The Atlantic

The Deceptively Accessible Music of Cecil Taylor

The composer and free-jazz giant, who died Thursday at 89, has a reputation for making challenging music, but the reality is far less imposing.
Source: Barbara Woike / AP

Sometimes, when listening to an avant-garde giant of yore, it’s difficult to understand what made her so striking. A vanguard by definition lays the way for imitators, so eventually the things that once made her radical now seem conventional.

This is not a challenge with Cecil Taylor’s music.

The pianist and composer, who died Thursday at 89, retains his ability to shock, despite decades of work and critical acclaim and a lengthy discography and performance history. Taylor’s work is stranger and less immediately legible than that of Ornette Coleman, the other major founding father of free jazz; Coleman, who died in 2015, started his career in R&B bands, collaborated with rock musicians, and became a hip taste even for non-jazz obsessives. Taylor came from a more classical schooling, and his music never lost its strangeness.

As a result, Taylor’s strongest constituency was long among music critics. “If there’s any justice,” WBGO’s Nate Chinen , would run its obituary on page A1. . Like many great artists, Taylor was not especiallyWhitney Balliett , “Coleman’s music is accessible, but he is loath to share it; Taylor’s music is difficult, and he is delighted to share it.” Taylor read his esoteric poetry during performances, and moved around the bandstand. Some critics were not impressed. “Anyone working with a jackhammer could have achieved the same results,” Leonard Feather.

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