“Great musicians are more than musicians--they are poets and spiritual forces,” said pianist Cecil Taylor. “It is the sensitivity and the concept of the person playing that is most important to me.

“I’m not interested in the music or the instruments, per se, but what kind of poetic vision are you attempting to attain? Musicians are many but people who change the urgency, the size of the music as we know it, are few.”

One of those select few musicians will be present only in spirit when Taylor’s quintet, the Unit, makes its first local appearances in nearly a decade at the Variety Arts Center in downtown Los Angeles today and at UC San Diego on Sunday. The weeklong West Coast swing is being billed as the “Jimmy Lyons Memorial Tour” in honor of the alto saxophonist who died of lung cancer last year after largely forgoing an individual career in order to devote 26 years to performing Taylor’s music.


“I met Jimmy Lyons at a coffee shop on Bleecker Street (in Greenwich Village) the week that Hemingway committed suicide,” said Taylor in a phone interview before a solo concert in Canada last weekend.

“He (Lyons) is irreplaceable in all respects--musical loyalty, humanity, friendship, love, responsibility to the music that I wrote, the best interpreter of the music, my right arm, my best friend.”

But making music is only one facet of Taylor’s artistic personality--the pianist also writes poetry and is heavily interested in the dance world. While Taylor, who makes his home in Brooklyn, is usually categorized as one of the founders of free/avant-garde jazz, his musical models form the bedrock of the traditional jazz mainstream--Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Billie Holiday.

Taylor, 58, was born and reared on Long Island, but a particularly fertile musical period came when he combined daytime studies at the New England Conservatory of Music with explorations of Boston’s jazz-club world at night. After graduating in 1953, he returned to New York and a diet of day jobs and occasional gigs until a six-week engagement in 1956 by his quartet established the Five Spot as New York’s flagship modern jazz club of that era.

The next year, the same group--Taylor, soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, bassist Buell Neidlinger and drummer Dennis Charles--recorded the “In Transition” album that was both hailed and reviled as a bellwether of free or avant-garde jazz. But the unremitting intensity of Taylor’s music polarized audiences, upset many club owners and made work in America scarce for his groups.

Taylor began to find a substantial following only when he started appearing regularly in Europe during the ‘60s. He is now recognized as a major figure overseas--following the Unit’s West Coast tour, Taylor will fly to Amsterdam to serve as coordinator of a weeklong contemporary music festival at the Bim Huis center for improvised music there.


“After 30 years, I still find the reception to what I attempt to do much more congenial in Europe,” Taylor acknowledged. “American minds, through the influence of American black music, have brought European minds to understand something beyond the European construction of musical sound.

“Specifically, what has been gratifying has been the recognition of what I started working on when I was 17. I have heard and seen the magic--as opposed to logic--and spirituality manifest itself in a concrete edifice of form. If one can hear, one can see that we are concerned with layers of sound as a basic construct extending to those areas of transcendence which goes beyond the strictures of music that has preceded it.”

Taylor’s style remains so uncompromising and singular that it can be a daunting experience for audiences experiencing it for the first time. His kinetic, percussive piano style ranges from spare, lyrical chords to ferociously energetic exchanges that find Taylor animatedly hammering at the keyboard.

His compositions don’t follow traditional song forms, and the improvisations in performance often flow together into a single piece lasting well over an hour. Asked what key element an audience could focus in on, Taylor replied: “Surrender--try to divest one(self) of assumptions and presumptions. One must make oneself as vulnerable to the sonic as possible.”

Taylor has recorded fairly frequently but principally for European labels--his recent albums of solo piano “For Olim” and pieces for a 10-piece ensemble “Winged Serpents” were released on the Italian labels Black Saint and Soul Note, respectively. His music still divides audiences and critics into camps of ardent advocates and determined detractors, but Taylor does sense a greater acceptance for his music now.

“This is something I used to think that I chose but it chose me,” Taylor said of his career. “My life is to attempt to create beauty, poetry, so I’m having a wonderful time. The problems that those who attempt to interpret (my work may have), that’s on them.”