“I try to imitate on the piano the leaps in space a dancer makes.”–Records Under the Radar

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Cecil Taylor is a man apart.  An uncompromisingly experimental musician from his earliest years, Taylor has pounded keyboards for more than 50 years.  He has worked with such luminaries as Max Roach and Mikhail Baryshnikov, and performed at the White House for Jimmy Carter.  Taylor is a pianist, composer, poet, and professor.  He is widely credited, along with Ornette Coleman, of being a pioneer of so-called “free jazz.”

Taylor’s music is kinetic, powerful, and often displays a strength and a force that seem incongruous with his extraordinarily complex and nuanced compositions.  Air Above Mountains, a live recording of  a performance in Austria in 1976, displays each of these facets in turn, and sometimes all at once.  The composition begins slowly, as Taylor seems to coax each note from the piano, as though stoking a fire.  Slowly he builds in speed, running up and down the piano, at times seeming to pound and punch the keys (indeed, one of Taylor’s trademarks is his percussive technique).  He plays both ends of the keyboard at once, sounding high and low notes simultaneously, and filling the space between with wild rills of sound.  At 51 minutes, the work is nothing short of a marathon: at no point is there any real pause or break, nor does Taylor falter in his antic pace.

To listen to Air Above Mountains is to feel intellectually stimulated.  Such is the reputation of avant garde music; some would say that the pursuit is more cerebral than it is sonically beautiful.  And while one does certainly feel an engagement of the brain while listening–akin to reading a dense text or conducting a conversation–there is a decidedly emotional, primal element to the music.  It attacks and retreats, conveys frustration and anger.  There is a vitality and a liveliness conveyed by Taylor’s fingers even now, 34 years on.

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