Pianist Cecil Taylor was playing solo as early as the late 1960s — the double LP Praxis was recorded in Italy in 1968, though it wasn’t released until 1982. His solo work truly blossomed in the 1970s, though, with albums like Indent, Silent Tongues, and Air Above Mountains. By the beginning of the ’80s, solo work represented a major part of his practice; the two-volume live set Garden, recorded in Basel, Switzerland in November 1981, is one of his most beautiful releases. All of the albums listed so far, though, were recorded in concert. One of Taylor’s few solo studio recordings is also one of his least well known, and it turns 40 this year.
Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! was recorded at the MPS Studio in Germany’s Black Forest in September 1980. Two years earlier, Taylor and his incredible sextet had recorded Live in the Black Forest nearby, for the MPS label. But on this occasion, he was alone, joined only by producer Joachim Ernst Berendt and engineer Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer, the founder of MPS. He was performing on his favorite piano, the 96-key Bösendorfer Imperial.
The first five tracks, “T (Beautiful Young’n),” “Astar,” “Ensaslayi,” “I (Sister Young’n),” and “Corn in Sun + T (Moon),” are separate, but flow together as a single 24-minute suite. In the liner notes to the album, reprinted in the booklet of the 2012 CD reissue, Berendt writes,
Once I watched him practicing (Cecil practices every day between four and seven hours). He didn’t know I was there. He played soft and calm — just lovely chords. Afterwards I said: “I didn’t know you could play so soft.” “Well, I am soft,” he answered.
This music possesses much of the softness of that anecdote. Taylor hums and murmurs to himself as he plays, but not all the time, and it’s significantly less audible than in the work of other performers who garnered reputations for singing along with themselves. He doesn’t embark on his trademark explosive runs, or pound the low end of the keyboard, until the second half of “Ensaslayi,” and even there, it’s earned; he’s built up to it with more than 10 minutes of lyrical, Romantic exploration. “T (Beautiful Young’n)” and “I (Sister Young’n)” are an introduction and an interlude, respectively; the latter has an almost vamping quality at times, with some of his booming left-hand figures hinting at the stride piano he must have absorbed as a child in the 1930s. (In this 2018 ArtForum piece, Jason Moran discusses meeting Taylor and talking to him about his — Moran’s — teacher, Jaki Byard. When I met Taylor in 2016, for two days of conversation at the Whitney Museum, he spoke with tremendous admiration about Horace Silver. Rhythm was an essential component of his music, even if it wasn’t locked to a swing beat. Listen closely — let the music seep into you — and the pulse at its core will be inescapable. You can feel your heart beating along with his as the rhythm reveals itself gradually.)
The album’s second half features only three tracks, two of which, “The Stele Stolen and Broken is Reclaimed” and “Rocks Sub Amba,” are roughly 10 minutes long each. They are bridged by “N + R (Love is Friends),” a four-minute interlude. “The Stele…” has a celebratory, bouncing quality in keeping with the sense of triumph reflected in its title, but in its final minutes there are also low runs that strike like earthquakes; Taylor ends the piece by striking the Imperial’s very lowest keys, far below the normal bass range of a grand piano. The notes almost-but-not-quite dissolve as they’re struck, like thick blobs of ink sinking into a glass of water. “N + R” is lighter, a sunlit flirtation with a melody that could with only the slightest of tweaks become a jazz standard or a Quiet Storm ballad. And the album’s conclusion, “Rocks Sub Amba,” features a more staccato approach, notes falling like rain on a pond, anchored by the occasional chord but just as often seeming to fly free, the ground far below. This piece is where the album’s title makes sense, and is reflected.
It seems unbelievable that Cecil Taylor made only two solo studio recordings in his life — this one, and 1973’s Solo. Somehow, each of these could be described as “overlooked.” Solo creation was so much a part of his art that these records should be seen as milestones, not footnotes. Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! is not only astonishing music, it’s also one of Taylor’s best-sounding records. It’s a must-hear.
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I bought this album when it was first released in 1980. As a CT fanatic, I think that this is one of his finest albums. Though I love CT’s group music, the best way to understand his mind and musical process is though his solo piano music. Fly is concise and highly focused and is a great entry point for those unfamiliar with his brilliant music. CT remains one of the towering giants in 20th Century Music and culture.