary. Following that is "E.B.," probably my favorite piece of the set. It's again a trio and is taken at a rocketing tempo with Dennis Charles working alongside Taylor's subversions of the riff that characterizes the piece in a way that reminds me of Blakey and Monk's interplay on Monk's underrated tune "Introspection." All the while Buell Neidlinger drives fiercely underneath and provides a grounding to even Taylor's wildest moments of solo flight. Closing things is the ballad "Lazy Afternoon" where Shepp acquits himself with a nice solo and some good back and forth with Cecil - still not quite in Taylor's league (to be fair, hardly anyone is), but he simply sounds great here, craggy tone and all - and helps make the piece work. Taylor of course takes what could be a languid stroll through an old tune and makes it something altogether more interesting while the rhythm mainly steers clear and lets him fly, especially in the opening improvisation.
All in all, the album is a great way in to Taylor's music, a nice balance of accessible and complex, and one of his finest early records – possibly the best of all his pre-1962 albums. From here he’d get more challenging as he found players open to his unique rhythmic and harmonic approach, but the early years are a fascinating glimpse of how Taylor could make his ideas work within a relatively traditional framework. The friction of his striving often left behind some great work.
- Patrick Brown