Anytime someone asks Martin Taylor about the happy stylistic schizophrenia that has defined his dual careers as a sideman and solo artist, he whips out a classic anecdote given to him by legendary drummer Max Roach. Some years ago, Roach told the veteran British guitarist about a moment in Charlie Parker’s storied life when rabid fans followed the saxophonist after hours from a club where he played to a bar down the street.
They watched Bird — the standard setter of bebop for multiple generations — stroll over to the jukebox and select (are you kidding?) a Hank Williams tune. “Max said that Bird turned around and told his admirers that he really loved country music, and wasn’t going to apologize for it,” says Taylor. “It inspired me to realize that even the masters like him never limited their tastes in any way. “I’m always astonished by people of narrow minds who look down on other forms of music they think of as unsophisticated. What the so-called ‘purists’ don’t understand is that jazz came about through a mixture of people and cultures and music. It’s a mélange of different things. Narrow minds could not have created the art form as we know it.”
That may be one way to explain how Taylor, over the past three decades, could tour the world and play on some twenty albums by violin master Stephane Grapelli — whose band the guitarist joined at 20 - then turn around and record spirited but much lighter weight covers of 70s pop hits like “Midnight At The Oasis” and “That’s The Way Of The World.” The kid inspired by Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and Fats Waller has made peppy, virtuoso recordings in the image of his first hero, Django Reinhart, while also finding the trio jazz heart of the theme from “The Odd Couple.”
Taylor also toured for years on and off with Rolling Stone Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings, then created a graceful solo rendition of “Tennessee Waltz” as a tribute to another influence, Chet Atkins. That was on his gentle hearted 2002 disc Solo, an interesting follow-up choice considering all the attention he got from the smooth jazz community after two major label releases on Columbia, Kiss And Tell (1999) and Nite Life (2001), both of which featured Kirk Whalum on sax.
The Best Of Martin Taylor, a dual CD package from The Guitar Label featuring 26 favorites handpicked by the artist himself, is a great place for the uninitiated guitar fan to experience his joyful, impossible to pigeonhole magic. It draws from a decade of popular international recordings on the UK based Linn Records, those two Columbia crossover discs, and his work over the past few years, which includes 2004’s The Valley. Since the late 70s, he’s played in many groups, used strings, and done a great deal of solo work in addition to numerous duets; a taste of each vibe is included.
Perhaps to draw newcomers (and smooth jazz fans) in quickly, Disc One begins with his soulful, ambient rendition of the Earth, Wind & Fire classic — a tune he believes sums up his playing to a tee. The next five tracks — several of which feature Whalum’s always emotional sax — are smooth sailing from his Columbia discs as well, but it’s fun to go even deeper and hear what he can do with his just guitar; the elegant “True” and hypnotic meditation “The Valley” are unadorned melodic masterpieces. Disc Two ushers in his more traditional jazz side, highlighted by a speedy rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Cottontail,” his slow, string enhanced trio burn on “The Odd Couple,” the Django infused “Undecided” (featuring vocalist Claire Martin and Stephane Grappelli) and the samba-lite “Nuages.”
If you’re a U.S. based jazz fan and have never heard of him, trust the judgment of your peers throughout Europe (he lives in Scotland and France), Australia and Japan, who have been seeing him perform for years as he embarks on up to 100 live dates each year. In the U.S. and Canada, he has done a few jazz festivals, but he is most renowned by true guitar aficionados at acoustic music festivals that incorporate all kinds of music.
“The reason I’m more well known in some places on the guitar circuit than in jazz circles is that, for all the wonderful collaborators I have had, my bread and butter is playing solo guitar,” Taylor says. “I only have one way of playing, one sound, one voice, but I like to put that voice in different settings. Sony saw the work I did on the two albums I did for them as smooth jazz, but I don’t consider myself a smooth jazz artist, even if my focus on melody makes this a natural fit. Breaking in with and learning from Stephane, then overcoming my fear to do my first ever solo gig in 1985, I really focused on listening to the way others play, then developing my own style. But that doesn’t just come from nowhere. It comes from growing up with Art Tatum, Bud Powell and Joe Pass.
“As for ‘Midnight At The Oasis’ and the Earth, Wind & Fire cover, look, I was born in 1956, not 1926 and I remember the first time I heard that song and considered its melodic possibilities,” he says. “I grew up listening to pop music as well, and couldn’t just ignore it. I enjoy edgy jazz and classical guitar, too. I just don’t believe in limiting myself. But because of the diversity, I think if I’ve contributed anything to the musical realm over the course of my career, it’s my solo guitar playing. That’s’ really the core of what I do.”
In an age when so many artists are tailoring every composition to accommodate the narrowminded gods of airplay, percussionist Gumbi Ortiz — a 19 year vet of fusion master Al Di Meola’s band — perfectly defines the playfully genre-busting spirit of indie musicmaking on his festive, action-packed debut Miami (fashioned as a tribute to the New York native’s adopted home state). Sure, there are moments of picture perfect smooth jazz cool, typified by the Jeff Lorber composed “T-Back,” featuring Eric Marienthal, and the moody, seductive Spyro Gyra flavored “In The Groove” with Jay Beckenstein. But along the way are much more colorful free form jazz jams (look at Ortiz and Dave Weckl go at it on the frenetic interlude “Rush Hour Jam” and the easy Latin swing of “Amnesia”), some tasty samba excursions, a touch of retro-soul and even a touch of gospel. You’ve just got to admire a solo debut audacious enough to mix Lorber-controlled slickness with the wild, mindbending insanity of “Calle 8cho.” Other key contributors include Brandon Fields (on both sax and flute), flugelhornist Walt Fowler, keyboardist Rachel Z and the other Spyro Gyra guys (Scott Ambush, Joel Rosenblatt). By the time you’re done “Cruisin’ Collins” (the sensual closing track), you’ll know you’ve been on the year’s most ambitious musical excursion. If only more artists would take risks like this!
What I’m Listening To:
1) Phillippe Saisse Trio, The Body And Soul Sessions (Rendezvous) — Smooth Jazz’s pop cover craze finally elevates to a higher artistic plane on this irresistible date by one of the genre’s most inventive keyboardists. Jamming on a mix of some very familiar and gleefully obscure tunes with acoustic bassist David Finck and drummer Scooter Warner, Saisse sways away from his usual circus of sonic textures and jams to his (and our) heart’s delight on acoustic piano and Fender Rhodes.
2) Michael Franks, Rendezvous in Rio (Koch Records)
3) Regina Carter, I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey (Verve)
4) Lisa B, What’s New, Pussycat? (Piece of Pie Records)
5) The Royal Dan: A Tribute (Tone Center)
New and Noteworthy
1) Chris Standring, Soul Express (Trippin’ N Rhythm)
2) Dan Siegel, Departure (Native Language)
3) David Benoit, Full Circle (Peak Records)
4) Sahnas, Romanza (Moondo/Native Language)
5) The Very Best of Tom Scott (GRP)