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Cecil Taylor's piano lightning bolts are precisely targeted in this 1973 recording


This is FRESH AIR. Pianist Cecil Taylor's 1973 concert at New York's town hall was a homecoming and a progress report. He'd spent the previous few years teaching on campuses in the Midwest. The full concert is now released for the first time as a digital album. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says it's a great early example of Taylor's mature music - dense but well-designed.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Cecil Taylor in a moment of calm before the whirlwind begins. His music is often fast and dense, but it's also orderly and organic. Like other jazz masters, he likes pithy themes and endless calls and variations handled his own way. One tactic he likes while playing solo - take two contrasting motifs and alternate them in self-contained dialogue and then combine them. In this case, these contrasting elements are a tumbling bassline played in octaves and clumped-up midrange chords. Call and response and the merging of different parts play out differently when Cecil Taylor's Quartet hits the stage. That solo segment makes up much of the second set he'd played on a 1973 concert, a set Taylor issued on the rare, choice LP "Spring Of Two Blue-J's." That music now returns with the biggest bonus track ever - the evening's even better 87-minute first set for Quartet. That sustained, action-packed barrage called "Autumn/Parade" has the force and momentum of a cyclone.


WHITEHEAD: Jimmy Lyons on alto saxophone from pianist Cecil Taylor's digital album, "The Complete, Legendary Live Return Concert At The Town Hall N.Y.C. November 4, 1973." Call it his "Return Concert" for short. The Quartet music is organized around short motifs Taylor taught the musicians in rehearsal, which they might introduce or vary or paraphrase wherever. The little nuggets here might resemble a bugle call or a scrap of an old song. One motif that crops up a lot resembles Woody Woodpecker's manic cartoon bird call.


WHITEHEAD: I'm not knocking Cecil Taylor by pointing out that Woody Woodpecker parallel. The catchier those little nuggets the musicians play, the easier for listeners to spot them when they return intact or transformed. Cecil Taylor may not have known that cartoon bird call, but saxophonist Jimmy Lyons sounds like he might have.


WHITEHEAD: Some improvisers frown on one player tracking another too closely. Make your own statement. But Taylor and his saxophonist revel in their convergences. Taking off from those little motifs, they mirror and echo each other. With some high-energy improvisers, speed and density matter more than the actual notes. But for Taylor, all the details matter. Fast fingers need fast thinking to back them up.


WHITEHEAD: Cecil Taylor's piano lightning bolts - precisely targeted. You hear the precision in those thundering basslines and octaves. He often crowds string bassist Sirone into a secondary role. Sirone grabs his moments when things do ease up for contrast and maybe so they can catch a breath. Taylor's long-time drummer, Andrew Cyrille, with his impeccable jazz credentials, would rather play a little less than too much. It's remarkable how often he uses quiet wire brushes instead of sticks, keeping a lid on the pressure cooker.


WHITEHEAD: Drummer Andrew Cyrille, who's still out there doing it. Cecil Taylor's "Return Concert" is promoted as a streaming album, but you can also download it cheap from Oblivion Records' Bandcamp page. At Oblivion's own website, you can get a PDF of an album booklet which tells of the 1973 concert and its recording and reproduces the printed program. All proceeds go to Taylor's estate.

The hundredth anniversary of James Joyce's "Ulysses" has folks thinking about other thorny, dense, syntactically intricate classics of 20th century modernism across all the arts. Cecil Taylor's best work, his "Return Concert" included, belongs on that distinguished list.


DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed Cecil Taylor - "The Complete, Legendary Live Return Concert."

On tomorrow's show, we speak with Time magazine's Simon Shuster about his reporting from Ukraine and Poland. He'll talk about the weapons, humanitarian aid and foreign fighters coming into Ukraine from around the world and how they may determine how long Ukraine can stay in the war and how deeply involved the U.S. will become. I hope you can join us.

Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.


Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.