Full disclosure: I had never seen pianist Cecil Taylor before his gig this past Monday at the Highline Ballroom, part of last months Highline Piano Series that's featured everyone from McCoy Tyner to Jeremy Denk. For those who might not be in the know, Taylor, 80, has been at the forefront of experimental improv for the past six decades and is generally acknowledged (along with Ornette Coleman) as one of the founders of free jazz.
So, all you jazz aficionados will have to excuse me when I say that the first 30 minutes of Taylor's set felt like a practical joke. First, his bassist played piercing shrieks while the drummer did his best Martin Schmidt imitation, tapping on every available surface. After about 10 minutes of this, Taylor finally emerged, wearing an outfit (knit cap, tank top, sweat pants) that made him look like he just went AWOL from the rest home. Then, instead of sitting at the piano, he stood and read poetry for another 10 minutes in an almost incoherent voice that kept repeating itself, as if he'd forgotten his reading glasses.
Finally, Taylor started to play. At first, it sounded almost atonal (Taylor was classically trained in the music of the Second Viennese School.) But before long, he turned things way up: a massive build of clusters that yielded more sheer power than any piano I've ever heard. And, from what I could tell, it was all improvised (save for some hieroglyphics he had written down on tattered pieces of paper.) He played for about an hour, then left with barely acknowledging the crowd's applause. An interesting night, to say the least.