When I first saw Cecil Taylor a few years ago, he was at Castle Clinton. Part of the River to River Festival. He still had his long dreads, he was playing with two younger guys who had silly grins affixed to their faces the whole time, the I’m-playing-with-Cecil-Taylor grin, how cool is that? He was fiery and passionate, giving a performance for a big outdoor venue. When I saw him last fall at the Village Vanguard, he seemed much older; withdrawn, grouchy. He played beautifully, but at the end when he stood up and faced the audience, he had a look on his face like “Have you people been here all this time?” Even then, though, he had moments of heart-breaking lyricism.
Last night, I saw him at the High Line Ballroom, and he was in a different mood completely. The set began, with the bassist coming out and moodily hitting the strings. The percussionist came out, and tapped around the stage, setting his sticks on the piano, the floor, all the equipment, as if they were casting some sort of spell to clear the air before Cecil arrived. He came out, his dreads gone, wearing a cap and a black tank top. He started off with some spoken word, some Cecil Taylor version of spoken word. I couldn’t make much out; “bicarbonate,” liturgical,” “dopamine.” And then he sat down to play.
I’d never heard him play like he played last night. There was all his old crashing, thunderous chords, melodies peeking out every once in a while. Tumultuous, like he was summoning up a storm, and then pulling back to show something beautiful and tender, something so unexpected and lyrical it made you catch your breath. The audience was – as always at a Taylor show – mixed in response. A few get up and leave. Others sit rapt. I burst into tears several times, not even knowing why. That happens to me when I’m listening to him. Sometimes there’s the sense of a fever breaking and enormous relief.
He has the same indifference to the audience. He finishes abruptly, and reaches up for the stack of note paper on the piano, and that’s how you know he’s done with that number. He bowed awkwardly, shyly, at the end, acknowledging the audience, but still you feel as if you’ve interrupted something private.