What is the measure of a master? However unsatisfactory or incomplete the answers might be, it should be patently clear that fame isn’t one of them. How else shall we call jazz pianist John Taylor a master? After all, he wasn’t a household name even in his native Britain. But to anybody who has chanced upon his playing or his compositions, there can be absolutely no doubt.
That certainty last year led me to In Two Minds (2014), a fine solo offering that at once establishes the intention of the pianist to veer between complex compositions and introspective musings, which ironically justifies the name of the album, while leaving a listener spellbound with the virtuosity of improvisations that is the true mark of a maestro. This is why his sudden death at 72 from cardiac arrest last month while performing in France was a big shock. Here was a jazz pianist playing at the peak of his powers; what could be more saddening?
The man is gone but his legacy will live in his music and with his fans. This was brought home poignantly with the release of Duets (2015) on 7th August; a reviewer rightly said it was filled with light and space. Duets for two pianos (the other was played superbly by Richard Fairhurst) are not too common and chiefly limited to the jousting of keyboardists keen to outdo each other.
Duets is as far from that as can be. It’s a remarkable collaboration between two sympathetic pianists who have been playing together for some years. It offers original tunes from both and three by Bill Evans, from whom Taylor and Fairhurst drew inspiration.
Although he has been playing since the sixties with worthies such as trumpeter Kenny Wheeler (featured earlier in this column), saxophonist John Surman, bassist Charlie Haden and vocalist Norma Winstone, it was in the nineties that Taylor emerged as a strong leader, having already established his credentials as an accomplished composer in Azimuth, a trio he formed with Wheeler and Winstone. The trio’s debut effort, Azimuth (1977), was a fine example of rollicking jazz.
The album that brought me to Taylor was Ambleside Days (1992), a gift from a friend before the days of iTunes and Amazon. A joint effort with Surman, the pianist immediately had me with his elegant phrasing. It remains an excellent starting point for anybody starting to explore Taylor’s music.
Besides excelling in trio settings, Taylor shone brightly in solo efforts, perhaps best exemplified in Insight (2003), which many call his finest album. His sophisticated harmonic mindset was displayed at its best in Insight, which consisted entirely of original compositions. Although there are traces of Evans and Keith Jarrett in the album, the style is indubitably Taylor’s in its reflective lyricism and majestic range. The music rewards repeated listening, and so does Solo (1992) from over a decade ago, which again is packed entirely with originals. Both the albums stand testimony not only to masterful performances but also the evolved compositional skills of the much-loved jazz pianist.
For a fan of Kurt Vonnegut like me, Taylor’s Requiem for a Dreamer (2011) is simply irresistible. Full of all-new original compositions inspired by Vonnegut’s writings, titles like Ice 9, Calypso 53, So It Goes and Unstuck in Time point to the great satirist’s Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse 5. Taylor delivers a thoroughly enjoyable but elliptical offering that never ceases to delight. His loss will be keenly felt.
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Jazz Oil is a fortnightly column on tales from the world of jazz. For the music that it features, visit here.