How do you pay tribute to a true original? That’s the question at the heart of Six Encomiums for Cecil Taylor, a fascinating new album — produced by avant-garde mastermind John Zorn — on which six adventurous jazz pianists honor Taylor, the perennially radical, school-unto-himself dynamo of the keys who died in April at age 89.
At around 11 minutes into “Unveiling Urban Pointillism,” one of the disc’s six solo pieces, the Cuban-born Aruán Ortiz makes his way into a remarkable passage, abstract yet focused. He keeps up a busy, restless pitter-patter in the high register, sprinkling in ear-catching clusters of sustained notes — the sonic equivalent of rain drizzling on a roof. Ortiz isn’t mimicking Taylor. But at the same time, the episode seems inescapably post-Cecil, unthinkable without the example of genre-transcending imagination and intense physicality the elder musician set during his monumental 60-plus-year career.
The same is true of the other five pieces on the album, which is credited to Winged Serpents, a play on the title of a classic 1985 Taylor album. Brian Marsella comes closest to evoking the startling force of Taylor’s attack with his compact, fiercely energetic “Minor Magus.” (Marsella can also be heard digging into the works of another late piano original, Hasaan Ibn Ali, on the impressive new Zorn-produced disc Outspoken—The Music of the Legendary Hasaan.) Kris Davis harnesses a similar sort of scampering momentum on “Grass and Trees on the Other Side of the Tracks,” but also nods to the delicate touch and naked poignancy Taylor summoned in his quieter moments — qualities that were too often glossed over in stock descriptions of his art.
Each of the other pieces immerses the listener in the unique soundworld of the player in question. Craig Taborn, whose combination of staggering virtuosity and deep, insular strangeness makes him an obvious heir to Taylor, traverses extremes of dynamics and densities in his opening “Genuflect.” On “Quauhnahuac,” Sylvie Courvoisier embarks on a thrillingly precise prepared-piano excursion, dampening and muting the strings to create a feeling of junk-shop surrealism. (Though such tactics weren’t part of Taylor’s core practice, he was known to reach inside the piano and strike the strings directly.) And on “April 5th, 2018” — named for Taylor’s death date — after constructing a kind of sonic pyre out of thundering, luminous chords, Anthony Coleman moves into plaintive, unmistakably bluesy phrases, evoking both his own ragtime expertise and Taylor’s love for early jazz piano greats such as Fats Waller and Duke Ellington.
Cecil Taylor composed prolifically, but his works were only rarely played without him present. On Six Encomiums, everything is the creation of its performer, which makes it feel more like a warm toast than a literal tribute, a fitting approach given Taylor’s staunch sui generis aesthetic. As fiery as Taylor could be, he was also a passionate fan of fellow pianists of all stripes. Hearing these performances, one can picture him grinning and raising the glass right back.