Acoustic Sounds

Cecil Taylor

Unit Structures



Cecil Taylor Unit Structures

Label: Blue Note / UMe

Produced By: Alfred Lion

Engineered By: Rudy Van Gelder

Mastered By: Kevin Gray at Cohearent Audio

By: Malachi Lui

August 27th, 2023


Jazz Avant-Garde



Blue Note Classics Reissues Cecil Taylor’s ‘Unit Structures’

1966 avant-garde essential gets first all-analog reissue

For Cecil Taylor, the word “jazz” didn’t represent the music’s rich historical and geographical lineage. The further he progressed, the more he distanced himself from such strict definition. And considering his music, why wouldn’t he?

A classically-trained pianist who worshipped Ellington but also studied and admired Stockhausen and Xenakis, it took almost a decade before Taylor’s brilliance fully revealed itself in the studio. Yet even on his debut album, the 1956 trio session Jazz Advance, his jagged, percussive sound stood out from the more rigidly chordal hard bop dominant at the time. He was already unstoppable: once he started playing, he was off. For example, listen to his solo rendition of Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To.” Taylor starts with the recognizable original melody, then does his abstract thing before returning to another part of the core composition and repeating the cycle. He sustains this momentum for nine minutes, and every second astounds. No one played like that in 1956. No one.

Over the next few years, he released a few more albums, including one for Contemporary (1958’s Looking Ahead!) where he pairs with Earl Griffith's vibraphone like oil and water, and one main release for Candid (1961’s The World Of Cecil Taylor) where bassist Buell Neidlinger and drummer Denis Charles keep things grounded as Taylor, and occasionally Archie Shepp, exhibit their signature disruptive energies. He also played with John Coltrane on 1958’s Hard Driving Jazz (also known as Stereo Drive or Coltrane Time) and on Gil Evans’ Into The Hot.

Cecil Taylor hadn’t released an album since 1962 when he signed to Blue Note and recorded Unit Structures in May 1966. By this time, Blue Note had already released plenty of avant-garde jazz records—surely at a loss, as they sold the label to Liberty in 1965—but even then, Unit Structures was completely radical. Taylor leads a septet, with Eddie Gale Stevens Jr. (trumpet), Ken McIntyre (alto sax, oboe, bass clarinet), and Henry Grimes (second bass) added to the quartet of Taylor, Jimmy Lyons (alto sax), Alan Silva (bass), and Andrew Cyrille (drums). There’s a momentous, almost revolutionary spirit running through Unit Structures, extending to Reid Miles’ especially striking cover art and Taylor’s own liner notes on the back, which blend his poetry with explanations of the music and his philosophy behind it.

Even those used to decoding fragmented writings might struggle with Taylor’s notes, and for that matter, his music. But essentially, he viewed the four compositions on Unit Structures in a deeply architectural manner. Set up the right circumstances, the framework, and everything will naturally, inevitably, fall into place and create an immersive, visceral result. “The player advances to the area, an unknown totality, made whole through self-analysis (improvisation), the conscious manipulation of known material; each piece is choice; architecture, particular in grain, the specifics question-layers are disposed-deposits arrangements, group activity establishing the ‘Plain.’”

Unfamiliar ears may simply interpret Unit Structures as free jazz. There’s improvisation, of course, but it’s actually composed, albeit not in any usual “jazz” format (nor in line with other American avant-garde/free jazz of the 60s). Cecil Taylor and his unit have a unique precision, too exacting for this music to be completely free despite its flowing nature. The first piece, “Steps,” opens with Taylor’s usual dense clusters of piano notes before everyone else joins, occupying that fascinating gray area between tonal and atonal. Towards the end, there’s a couple minutes of fiery interplay between Taylor and Cyrille, the former’s hands flying across the keyboard as the latter keeps steady pace without an easily identifiable rhythmic structure.

“Enter, Evening (Soft Line Structure)” lives up to its title, its dynamic and textural consistency making it the easiest piece. Lyons and McIntyre travel close together, drifting closer then suddenly away from Stevens before the former two themselves move apart. Halfway through, it very temporarily simmers down to a nocturnal ambience, like a flurry of crickets buzzing about. “Unit Structure / As Of A Now / Section” ramps up and cools down so frequently that it’s often unclear how and where one point transitioned into the next, yet it somehow all makes sense. This was Cecil Taylor’s genius: right when you’ve found something to grasp onto, he throws a curveball. After several rounds of this, you begin to understand his approach. The sparser closing track, “Tales (8 Whisps),” places Taylor’s piano more upfront. He’s equally as interesting alone as he is within the bigger organized chaos. Unit Structures is complex, but all its intricacies make it compulsively listenable.

The same year, Cecil Taylor recorded one more album for Blue Note, Conquistador!, comprised of two side-long pieces that find his style perhaps even more fully formed. Afterwards, he recorded the occasional studio session though mostly performed live in various configurations, especially in Europe. Six months after Unit Structures and five after recording Conquistador!, his quartet played in Paris; recorded and later released as Student Studies (and reissued by ORG Music a few years ago as The Great Paris Concert), it’s more difficult than the Blue Note recordings.

Taylor died in 2018 at age 89, seemingly respected by academics and institutions more than the general public. Sure, you can’t listen to his music in the background of a dinner party, or during your city commute, but he’s one of the top jazz innovators and Unit Structures is essential listening. Not “essential listening if you can handle it,” rather a necessary challenge to take on. It gets better every time you play it; despite a lack of any repetition, you might even begin to remember some of these passages. (And if you don’t get the compositional complexities, you’re not alone: Xenakis once said that it’d take him six months to figure out a 30-minute Cecil Taylor piece.)

Many audiophiles complain that Rudy Van Gelder didn’t record piano very well; while I think that narrative is exaggerated, Cecil Taylor sounds underwater here. Otherwise, this new Blue Note Classics reissue, cut from the master tapes by Kevin Gray, is perfect. The highs are clear and open, Van Gelder’s soundstage dry but logically spread out, and the 180g Optimal pressing flat and quiet. I haven’t heard the original pressing, but since Van Gelder had to roll off the bass and compress these albums to play on cheap turntables, I assume this is the best version yet. (This is the first all-analog Unit Structures pressing since at least the 1980s.) Can we get a Conquistador! Tone Poet reissue now?

Music Specifications

Catalog No: BST 84237 / 5523657

Pressing Plant: Optimal Media


Speed/RPM: 33 1/3

Weight: 180 grams

Size: 12"

Channels: Stereo

Source: Analog Master Tapes

Presentation: Single LP


  • 2023-08-28 02:02:03 AM

    bill schweitzer wrote:

    Excellent review. It's hard to write about Cecil Taylor intelligently and analytically, but you succeeded. Well done.

  • 2023-08-28 04:34:00 PM

    Scotty wrote:

    Really nice review! Have enjoyed this record for sometime now and would have liked to seen it released as a Tone Poet like others, but with that said I think it turned out great as a BNC. Quiet throughout with a nice soundstage that really lets you drift into the instrumentation very nicely.

    Glad you chose to review it, but for me here is how I would rate it. Music...11/10...Sound...9/5 of 10.

    Loved the above review of "Spring" BTW. Was cool to get both of these on the same day. A perfect paring if I do say.

  • 2023-08-28 11:49:27 PM

    Bret wrote:

    Great review, Malachi! It'd be awesome to hear from anybody who has compared this to an RVG mastered stereo original as that's the only version I have.

  • 2023-08-29 04:59:00 AM

    Rich wrote:

    Hey Malachi - I've written some snarky comments in the past, and thought your early "jazz" related efforts betrayed a lack of knowledge. Had not checked out any of your prior reviews on rebooted TA website but, wow, I'm extremely impressed, a very informative and well written review of an especially challenging recording. Glad to see that you went back to Taylor's early albums where his Ellington influence is easier to spot. Well done!

    Couple of observations: was initially puzzled by reference to "Stevens" in the text but realized you used actual album credits, trumpeter was mostly known as just Eddie Gale. Also, assume you know the strange story behind "Into The Hot" and it's not really a Gil Evans album despite (or because of pre-printed?) cover. I'm also assuming that you've read A.B. Spellman's classic Four Lives in the Bebop Business which featured a chapter on Cecil -- along with the sadly neglected Herbie Nichols, who was included in a recent Tone Poet release (hint).

    Lastly, Taylor has a pretty daunting discography but if you haven't already, consider tracking down two late 70's albums recorded for New World Records or One Too Many Salty Swift And Not Goodbye on Hat Hut with a group that featured Lyons along with powerhouse drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson. Keep up the good work!

  • 2023-08-29 10:32:20 PM

    freejazz00 wrote:

    I'd suggest that it wasn't that "No one played like that in 1956. No one," but rather that no one ever played like Taylor. See, for example Four Jazz Lives by A.B. Spellman. It is important to note that this is true of many important jazz piano players, both known and unknown. I suggest that Herbie Nichols (Complete Blue Note recordings), Hasaan ibn Ali (The Max Roach Trio feat. the Legendary Hasaan), Horace Tappscott (Live at Lobero) and even Monk (Complete Blue Note - some of which I believe was actually recorded in the late 1940s!) are other examples that fall into the category of unique/challenging/idiosyncratic, and who were doing their thing in the mid-to-late 50s.

    Taylor's music on his own label, Unit Core, in the early 1970s, is likely more accessible to those new to his playing than some other titles. Indent (reissued by Arista/Freedom) is a solo session, and the logic of his playing is much more plainly evident than on some other records. The Spring of Two Blue J's is taken from a live performance in NYC. I believe it was available on CD at some point, but I don't believe it was ever reissued on vinyl. One side is solo piano, and the technical audacity and abrupt beauty is immediate and vital. The second side is a quartet that offers the density of his more well known releases, such as Live at Cafe Montmartre. One of the joys of the album is being able to have clarity on one side and the density on the other as a doorway into has music.

    I was lucky enough to hear Taylor live in the mid 1990s. At both concerts he played solo, without interruption, for an hour-and-a-half. The shear athleticism to play so powerfully for that duration was, to me, both unimaginable and intangible.

  • 2023-08-30 08:06:13 PM

    Thrassyvoulos Papadopoulos wrote:

    Hi Malachi, excellent subject and review! I adore Cecil Taylor. I have been a huge fan for 35 years, though I first saw him live as a pupil in the mid 80ies. I bought this one and compared it to my clean original. The differences are not big, maybe the piano is a bit more full-bodied and impactful on the original and the other instruments are more clearly delineated on the reissue. I then discovered there was a reissue of his other early masterpiece on BN, Conquistador, a few years ago, mastered by Bernie Grundman. Have you (or anybody else here) listened to it? Or compared it to the original? Are they gonna do Don Cherry's Symphony for Improvisors?