September 14, 1956: Cecil Taylor on Transition
“Transition, a small and apparently fearless firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has issued a brilliant, uncompromising record on which the principle performer is a twenty-three-year-old pianist named Cecil Taylor.”
Thus begins the very first column Whitney Balliett wrote for the New Yorker, on April 13, 1957. And he pretty much sums up the dream of Tom Wilson, the man behind Transition. Wilson saw Transition filling an important niche. Large record companies were reluctant to sign unknown or emerging artists because they couldn’t sell records. The majors had no interest in developing artists, they only wanted developed ones. Transition could be different, recording emerging talents and helping them to become famous on their own merits. Earlier in 1956 they recorded Donald Byrd, and then Sun Ra. Two months after that date with Sun Ra in Chicago, Wilson recorded Taylor in Boston. Jazz Advance was Taylor’s first LP, as Jazz by Sun Ra had been Ra’s.
I don’t know if Wilson (who graduated from Harvard in 1954) heard Taylor (who completed the New England Conservatory’s Diploma Program in 1951) while Taylor still lived in the Boston area, or if that came later. Perhaps Wilson only knew Taylor by reputation. Regardless, Taylor was on to something, and Wilson wanted to record him.
The album featured musicians who would work often with Taylor in coming years: bassist Buell Neidlinger, drummer Denis Charles, and saxophonist Steve Lacy. It was Neidlinger’s second session for Transition, and the other was quite different—Johnny Windhurst’s trad-leaning Jazz at Columbus Avenue (TRLP-2)
The band recorded seven tunes, with six, including three Taylor originals, released on Jazz Advance. The seventh was released on Jazz in Transition (TRLP-30), the label’s 1956 sampler LP.
Balliett called Taylor’s musical imagination “astonishing,” his improvisations “daring,” and the music “exhausting…In addition to its demanding harmonic and rhythmic complexities, it has considerable power and emotion.” All of that is true, and Jazz Advance was an apt name for Taylor’s record. The hallmarks of his playing are all there in an early state—the physical energy, the percussiveness, the dense clusters of notes, the dissonant chords. It was a radical statement at the time, but Wilson didn’t want it any other way. As the advertising slogan said: The Real Jazz is on Transition.
Read more about Tom Wilson here On Troy Street in the blog entries for March 25, May 7, and July 12.
Here is Taylor’s take on Monk’s “Bemsha Swing.” Keep an ear on Denis Charles, who is outstanding.