R.I.P. Malcolm Cecil, Synth Pioneer and Stevie Wonder Collaborator Dead at 84

Cecil co-produced classic albums for Wonder, including Talking Book and Innervisions

Malcolm Cecil
Malcolm Cecil, photo via Bob Moog Foundation

Malcolm Cecil, the influential jazz musician and producer credited with co-designing and constructing the world’s largest analog synthesizer, died Sunday (March 28th) at the age of 84 after a lengthy battle with an undisclosed illness.

Hailing from London, Cecil cut his chops by playing bass alongside some of the UK’s most celebrated jazz musicians, including Dick Morrissey, Tony Crombie, and Ronnie Scott, in addition to leading his own quintet called The Jazz Couriers. In the 1960s, he teamed up with Cyril Davis and Alexis Korner to form Blues Incorporated — the highly influential rhythm and blues band whose rotating cast of collaborators included Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Charlie Watts, Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce, and Davey Graham. In fact, as the story goes, Jagger and Richards were inspired to form The Rolling Stones with Jones, Watts, and Ian Stewart after jamming with them in Blues Incorporated.

At the same time, however, Cecil maintained a strong interest in electronics and circulatory — which he picked up during his time in the Royal Air Force. In the early 1970s, Cecil began composing music on synthesizer alongside Robert Margouleff in TONTO’s Expanding Head Band. Through his work in TONTO, Cecil co-designed and constructed the largest multitimbral polyphonic analog synthesizer in the world.

“I started building TONTO because I felt that an orchestra of synthesizers would be absolutely phenomenal and I had for many years wanted to experiment with sounds that I couldn’t get musicians to play,” Cecil explained in a 2013 interview. “Time signatures was one of the things I couldn’t get many musicians to play.”

Cecil’s work in TONTO eventually caught the attention of Stevie Wonder, and together the two collaborated on several classic albums together, including 1972’s Music on My Mind, 1972’s Talking Book, and  1973’s Innervisions. Cecil’s work on Talking Book in particular earned him a Grammy Award for Best Engineered Album, Non Classical.

Over the years, Cecil would also collaborate with numerous other musical luminaries, including The Isley Brothers, Gil Scott-Heron, The Doobie Brothers, and Joan Baez. All the while, he continued to maintain and expand on his TONTO synthesizer for some four decades.