The great critic Roger Ebert said that anyone who loves movies must eventually come to Ozu.
I think the same thing can be said of Cecil Taylor – anyone who loves jazz must eventually meet Cecil. I’d like to say I got Taylor’s music quickly, but I did not and it can still throw me, especially if I’m not paying attention.
Taylor’s maturity as an artist coincided with the free jazz of the 60s, and even though he has had distinct periods since then, none of them “swing” in the conventional, loose limbed jazz sense. Taylor didn’t so much reject swing as push past it on his way to his own music. But before he did, he recorded one album, called Looking Ahead, that manages to both sound like the rest of jazz and sound only like Cecil at the same time.
The album is widely regarded as a snapshot of Taylor still finding his way. It is piano, vibes, bass and drums and Taylor’s originals evoke Monk and Herbie Nichols. Some people treat Looking Ahead as the gateway drug for Taylor, the album “when he was still playing jazz” that should be listened to because it makes what came after a bit easier to understand.
Maybe, but after 50 years Looking Ahead stands on its own remarkably well. There is nothing tentative about Taylor’s performance, no sense that he’s holding back at the piano. Instead, he meets the conventions of jazz halfway, and the two forces are in perfect balance. If Looking Ahead was any other musician’s work, it would be seen for the great album it is and not just the sign you pass, on your way out of jazztown.