One of a kind

Jazz byRichard Cook

A momentous occasion at the Barbican this weekend: a duo concert by the pianist Cecil Taylor and the drummer Max Roach, two of the surviving legends of jazz, lions from long ago who have seen off the vicissitudes of the jazz life and are - a little sadly, in their old age - honoured grandmasters. Roach was one of the drummers who lit the original flame of bebop in the 1940s, and he has been a distinguished player and group leader ever since. But it is the appearance of Taylor, who hasn't played here for many years, that is the real excitement.

Cecil Taylor is like nobody else in jazz. In a music that is peopled by mavericks and one-offs, Taylor is the supreme individualist. He began recording a little over 40 years ago with an album provocatively called Jazz Advance, and he has stayed at the forefront of the avant-garde ever since. His piano "style" is more of a complete language of his own. It has been exhaustively analysed by some of his critic-admirers - Taylor has always spawned a fanatical devotion among the few - yet to hear him at length, thunderous, overwhelming, washes away a forbidding reputation.

Playing solo, he can construct soliloquies which might last as long as an hour, each an improvisation with the weight and complexity of a dense, detailed composition. Like Art Tatum, he uses the keyboard as a grand, orchestral device. He sometimes works in blocks, a musical figure built up and examined over and over until it leads to another. He is a pianist who reminds one that the instrument is percussive ("88 tuned drums", in one oft-quoted remark), but he can coax a discrete, lyrical beauty at moments when one fears that there is nothing to come but sound and fury.

That quality of almost superhuman intensity was developed in his music of the 1960s, rarely recorded and, frankly, deeply unpopular, even with many of the listeners who took to the jazz of his fellow radical, Ornette Coleman. It would be convenient to say that audience and music caught up with him in the end, but Taylor still excites a measure of controversy and he has never compromised his art. He spent some years teaching, and there were periods when he did not record at all, but in the past 20 years he has made many records and there is scarcely one which is not bursting with his vivid, unrepeatable music.

One shouldn't try and deny the difficulty in Taylor's music. He is hard work, and he asks a lot of any listener. As emblematic as he is of so many aspects of the jazz tradition, some aver that he is no longer playing jazz at all. He has certainly moved far away from the conventional accents of even the free jazz of the 1960s, which is one reason why he has performed so successfully with European improvisers. The celebratory set of discs issued by the German label FMP, Cecil Taylor in Berlin '88, shows how readily the indigenous performers, unencumbered by American jazz tradition, took to Taylor's language.

Yet in some ways the world has grown closer to Taylor's art. His eclecticism, which so many artists labour after to prove their contemporaneity, is genuine. Fascinated by poetry and dance, he will often begin a concert with his own versifying - as singular as his pianism - or will approach the piano with feline, balletic steps. Brittle and unsmiling when he feels like being difficult, he can also be a charming, gossipy companion with the wittiest of tongues. It scarcely seems possible that this year he will be 70 years old, but as long as he is around, jazz will keep its mixture of hyper- intelligent art and visceral excitement fully intact.

Cecil Taylor and Max Roach play the Barbican (0171-638 8891) on 24 January

This article first appeared in the 22 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Goodbye to all that boiled cabbage