10 Tracks I Can't Do Without

Ten Tracks by John Taylor I Can’t Do Without…by Liam Noble

In the latest of our series where musicians consider idols, or formative influences, Liam Noble writes about his favourite tracks by pianist John Taylor. Liam writes:

John Taylor. Photo credit: Ralf Dombrowski

I don’t think of John Taylor as a “jazz pianist”. He was a “Taylorist”. He was his own man. I used to watch him play and be almost baffled at his posture, his movements, the impish way he would jump from idea to idea like a flea. He could summon up complex arrays of clusters and sonorities, but the way he threw them around was almost irresponsible. Melodies would sometimes start and then, almost inexplicably, dissolve into the air, or lurch into some other train of thought. He did so much that you shouldn’t do. 

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I was lucky, I got to briefly study with him at college, and after a short period of wanting to be him, I finally realised I couldn’t be. In that way he was a huge influence. Some artists have such a complete grasp of what they are doing, such fine-tuned control of it, that they almost leave no room for development. This isn’t to do with greatness: Monk, for instance, seemed perfect to me, and yet also invited further exploration. What I loved about John Taylor is that I never felt in the shadow of his talent: it was more a case of watching him ducking and diving in the sunlight. And he taught me an awful lot about being a musician. Not the best notes, the good chords and the nifty moves: just about how to be alive with music, all these things in your head and coming out of your fingers…live with them and be happy. We talked a lot in lessons…about Hindemith, the scene, how he didn’t feel he had much “McCoy Tyner in him”…

He was a serious listener too. Once after seeing me play, he said “I liked that last solo you did: you were coiled up like a spring and then you just kind of…let it unwind…”. Like John Stevens, he had a way of making the music universal, about something.

To me his music is indispensable, unmistakeable, played with an unshakeable precision, but it is playful, somehow forgiving of those of us who couldn’t keep up. Like all great musicians, his playing is so clear in its intention that it allows everyone else a certain kind of freedom to jump in and out. His were probably the safest hands in British jazz, but they could be dangerous!

  1. Azimuth: “Adios Iony”: (Azimuth “85)

When I first heard this track, I thought….”how is he holding that groove down?” One two three one two one two one two, I would nod, tapping my foot in ever increasing cycles of frustration. And then I heard it: the three groups of three. There’s something about the way he plays this pattern, emerging from a cloud of vocal and trumpet overdubs like a racing cyclist emerging from fog. It’s relentless, and allows the more contemplative lines of Kenny Wheeler and Norma Winstone to coalesce around its almost mechanical consistency. And it doesn’t sound the least bit American. At the time, that was…a thing.

2. John Taylor Trio: “Pure And Simple”: (“Blue Glass”)

If you want to hear this tune online, the slightly more measured version with Palle Danielsson and Peter Erskine is there, but for me the definitive one is this recording live at Ronnie’s with Mick Hutton and Steve Arguelles. It’s a close-up sound, and everything is perhaps a bit more spiky than usual because of it. I asked John in a lesson once what he was working on: he played me this tune all the way through and said something like “I don’t quite know what to do with it.” Luckily he kept it just as it was, and I love the way this band enters into the spirit of danger and surrealism. Utterly original music played with wit and energy.

3. Peter Erskine Trio: “She Never Has A Window”: (“You Never Know”)

Everything about this piece is nearly what you expect, but it’s full of strange twists in the detail. Vince Mendoza’s tune meanders into all kinds of strange corners before settling on a vamp that sounds like it comes from an unpublished song by “The Police”. (OK maybe that’s just me…). In this setting, John’s sound and touch show how much he came out of the jazz tradition, and yet the ideas constantly oscillate between lines and chords in a way that maintains an edge despite the luxurious sonic quality typical of an ECM recording.

4. Kenny Wheeler: “Foxy Trot”: (“Double, Double You”)

This was my first time hearing both John Taylor and Kenny Wheeler, and this tune still has a kind of mysterious logic to it that maintains its emotional mystery long after you know how it’s done. John Taylor tutored our small group at the Guildhall and made me do an improvised piano introduction on this, as he does here (he later told me Kenny wrote it out note for note!). In his subsequent solo, I love the way he almost nonchalantly strums the chords before launching into some truly ferocious runs…he seems to just follow his nose, no rush. Start where you are!

5. John Taylor/John Surman: “Lodore Falls”: (“Ambleside Days”)

This piece starts ominously, bass notes like immovable rocks form a kind of melody as rapid geometric patterns unfold above them. It’s the kind of music that inspires awe, but with typical humour, Taylor shifts it into a light-hearted sequence full of light and air. Surman’s slightly cantankerous sounding bass clarinet infuses everything with an earthy groove. Another rarity online, and an inspired sonic combination!

6. Azimuth: “How It Was Then”: (“How It Was Then…”)

Rarely did anyone play the inside of a piano with this level of control and groove…Norma’s vocal is almost bluesy, but unmistakably English somehow. It’s all very otherworldly, as if someone had discovered a whole new strain of folk music hiding in some remote English village. When the piano finally comes in unmuted it’s one of those great moments where you suddenly feel a stone lighter. John digs into an almost Jarrett-like gospel sound, but the humour and skittishness means you could never mistake it for anyone else.

7. Azimuth: “Looking On”: (“How It Was Then…”)

This is just an unbearably beautiful and fragile thing. Norma’s voice sounds like she would let it break, but it never does. And the chords….I actually played this once with Norma, and tried “something different”. It didn’t work. What John played was the song…all those inner movements, voiced the way he voiced them, could not be strayed from. And that last note in the voice, you could swear she won’t hold it…

8. Jan Garbarek: “Reflections”: (“Places”)

This is, I suppose, a strange tune to include here. It’s John very much in the background, but as an organist his combination of changing the stops and bass notes keeps the repetitive atmosphere fresh and interesting without disturbing the luscious veneer. I always loved this whole album, it’s fascinating to see how he adapts to the slowness inherent in the instrument. He could always hear what was needed…

9. John Taylor: “Arrivée 1”: (“Songs And Variations”)

I only discovered this piece very recently. It sounds like an improvisation, but more than that, it sounds like someone pushing the music out into new territory. There’s a new kind of starkness and silence around everything, and the rock solid structure often found beneath his embroidery isn’t necessary here. It’s pure line and sonority, and the tension is allowed to stay in the room as the last chord fades.

10. John Taylor: “Doozy 1”: (“2081”) 

The first sound: a plain old major chord. We are in for something new here on this Vonnegut-themed album, there’s little trace of those complex sonorities we get used to in JT’s music. And then…Oren Marshall’s tuba, Leo Taylor’s drums…it’s a fresh sound, which goes on through the track to open out into free improvisation and beyond. Alex Taylor’s voice takes the music away from a jazz sensibility somehow, fragile yet defiant, there’s a feeling that John is pushing himself into a new area, guided by a new generation of improvisers. It was to be his last recording, but also one of his greatest, I think.

LINK: Liam Noble’s blog

5 replies »

  1. My most vivid memory of John Taylor comes from an afternoon spent at a Kenny Wheeler quintet rehearsal early in 1991: Gary Peacock was sitting in for Dave Holland, so John and Peter Erskine were doing their best to help Gary feel comfortable, while Kenny and John Abercrombie were sharing genius, humility and obscure puns on the front line. While I can’t say for sure – and the only one now left to ask would be Peter – I think it was “Foxy Trot” they were playing, in the midst of which John proceeded to roll a cigarette with one hand, while continuing to play piano with the other, never losing the flow of the music. Talk about multi-tasking!
    It’s good to see Azimuth so prominently mentioned. That band, originally a studio creation of Manfred Eicher to showcase John’s music, was a high point for ‘chamber jazz’ as well as for ECM.
    Two albums I’d add to your listings are John’s “Requiem for a Dreamer” quartet – another dedication to Kurt Vonnegut – and Julian Arguelles’ “Circularity”. Both are glowingly splendid, but then that’s typical of all John Taylor did.

  2. I played with john for a record and several concerts , he was a wonderful person and a “piano world” itself ! so delicate and powerful at the same time ! thanks for this post
    here is the link to this record

  3. Thank you Liam for this recognition
    of John Taylor as one of our so interesting and talented musicians.
    I had the privilege of being involved
    (Along with John Surman) on Johns
    early album:Pause and Think Again.
    A great musician and lovely man.

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