If you really want to annoy your neighbours on a Sunday afternoon, I’ve got exactly the right record for you. Even the most extreme metal can’t match the disorienting effect of Cecil Taylor’s “Unit Structures” on the unprepared listener. For the true connoisseur though, it remains a masterpiece to be acquired, never consumed.
The year was 1966, and the jazz avant-garde was in full swing. Then 37 and commercially unsuccessful despite having released his debut album a decade ago, Cecil Taylor had even resorted to washing dishes while playing with greats like John Coltrane and Archie Shepp. Now freshly signed to Blue Note, it seems like he wanted to finally make his grand statement, gathering a septet of open-minded musicians in Rudy van Gelder’s legendary New Jersey studio.
Classically trained and technically brilliant, Taylor was not only familiar with the music of jazz innovators like Monk and Bud Powell, but also knew the works of Stockhausen, Bartók and Cage. In the decade since his debut, the born-and-raised New Yorker had constantly moved further away from traditional jazz, just like his peers Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. On “Unit Structures”, the transition to a completely free style was completed – these compositions didn’t follow notated scores or basic Western rules of harmony. Instead, the group set out to achieve liberation through improvisation.
Revisiting “Unit Structures” today, it remains a challenging listen. Taylor disorientates the listener from the opening bars. Drummer Andrew Cyrille doesn’t play in any of the conventional metres, instead moving right into complex polyrhythms. Taylor’s wild attacks on the piano sound more percussive than melodic, and the two saxophonists often burst into shrill overtones. But ten minutes into the first track “Steps”, a beautiful, almost gentle sax line emerges. 30 seconds later, the track ends on a drum roll, as if Cyrille had realised there’s nothing left to be said.
Within all of the album’s radical chaos and cacophony, beautiful moments emerge unexpectedly and then vanish again quickly. You need to deeply listen, or they will pass you by unnoticed. In that sense, “Unit Structures” can be interpreted as a spiritual piece, a statement even on the futility of life itself, highlighting the importance of presence to take in brief glimpses of true bliss. Still, without all the turbulent emotions and experiences around them, these moments wouldn’t feel as notable.
A culmination happens in the first track on the B-side of the album, “Unit Structure/As Of A Now/Section”, an almost 18-minute long piece in three parts. The group is summoning all of its collective energy, playing with and against each other. It feels as if the piece is constantly on the edge of disintegrating, just like the bubbling inside of a volcano on the verge of explosion, randomly spitting fire, smoke and lava into the air. Again, I’ve spent a few years of my youth listening to extreme forms of metal, and I can’t recall a single record reaching this kind of emotional intensity and display of physical force. If you’ve ever asked yourself what a “wall of sound” might feel like, look no further.
Cecil Taylor has played music for many decades after “Unit Structures”, and his influence hasn’t ceased over time – quite the opposite in fact. Generations have been discovering his creative genius time and again, which reminds us about the importance of artists that go against the grain, resist commerciality, release notoriously “difficult” bodies of work and challenge the status quo. His music surely doesn’t sound easy and convenient, but then again, when has “easy and convenient” ever led to a life-changing experience? Just forget the rules, stop judging, immerse yourself in sound and surrender to its power.
“Unit Structures” by Cecil Taylor will be re-released in Blue Note’s Classic Vinyl Reissue series, mastered by Kevin Gray from the original master tapes and pressed on 180g vinyl.
Stephan Kunze is a Berlin-based culture journalist who has been writing about music for magazines and newspapers since 2001. He’s a former Senior Music Editor and Global Editorial Lead at Spotify.
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