At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)
Cecil Taylor, who died on April 5 of this year at 89, was arguably the single most galvanizing figure in improvised music during the second half of the 20th Century. But it would be a folly to suggest that his genius was somehow constrained by those parameters; he was no more limited by the century of his birth than he was by the standard conventions of the piano.
I wrote a critical appreciation in the hours after his death, and I'm not likely to improve on it here. But I'd like to add that while I first began seeing Taylor in the 1990s — at every opportunity that arose, once I arrived in New York — my experience seeing him mostly unfolded after the year 2000. For me personally, he was as much a figure of the 21st century as he was the 20th. Factor in the long shadow he casts among younger improvisers, notably pianists like Craig Taborn, Vijay Iyer and Jason Moran, and and you have a legitimate case for his continuing ascendence in our time.
To be sure, Taylor became less accessible, which is one reason that his final two concerts in New York were such major cultural events. (I reviewed one of these, an astonishing solo performance at Harlem Stage, for The New York Times. I wrote about the other one, a residency at the Whitney, for JazzTimes.) He seemed to be receding into a runic eccentricity, leaving us to better ponder a vast and inscrutable body of recorded work.
The Willisau Concert was recorded in 2000, at the Jazz Festival Willisau in Switzerland, and released on the Intakt label two years later. It's a solo recital of characteristic sweep and seizure, full of Taylor's trademarks as a tone scientist. The selection here, listed on the album as "Part 2," is a fine distillation of the concert's spirit. There are moments in the track when Taylor seems to gesture toward Duke Ellington, one of his longstanding touchstones. There are other moments when his rummaging feels like an expression of dance, or kinetic sculpture.
At every moment there's a clear, defiant sense of articulated form. This is no series of random actions, as some wary appraisals would have it. Taylor was so far beyond that, we're still catching up to him.
(For more about Cecil Taylor, read this brilliant long piece by Adam Shatz.)