John Taylor RIP (1942-2015)

TD-John-Taylor-10

The revered and much loved British jazz pianist John Taylor has died after suffering a heart attack while performing at the Saveurs Jazz Festival in Segré, in western France on Friday 17 July. He was resuscitated shortly after the attack but died later in hospital. He was 72. Alyn Shipton pays tribute to this outstanding yet exceedingly humble giant of jazz.

Not long after arriving in London from his native Manchester in 1964, John Taylor (or ‘JT’ as he was known to all his friends and colleagues) dropped into a pub in Highgate to hear a mainstream jazz session. He was working as a civil servant at the time, and playing a regular trio gig in a pub in Bermondsey, but had yet to make many jazz contacts in London. He got chatting to a fellow listener who turned out to be Malcolm Griffiths, the trombonist. This chance meeting led to JT being introduced to John Surman’s circle of friends and colleagues, including Mike Osborne, Harry Miller and Harry Beckett, and before long, the pianist had given up the day job and was working as often as possible with Surman’s various sized bands.

A naturally gifted pianist who combined much of the sensitivity and harmonic richness of Bill Evans into a unique and immediately identifiable solo voice, JT was as at home working as the accompanist to Cleo Laine as he was at the extreme end of the avant garde with Kenny Wheeler. But his lifelong association with Kenny was to lead to some of the most lyrical and adventurous work that both men achieved, whether in Kenny’s Big Band (notably on the ‘Sweet Time Suite’ on Music for Large and Small Ensembles) or in the intimate setting of Azimuth, the trio with Kenny, John and Taylor’s then wife Norma Winstone.

Through the recording connection with ECM, JT became one of the best-known British musicians in Europe, playing and recording with Jan Garbarek, Arild Anderson and Miroslav Vitous among others. His influence spread further through the generations of students he taught at the Cologne academy of music. Although the threads of continuity created a sizeable body of work with Surman and Wheeler, JT’s playing was often at its best in a trio setting. The 1992 Peter Erskine Trio with Palle Danielsson was one such, but perhaps the finest of all was the pairing with Marc Johnson and Joey Baron that followed work with the Dutch trumpeter Erik Vloiemans, and led to the 2002 album Rosslyn and a subsequent UK tour. More recently, JT teamed up again with Palle Danielsson and UK drummer Martin France, and he recently formed the rather less orthodox trio with tenorist Tore Brunborg and drummer Thomas Strønen for the Edition album Meadow.

Over the years, I was privileged to have the opportunity to work with JT on a number of BBC broadcasts, and he was always the most generous of interviewees, with a real depth of thought about his comments and a sincere passion for the music that stayed with him throughout. Few experiences can compare to his glee at experimenting on the mighty organ at Salisbury Cathedral for the broadcast that became the ECM album Proverbs and Songs, with John Surman and the Salisbury Festival Choir. He was chuckling with delight at the power of the 64-foot stop producing a bass sound so strong that it seemed like an earth tremor.

But the evening that stays strongest in my memory is one of those chance meetings in jazz that just worked. When Johnny Griffin played at Cheltenham in the late 1990s, the rhythm section was JT, Steve Argüelles and Dave Green. It was not really the standard hard bop group Griff might have been used to, but the probing excitement of JT’s playing on standards prompted the tenorist into a set as exciting and dazzling as any of his best work, showing JT’s abiding talent as a catalyst for coaxing everyone around him to raise their game and never take anything for granted.

– Alyn Shipton

– Top photo by Tim Dickeson – middle photo by Roger Thomas from a recent gig at the 606 with Julian Argüelles

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