Cecil Taylor
Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly!
MPS : 1980

CT, piano.

It’s a sad irony of adventurous jazz: Many of the most fun and accessible recordings remain stubbornly obscure or out-of-print. The readily available albums that people assume are gateways into the music are often nothing of the sort. We know countless avant jazz newbies who wanted to explore Cecil Taylor and inevitably picked up Unit Structures. It was on Blue Note, so it had to be fairly tame, right? Cue panic and stricken looks. Unit Structures is a great record but hardly the place to start. We hate to think how many potential Cecil Taylor fans it’s scared the pants off.

If those same people had instead picked up a copy of Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly!, we bet a large number would’ve been converted. This solo piano concert, recorded live in Germany, contains some of Taylor’s most concise and lyrical playing. It still delivers the shock of the new, but the logic of these pieces is more on the surface and they’re short enough that they encourage multiple spins.

The meditative koan “T (Beautiful Young’n)” clocks in at a mere 53 seconds. The trilling phrases and spacious melodicism of “I (Sister Young’n)” coalesce in less than two and a half minutes. And “Ensaslayi” provides a taste of  Taylor’s wilder extremes in an eight minute composition that patiently builds to a frenetically satisfying release. Like the title suggests, the album traffics in controlled exuberance.

Fly! X 5 offers many of the signature motifs of Cecil’s mature style — and in their most digestible form. Which isn’t to say it’s watered down. This is another exceptional record in Taylor’s canon. Unfortunately it’s also one of his rarer releases. To the best of our knowledge, this has never even been released on compact disc.  For the sake of future Taylor fans, let’s hope somebody out there rectifies that soon.

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What are some albums you play to interest open-eared friends? Are there any adventurous jazz albums that you wish you’d waited to hear?

Discussion15 Comments Category Cecil Taylor Tags

15 Responses to Skylarking

  1. “Unit Structures” scared me off. Perhaps I’ll try Taylor again.

  2. I think one of the best “introductory” CT albums is “Air Above Mountains.” Also solo piano, and the tracks are quite lengthy, but they’re also extraordinarily beautiful in an almost classical-piano-recital sort of way. I also think “The Willisau Concert,” from 2000, is one you can put on and folks who are into classical piano will perk right up.

  3. I was one of those people scared off by Unit Structures. Then, after a year or two of listening to a lot of musicians who had played with Cecil Taylor, I heard a friend spinning Nefertiti, the Beautiful One Has Come, and I thought it was great.

    Free Jazz almost scared me off Coleman initially, too, but I listened to The Shape of Jazz to Come around the same time, and I was hooked.

  4. A good general rule when attempting to introduce a new listener (even when that new listener is yourself) to an “out” performer is, Don’t start with large ensemble works. Start with a quartet or smaller group. With Coltrane, don’t go straight for “Ascension.” With Coleman, avoid “Free Jazz.” With Brötzmann, I would argue that “Machine Gun” shouldn’t be someone’s first experience – something later, like the Die Like A Dog group or a trio, is a better jumping-in point.

  5. Cecil’s Black Saint records were the ideal starting point for me. I tried a few deep dives into the HatHut, thinking I would be able to keep up. No luck. Then, “For Olim” And “Winged Serpent” gave me two different views of two different sides of the same person. After those, I really got into “Olu Iwa,” still one of my favorites.

    For very adventurous friends, I’ll unload Roscoe Mitchell’s “Nonaah,” the long solo version. My wife has not yet found a way into Cecil, but she loved RM right away when we listened to the solo concert.

    For less-adventurous friends, I’ll usually kick off with something from Zorn’s Masada quartet or Albert Ayler.

    As far as new music goes, seems like Darius Jones, Vijay Iyer, Darcy James Argue, and Mary Halvorson would be equally good starting points. You might be able to get somebody to Cecil through something like a playlist mixing Vijay, Andrew Hill, Don Pullen, Dave Burrell, and Misha Mengelberg. Hmm… now I have a listening project for this week.

  6. Me, I was scared off by the other Cecil Blue Note disc, Conquistador! My 19-yr-old ears said, “Yipes.”

    @pdf: good advices. We have some solo Brötz coming up in the store before the end of the year that would also make for pretty good intro material, I think.

    Another fine general rule: SEE THE PERFORMER LIVE. This has helped clarify so many different kinds of music/artists for me. Sometimes, something can only click when you share the space with the artist(s).

  7. This is a great point: “Many of the most fun and accessible recordings remain stubbornly obscure or out-of-print. The readily available albums that people assume are gateways into the music are often nothing of the sort.”

    I probably bought Stellar Regions too soon. It didn’t turn me off ‘Trane, but I wasn’t really ready for it and should’ve listened to a bunch of his other records before I got to that one.

    “See the performer live” is an excellent general rule. David S. Ware solo comes to mind as a good example. Also, Threadgill – I was already a fan of his records before seeing him, but I can appreciate what he’s doing with Zooid so much more after seeing them a couple times in person.

  8. Great post, thank you! I hadn’t ever heard Fly! x 5. Cecil was someone I kept returning to over a period of a few years before fully giving myself over to his music. I remember eventually buying the Historic Concerts with Max Roach and being taken aback by just how romantic some passages were in his short solo statement. Now the softy in me loves looking for those seriously romantic threads in his music.

  9. Yes, ‘Fly! Fly! Fly! [etc]‘ is probably the most immediately accessible of the Cecil solo recordings, and one of the most clearly/concisely melodic. The same ‘licks’/melodies/compositions (even the fast scurries from the top end of the keyboard down, which sound to some people like ‘a cat walking down a piano’ are, in fact, melodic figures) occur in practically all the solo material, re-jigged, re-configured, re-arranged, and here they are stated in an almost bare-bones way, and at a distinctly slower tempo than is sometimes the case. Interesting to note that in recent years the melancholy/romantic aspects of Cecil’s playing seem to have become more foregrounded (though he hasn’t exactly ‘softened’) – bell-like sonorities, Debussy-like harmonies – for instance, in his duo work with Tony Oxley.

  10. Wow! What stunning tracks. Thanks for sharing.

    Jazz Advance was the first Cecil record I had heard. And next to Ornette Coleman’s records, it was one of the first albums stretching into Avant-Garde stylings that I had listened to. it’s still tame, but for someone who listened to mostly the Jazz Messengers, it’s quite demanding. Also, Steve Lacy just sounds so modern on that recording.

    I usually point curious ears to the Don Cherry albums on Blue Note. I particularly love the combos that included Cherry, Henry Grimes, Ed Blackwell, and Pharoah Sanders together. It’s whimsical, serious, mystic, technical, precise, and chaotic all at the same time.

  11. “To the best of our knowledge, this has never even been released on compact disc. For the sake of future Taylor fans, let’s hope somebody out there rectifies that soon.”

    I want to ! …need to know who hold the master release…?

  12. seek and ye shall find. the full works is over on Magic Purple Sunshine. not 320 or FLAC but, hey, it’s all good :-)



    This is very true. When I saw Cecil live it pretty much clicked for me.

    Air Above Mountains is probably my favorite but I don’t know I’d use it as an introduction — I wouldn’t expect most people to have the Sitzfleisch for it. Definitely my younger self would’ve been kind of scared. Flyx5 seems like a good choice for Cecil — I actually really got into him through Into the Hot and, oddly enough given what else I’ve said, 3 Phasis. (Odd because that’s one big piece.) The shuffle section on side two of 3 Phasis really helped. I found Conquistador a lot easier to process than Unit Structures; the lyricism really came through.

    pdf’s examples about large ensembles all seem right in those cases, but I don’t know if that’s a general rule. Some of the Chicago Octet/Tentet stuff might be more accessible than Die Like A Dog for some folks (in particular the original album is very harrowing). And I could hear Winged Serpent (Flying Quadrants) as a good first Cecil, again because of the lyricism. The first Berlin Contempo Jazz Ork album seems like it might be a good introduction to some of its players…. Really it probably depends on who you’re introducing it to. For a lot of people I bet Last Exit’s Iron Path would be a good introduction to Brotz.

  14. Never had a problem getting into Cecil – started with Unit Structures and the New World records as an undergraduate and never looked back. Now, Brotzmann and Evan Parker and some of the other hardcore European players took me a longer time to appreciate and enjoy. Now, of course, that’s equally reverent stuff. (though I still find Topography of the Lungs kind of uninteresting. Blaspheme!)

  15. seeing braxton live (2004) really helped open things up for me – but seeing c.t. the same evening didn’t help my understanding of him at all. i later found out that he was supposed to have been very unhappy at having to follow b’s set (putting them both on the same bill may have seemed like a bargain for the ticket-buyer, but probably wasn’t the cleverest or most sensitive decision by the london jazz festival organisers); i also later spoke to other people who’d been there, and said that was the worst they’d seen taylor play… the point being that seeing someone live might not ALWAYS make the difference… but it probably does in most cases (or unless you’re quite unlucky).

    i heard lots of things i couldn’t make much sense of in my first few years exploring jazz (etc) – but i didn’t allow them to put me off, just figured i’d have to come back to them later. i couldn’t make any sense of derek bailey at all – he’s probably the one exception. (i can’t remember when that one first clicked, exactly.)

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