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Edgy jazz moves some at Mills

An experimental musician known for inventing free jazz delivered what perhaps was the longest run-on sentence to a restless Mills audience.

Two Fridays ago, in the Mills concert hall, American Jazz pianist and composer Cecil Taylor gave a spoken word performance at the music department’s invitation.

Wearing loose white pants tucked into his tan cowboy boots and a bone choker around his neck, Taylor began reading from a poem he called, “A kind of word-game.”

His words seemed to be taken from math and science textbooks; they ran together, were broken apart, and mispronounced. He spoke in bastardized French, Spanish, Latin, African sounding dialects and British affectations. Words such as proton, rhombohedron and ziggurat were repeated, with invented definitions punctuated by shouted syllables of nonsense.

Reaction to the performance was consistently surprised. “I can honestly say I have never seen anything like it,” said audience member John Bednarz.

With assertions like “the rhythm turns on its axial whip,” paired with “descendents of rattlesnakes moving through translucent blocks of basalt,” it’s easy to see why Taylor might lose an otherwise patient audience.

Reading from page after page, never stopping to break the flow of words, a half-hour into the performance, people began to shift in their chairs and some left.

“He’s actually known for clearing concert halls,” said Bednarz. He said that this performance is consistent with Taylor’s reputation as an experimental artist. “At least he’s out there taking risks.”

“It didn’t seem planned but random,” said Nadine Burel, one of those that walked out. “He was having an inner dialogue. He didn’t need us.”

Taylor’s reading did have a distinct musical quality. He would shout and whisper, use repetition and create a wall of sound with his voice. While these qualities may be listenable in his music, they were trying for many people in this performance.

“I didn’t understand it,” said Richard Amarelo. “But I didn’t hate it.”

Taylor’s unconventional approach to music has won him esteem as well as a reputation for creating cutting-edge art. He graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music, played at New York’s Five Spot jazz club, and worked with saxophonist Steve Lacy and Archie Shepp. Taylor has taught or been in residence for long periods at Antioch College, Glassboro State College in New Jersey, and the University of Wisconsin and continues to travel and play at various venues.

In a subsequent Mills appearance on Oct. 15, Taylor led the Contemporary Performance Mills Ensemble and musicians from the community in an improvisational concert; perhaps this show kept the audience in their seats.