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Arts & Entertainment

Peter Stenshoel's Album of the week: Unit Structures by Cecil Taylor

Kevin Ferguson/KPCC

My parents never gave us an allowance. This made it tricky if you were a music lover during technology's prehistory. We acquired our family record collection when birthdays and Christmas gave us a built-in excuse. Otherwise, we had no "mad money" to spend on record albums, though on a trip to Lewis Drug I did convince my mother to buy me the Beach Boys single, "I Get Around." (My father vetoed my first choice of "Ticket to Ride" by the Beatles, for reasons known only to him.)

So my personal music collection consisted of one 45 rpm rock classic.

But when I turned 12, my parents figured they could trust me to babysit my little sister one night, and suddenly I was five dollars richer. I had no hesitation in how I would spend it: on my first ever self-purchased record album and I knew, from the Schwann Catalog, just which one. I ordered away to New York City for Unit Structures by Cecil Taylor. 

What in heck would a 12-year-old boy hear in this avant-gardist? 

Well, humor, for one. My first glimpse of Cecil was on educational TV in 1966. After some handclaps and gutteral utterances, Taylor sent his ensemble into sprawling sonic storms so full of life that my brother David and I literally fell on the floor and rolled with laughter. Something must have prepared me for this moment. I clearly apprehended the sheer joy of sound, of structure, of interaction and improvisation. Historically, the pianist had started with a unique approach and had developed it into a densely flavorful gestalt, composing music like no one else. This February's founders of free-jazz tribute ends fittingly with one of the movement's geniuses. In fact, he received the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1973 and a MacArthur Fellowship in 1991. He also played for President Carter at the White House.

When I later played jazz piano with like-minded musicians, I was well-influenced by Cecil. 

Pictured is the very album I ordered. It was not a cut-out. The hole in the upper left corner is one we drilled in our whole collection as part of an elaborate storage solution one summer. The only other alteration is Cecil Taylor's autograph, which the pianist graciously applied in the green room at the old Jazz Bakery in Culver City during a rare solo performance. When I told him how his music changed my life, he said, "Gots to do it!"