Cecil Taylor Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto June 1

Any time Cecil Taylor comes to town is a major event for jazz and free improv fans. Taylor has slowed down from the blinding energy that would see him run laps around the piano in decades past. This is not to suggest he's lost a step — his imagination hasn't dimmed one bit, and some 50 years into his career he is still as ingenious and mischievous as ever. In a sober concert hall setting like the Jane Mallett Theatre, most performers would simply walk on stage, but Taylor playfully bounded then crept to his piano stool like he was doing some avant-garde triple jump. Furthermore, where a tux might be a typical outfit for this space, Taylor sported a headstocking, a white tunic fastened with a gold sash, and shiny orange satin pants tucked into tube socks. Playing newly composed short form pieces — which by his standards meant ten minutes rather than 60 — all the elements, from venue to wardrobe to the economy of his performance, came together magically. Lately he’s been referencing the masters of 20th century piano more frequently, from Ellington to Waller to Tatum. Bluesy licks would appear for a fraction of a second only to be chopped and channelled into what would be called "micro-samples” if his method were electronic. His sense of stride was pronounced, the strong left hand never quite breaking into a repeating groove, yet retaining at least a pinky finger in the gutbucket. He simultaneously merged and contrasted the blues with major scale European classical filigrees at blinding speed. His improvising method was truly lyrical and prettier than ever, with the piano pummelling at a minimum this night. The piano-as-88-tuned-drums motif is never far away from any given sortie, but the night was short on the percussive, strictly rhythmic clusters, which at points in his career were a dominant part of his repertoire. Through it all, the audience was completely enraptured at each twist and turn in this gorgeous music. This was a very satisfying concert — Taylor once again schooled us in how the virtuosity of African American improvisation has transformed the music of the 20th century and beyond.