United Kingdom Berlin, Wheeler, Ellington and Others: John Taylor (piano), Cardiff, Roysl Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 16.5.2015, (LJ).
Duke Ellington once remarked that “Critics get a little carried away with what someone should have done, rather than what he did”, so in this review I will take heed to the great bandleader’s advice and speak only of John Taylor. It would be anecdotal to refer to Taylor’s musical inheritance from Bill Evans or refer to him as a counterpart to Keith Jarrett. Suffice it to say, as Evans himself did, that “I like people who have worked long and hard, developing through introspection and dedication” as these qualities were in abundance in John Taylor’s performance.
Now in his late seventies, the Mancunian pianist remembered for accompanying Cleo Laine and appearing frequently in Ronnie Scott’s club in the 1970s, sounded fresh and untarnished. Having worked with groups led by saxophonists Lee Konitz and Jan Garbarek in the 1980s, and played in Peter Erskine’s trio with Palle Danielsson on bass in the 1990s; the 2000s mark the advent of Taylor’s solo work, with the release of Insight in 2003. The Guardian described this album as “one of contemporary jazz’s great performers at work…a beautiful solo statement by a very modest star”. In tonight’s concert, Taylor seemed to surprise himself with the sounds he was creating and the modulations he was discovering. His concert was an uncharted journey, and for an experienced ‘old-timer’, such inventiveness and excitement must be commended. Taylor showed no signs of wear and tear, despite having been on the road for almost fifty years.
Ambling towards the piano, a juddering John Taylor sat looking ponderous at the warmly lit piano, positioned centre stage. For those expecting atmospheric impressionism and patterned modulations, Taylor did not disappoint. Indeed, Taylor went one step further, drawing on Gil Evans, he created an entrancing blend of intimacy and virtuosity, all the while remaining cliché-free. Through intelligently deconstructing recycled phrases, Taylor bravely left fragments exposed like shards of glass splintered by light. These passages were spliced between glassy melody and sharp wit.
Without the support of trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and vocalist Norma Winstone (members of Azimuth, Taylor’s trio which lasted from 1977-2000), tonight Taylor was left to fend for himself where he was free to distil sound to its most rarefied elements. It must be noted, that Azimuth should not be overlooked as a quietly confident album sounding recondite and abstruse; Richard Williams described the group as “one of the most imaginatively conceived and delicately balanced contemporary chamber-jazz groups”.
Drawing upon the solos in Azimuth, when falling into ephemeral waves of nostalgia, Taylor was at his best: imaginative, allegorical and wraithlike. With softly spaced piano chords, Taylor wandered in and out of tempo as an evening tide ebbing and flowing in the wan light. Yet, in these smooth passages, rhythm and feeling remained on Taylor’s fingertips. Here, Taylor’s ingenuity seemed limitless as each pregnant idea birthed a new thought. Listening to Taylor is like watching a spider weave its silky web and economically glide from strand to strand.
Introducing his set, Taylor was softly spoken and hesitant. Playing Pure and Simple, Kenny Wheeler’s Mabel, Ralph Towner’s Tramonto, Duke Ellington’s Reflections in D, and Georgia on my Mind as an encore, Taylor was majestic. He managed to bring the character of each piece to life, telling a story comprised of musical heteroglossia. In particular, listening to Between Moons (an original piece) was like being lost in an oriental haze of spiced perfumes, where Taylor’s right-hand melodic clusters appeared as lux in tenebris.
With gentle runs and tender gestures, Taylor was sensitive but not sentimental, often drawing upon classical music and adding colourful variations. For example, playing Coniston Fells, Dry Stone and Ambleside Days from his 1992 suite Ambleside Days (composed with John Surman), Taylor seemed to draw upon Federico Mompou’s Impresiones Intimas, as well as the impressionistic music of French composers: Debussy, Ravel, and the early minimalism of Eric Satie. Taylor managed to catch images mid-flight and change their course, challenging the listener with rewarding variations.
Playing Irving Berlin’s How Deep is the Ocean, Taylor began by tapping the strings inside the piano with his right hand whilst creating a strong, dynamic rhythm section with his left hand. Taylor created an unstoppably catchy beat where he built upon these skeletal bones with burgeoning muscular passages. Taking a quick look around me, it became clear that Taylor had a transfixing effect on his audience: some were slumped back whilst others arched forward. Taylor entranced all either by calming the anxious or exciting the eager. Sophisticated and wistful, Taylor’s recital was not without a sense of frivolity. Performing Kenny Wheeler’s Everybody’s Song But My Own, Taylor infused dextrous patterning and willowy shades with comic timing and sharp perspicuity.
It leaves me to say that John Taylor is a jazz-great. His music is both thoughtful and thought-provoking; and he is the only performer who has kept me uninterruptedly reflecting on a recital from Cardiff back to Swansea.