John Taylor - Key player on the European scene
John Taylor is in Venice, trying to find a quiet corner to chat on his mobile phone. The English pianist is no stranger to Italy – indeed, his agent is Italian and Taylor has often appeared to be more valued there than he is at home, although his reputation hasn’t always preceded him.
Back in the mid 1980s, Taylor remembers an Italian taxi driver, detailed to collect a "Mr John Taylor, musician" and doubtless imagining ‘I had that bloke from Duran Duran in my cab’ style conversations, being demonstrably disappointed that his passenger was a forty-ish jazz player rather than a pop idol. For a while this wasn’t an unusual scenario.
In jazz circles, such confusion was easily bypassed since this John Taylor has been known to musicians and audiences as JT virtually since he started to make an impact in the 1960s. The friends Taylor made on arrival in London back then, including saxophonist John Surman and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, remain colleagues and influences to this day. And while Taylor went on to play with other luminaries including Cleo Laine, Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek and former Weather Report drummer Peter Erskine, and was a resourceful deputy on alto saxophonist Art Pepper’s fabled Mitchell Theatre gig in Glasgow shortly before Pepper’s death in 1982, he still cherishes these early connections.
"John and Kenny and [bassist] Chris Laurence and [saxophonist] Stan Sulzmann are all people I’ve known and worked with for about forty years and there’s a very natural bond there," he says. "It’s about friendship as well as musical understanding and I think the understanding we have is something that can only develop in that way. It’s always great to get together with these guys. There’s an easy familiarity with them but also, because we don’t work with each other constantly, it feels fresh and inspirational too."
Taylor’s first inspiration as a jazz pianist was Oscar Peterson, whom he heard as a teenager. He’d begun playing piano by ear as a child in Manchester and with the exception of a year of lessons in his teens with "one of those typical old lady teachers," he is self-taught. From Peterson he moved on to Bill Evans, whose poetic style seems more in keeping with the lyricism and sensitivity – he’s often described as the quintessentially European jazz pianist - with which Taylor has come to be associated.
By this time Taylor’s family had moved via the Midlands to Hastings, where there was a lively jazz scene that prepared him for the move to London at the age of twenty-two.
"London then had a lot going on," he says. "There were people like Evan Parker and John Stevens who were establishing themselves with a free improvisational approach and I think a lot of this thing about a distinctly European strand in jazz actually comes from the improvising aspect of jazz itself. There was improvisation in European music long before jazz came along, of course, and I think when you’re expressing yourself, you can’t help but reflect who you are and what you’ve listened to."
At the same time as he was teaming up for early records with Surman, whose roots in the South West of England shine through in his music, Taylor was absorbing the then emerging American heroes including McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. He also became a regular at Ronnie Scott’s Soho club, where he played with visiting American musicians and learned what he considers a vital part of the pianist’s craft, accompaniment.
"If you’re going to be a pianist in the broadest sense, you have to learn how to play the supporting role," he says. "I was fortunate enough to work with Cleo Laine, who had a terrifically varied repertoire, and I still love to work with singers. The reason I’m in Venice is to do a concert with Maria Pia DeVito, who’s a great improviser as well as a lovely singer. Working in a duo like this, I have to find a balance, choosing when to follow and when to lead but trying not to make things too complicated. It’s always interesting."
Playing at Ronnie Scott’s club led to Taylor joining the saxophonist’s quintet, where he enjoyed working with someone who was not only one of the major figures musically in British jazz but also one of its greatest characters. It was only a brief stay – six months to a year – but Scott’s appreciation of Taylor’s talents was preserved on record, the Serious Gold album, and through at least one of Taylor’s compositions remaining in the Scott band book long after he’d left.
Part of his reason for leaving Scott was that Taylor was beginning to really make an impact in Europe by this time. He joined saxophonist Jan Garbarek, bassist Palle Danielsson and drummer Jon Christensen, effectively replacing Keith Jarrett in the ‘Scandinavian’ quartet that the American pianist had formed for a series of albums on Munich-based ECM Records. Shortly afterwards ECM, which was by then the premiere label in European jazz, picked up on Azimuth, Taylor’s chamber jazz trio with Kenny Wheeler and Taylor’s then-wife, singer Norma Winstone.
This was the beginning of another long association, during which Taylor became the ‘Bill Evans’ figure in Peter Erskine’s Evans-influenced trio, which also recorded for ECM, although it was into the new century before Taylor released an album, entitled Rosslyn, for ECM under his own name.
Inspired by Rosslyn Chapel before it became overrun by visitors on the Dan Brown-Da Vinci Code trail, the album’s title track is typical Taylor, a seductive melody that evokes a sense of place and stays in the mind long after the CD’s finished or the gig’s over.
"I was lucky," he says, "because Rosslyn was still quiet when I first went there. It was an emotional time for me and the tune developed, I think, out of another piece I’d been working on. There was definitely a sense of earlier times about the chapel itself and I wanted to convey a timeless quality in the music. But location certainly has an effect when I’m writing."
The concerts that bring Taylor to Scotland this week feature him playing solo piano and then in duo with British jazz’s rising piano star, Gwilym Simcock. Taylor who has taught on the Royal Academy’s jazz course, spent fifteen years as professor of jazz piano at Cologne College of Music, before retiring last year, and currently occupies a "half-time" post at York University, is quick to disclaim any credit for Simcock’s rapid progression.
"This student and his professor thing that’s grown up around us is a handy phrase but it’s not true," he says. "I think I saw Gwilym once at the Academy and he came to my house for a chat once, and that’s it. It does look like we’re building a relationship as performers, though. We’ve played a couple of concerts together now and hopefully these Scottish gigs will take it further."
Outstanding though he is as a team player, playing solo is one of Taylor’s particular strengths. The last time I heard him alone, at the Jazz Sous les Pommiers festival in Normandy in 2005, he held a packed house in a night club on a sunny Saturday afternoon absolutely spellbound with a set that seemed almost pre-composed.
"Well, I suppose I’ve been doing these gigs for quite a while now and I always have an idea what I’m going to do beforehand," he says. "I’ll jot a few ideas down on a piece of paper, although I might change the shape and content as I go. My aim is to present a balanced programme. I like to invite the listeners in - not make it too obscure – and give them something that I’d like to come down off the stage and listen to myself."
From The Herald, April 2, 2008.
John Taylor R.I.P.
No-one who witnessed his beautifully compelling solo concert at Glasgow Jazz Festival last month would have imagined that this was to be the last time we heard John Taylor play in Scotland.
The pianist, who suffered a heart attack while performing at Saveurs Jazz Festival in France on Friday, July 17 and died in hospital afterwards, was at the peak of his powers, a figure who didn’t seemed to have changed much physically with the passage of time and who was still refining an already masterly style that made him one of the great musicians in European jazz of the past forty years.
Those years were marked by long musical associations. Taylor loved the camaraderie and easy musical chemistry that he developed with, among others, the Canadian-born trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, who predeceased his old friend by a matter of months, the great Devonian saxophonist John Surman, the singer and Taylor’s former wife, Norma Winstone, and European musicians including bassist Palle Danielsson, with whom Taylor worked in drummer Peter Erskine’s trio.
Erskine’s group was special because it cast Taylor in the role of one of his heroes, Bill Evans, whose classic trio of the 1960s was the inspiration for Erskine taking the same format forward and whose lyricism Taylor assimilated into his own, individual and instantly recognisable style.
Taylor was born in Manchester, where he began playing piano by ear as a child, and save for a year of lessons in his teens with, as he told the Herald in 2008, “one of those typical old lady piano teachers” he was self-taught. His first inspiration was Oscar Peterson, whose energy and torrent of ideas impressed until the poetic, sensitive turn of phrase that Evans brought to his improvisations set Taylor on his own path of discovery.
By this time the family had relocated, via the Midlands, to Hastings, where Taylor began to play locally and whence, as a civil servant, he moved to London in 1964 and became involved in the developing free jazz scene while at the same time finding work as an accompanist. To be a complete pianist, he always said, you have to understand how to play a supporting role and for a time Taylor did this in the house trio at Ronnie Scott’s world famous jazz club and with singer Cleo Laine. He also played in Scott’s quintet, contributing tunes including Interfusion to the band book, and was a crucial member of saxophonist Alan Skidmore’s award-winning quintet where he worked alongside Wheeler and composed tracks for Once Upon a Time, a landmark album in British jazz.
In the 1970s, Taylor, Winstone and Wheeler formed Azimuth, a group whose chamber jazz approach appealed to the leading European jazz label, Munich-based ECM Records. Taylor’s reputation as a creative force had already extended into Europe but the ECM connection opened further doors and he appeared with many musicians associated with the label, including saxophonist Jan Garbarek, bassists Arild Andersen and Miroslav Vitous and guitarist Ralph Towner.
Closer to home, he continued working with John Surman, whom he’d met not long after moving to London, and contributed pieces including the lovely, enduring Windfall to Surman’s classic quintet which toured whenever the individual members’ increasingly crowded schedules permitted. Taylor’s Scottish connections included deputising at short notice in Art Pepper’s quartet for the alto saxophone legend’s Glasgow concert in 1982, composing a piece inspired by Rosslyn Chapel, which he’d visited when at a low ebb and found uplifting, and working with saxophonist Tommy Smith off and on over a period of some twenty years.
Like Smith, he was lured into academe and he shared his wisdom at Cologne’s Hochschule für Musik und Tanz and at York University. Younger musicians also benefited from his inspired presence onstage and in the recording studio, with the group Meadow, featuring saxophonist Tore Brunborg and drummer Thomas Strønen, and saxophonist Julian Arguelles’s quartet being among Taylor’s favourite outlets.
To these musicians, as he was to everyone who knew him, Taylor was known by his initials. “JT” was a term of familiarity and endearment, of course, but also one that denoted huge respect and guaranteed that whether in Kenny Wheeler’s big band, in a duo with another long-time associate, Italian singer Maria Pia DeVito or on a solo concert that might range from folksong simplicity to something that in his own words was “so tricky I hope I can get through it”, the piano stool was occupied by a player of singular gifts.
He’s survived by his second wife, Carol, and by his sons, musicians Leo and Alex from his marriage to Norma Winstone.
John Taylor, pianist and composer, born September 25, 1942; died July 17, 2015.
From The Herald, July 27, 2015.