This September would have seen the 80th birthday of pianist and composer John Taylor, who died just two months before his 73rd birthday in 2015. The Royal Academy of Music Jazz Orchestra will perform a concert of Taylor’s big band works on 12 October, joined by special guests Stan Sulzmann, Norma Winstone, Nikki Iles and Liam Noble. Preview by Charles Rees:
John Taylor is one of the most revered of jazz pianists. Ask any British pianist, almost all will cite Taylor as a primary influence and many others around the world will say the same; ‘JT is my hero’, explains Nikki Iles. And yet, Taylor’s skills as an arranger and orchestrator are known to very few. Those of us who have been lucky enough to play some of his large-ensemble charts in the London Jazz Orchestra, or hear his mesmerising works for symphony orchestra recorded in Bremen can attest that he was as skilled in this area as he was on the piano.
Taylor did, in fact, produce a fairly extensive catalogue of charts for large ensembles over the course of his lifetime. After he passed away, much of this catalogue became lost until recently, when his widow, Carol, passed on her late husband’s archive to Norma Winstone. Thanks to the subsequent work of Nick Smart and Kit Downes, a concert’s worth of big band music has been uncovered and will be performed by the Royal Academy of Music Jazz Orchestra on 12 October.
“John was a hugely important figure as a pianist, composer and improviser, whose influence reached out across the whole world,” explains Nick Smart, Head of Jazz at the Royal Academy of Music. “It has always been important to us at the Academy to include projects that celebrate some of the great musicians that make up our history within the lineage of British Jazz – alongside the American founders of the music that are a fundamental part of any jazz programme – and John is right up there in terms of the figures that characterised something unique, whilst still being steeped in the jazz traditions.”
Joining Smart and the Academy’s jazz orchestra are four musicians with strong ties to John Taylor, the first of whom is saxophonist Stan Sulzmann. He talked a bit about what it’s like for him to revisit this music: “It’s been quite a few years now since I played some of these tunes, but I used to play them with John; Windfall we played in his sextet and then I played the orchestral version of Pure and Simple in Bremen. It’s very nostalgic, coming back and playing them.”
Featured on piano, in addition to the six students studying jazz piano at the Academy, will be both Nikki Iles and Liam Noble. Iles talked a bit about the influence Taylor had on her playing: “It’s funny how I’ve transcribed many pianists over the years, but never John. I loved him too much and my instincts were to keep the mystery… and to be frank, what would be the point? He was a one off! And yet I definitely learned about interaction, about ‘going for it’ without fear, about energy, sound, space, touch and creating atmospheres, all through watching him live.” We also asked Liam Noble… and his response was to write a piece about John Taylor in the LJN series “Ten Tracks…”.
Vocalist Norma Winstone will also make a brief appearance during the performance. Her connection to Taylor is unique. “I think that John Taylor was the most creative jazz pianist Britain has produced,” she said. “The thing with John was that he would never quite play what you might be expecting. I loved his daring and risk taking and it was a joy to explore some surprising direction he would suddenly take. I think he always brought out more from the people he played with than they expected. Sadly, that experience is no longer possible, so it is wonderful that the young musicians at the Academy are being introduced to his big band writing, which has some of the same elements of surprise and exploration.”
This project actually has a deeper meaning for the Academy than just being a celebration of what would have been Taylor’s 80th birthday. As Nick Smart explains, “The last time I saw him was in February 2015 when he ran an ensemble in the first Academy Jazz Festival we ever held. We hoped, well assumed really, it would be the beginning of a long relationship. But sadly, he was taken far too soon and with a shocking suddenness. It’s a great privilege to present this concert and do our best to send his uniquely beautiful musical vibes out into the ether – I hope they reach him somewhere!”
It is such a rarity to hear John Taylor’s works for big band, and when such an opportunity comes around it must not be missed; especially this performance that features some of his closest friends and musical collaborators, alongside the next generation of Britain’s jazz performers.