Interview: James Taylor – James Taylor Quartet
Blowing Up Frome Style
Continuing the theme of getting up close and personal with musical legends, we bring you something special, an interview James Taylor, from the legendary James Taylor Quartet. (Words by Matt Welsted.)
WHEN THE JAMES TAYLOR QUARTET MET THE HYPE
Question: How many people does it take to push a broken down, 12 seater minibus over a busy crossroad junction in Ladywell, Lewisham in the dark at rush hour?
Answer: Everyone on board (apart from the driver that is – we thought it best he just keep steering). When I say ‘everyone’, I’m talking about me, my dad and handful of friends who were heading uptown (London) to take in some live music to celebrate my 21st birthday. Probably ten of us in total.
“Right! Everybody out! We got to get this thing out of the way for traffic or else it’s going to cause massive problems for the evening commute!”
We managed to get the knackered vehicle to the side of the road where it became clear we weren’t going any further in it that evening. It was totally banjaxed. That left us with a problem. We were stuck in the middle of Lewisham not really knowing the area and the gig was due to start in 40 minutes. In Camden. Now I’m not sure of your knowledge of London but getting from this particular street corner in South London to The Jazz Cafe in North London in that time didn’t look that likely. – Bear in mind this 1995 and pre-internet – no quickly Googling train times – oh no, we were on our own out there.
I remember feeling disappointed – but that feeling was short-lived.
The next 40 minutes were a bit of a blur, but as I remember they involved quite a lot of running, a frantic tube journey and a fair amount of excited cheering as we managed to reach the venue with just a minute to spare before the main act came on. Who was the main act? James Taylor Quartet, that’s who, and they played two of the best sets of live Hammond driven funk and soul grooves I’d ever seen. Pints were drunk; dancing was done and a feeling that somehow the breaking down of the minibus wasn’t such a bad thing at all but had added to the evening’s excitement (I’m not sure the driver saw it in quite the same light). It all just contributed to an evening that was never going to be forgotten.
JTQ have been hugely influential in shaping my ongoing love for funk, soul, rare groove and everything in-between, so getting the opportunity to talk to James was both a pleasure and honour.
DOWN THE LINE WITH THE JAMES TAYLOR QUARTET.
MW: You inspired me to start playing the Hammond organ – who inspired you?
JT: I suppose the first was probably Booker T Jones but a whole collection of Hammond players originally. I just started collecting records that had Hammond on it, and that was all sorts of things: The Stax and soul stuff and the English equivalent that was the English r&b – Small Faces and also the rock stuff; I quite liked John Lord (Deep Purple) anything Hammondy. I didn’t really like the really stupid sort of Klaus Wunderlich stuff.
MW: How long have you been a keyboard player – did you start young?
JT: I was sitting in front of the piano from the age of four or five, something like that. I did seem to have some sort of aptitude for it, and I was definitely interested in it, and I was working out pieces of music from as far back as I can remember, things I’d heard on the radio or whatever, I was trying to work out how they went even as a really little kid. When I got into the Hammond though in the late 70’s, it was totally off the scale in unhipness.
MW: You certainly played a big part in making it cool again.
JT: In 79/80, that instrument was not considered something that anyone would want to take to a gig. It had fallen on to real stony ground because of its use in quiz shows – the Peter Fenn sound had demolished it. I was sort of at the start of that revival. I thought ‘hang about’ I know it’s not fashionable but take it out of context, and this is an amazing sound, whatever way you want to look at it. So I sort of pioneered the reintroduction of that instrument; I was part of that movement if you like. So as much as there were individual players like Booker T Jones or Brian Auger or Jimmy Smith, the scene wasn’t congested with loads of other people – I was able to say ‘this is my thing’.
MW: Are there any stand-out venues or towns where you love to play?
I now consider that to be our home turf. There’re some great gigs around, down in Italy we’ve done some great gigs there.JT: We’ve had some good ones in Ronnie’s, but obviously that’s very much a seated venue, and I don’t mind that at all, and they do tend to get up and dance at Ronnie’s at the end.
I’ve got this huge collection of memories in my head, which someone will say to me regularly ‘you need to write this all down’. I tell you a good venue – The Band on the Wall in Manchester, that’s a good gig. It’s a good crowd. Glasgow’s a very good audience; Belfast’s a good audience. There are certain towns in the world where the audience gives it up so so much. (MW – soon to add Worthing to that list I’m sure).
MW: Tell me about The Rochester Mass project and how that came about.
JT: It’s a beautiful part of British culture, that cathedral choir/church choir thing, for sopranos, for kids. They get this amazing musical education and get exposed to incredible music, and it’s just miles away from what I do – from the club life and what I’ve been involved in. But when I got sat in front of that sound I immediately went ‘bloody hell this is a really exciting sound’.
I regularly went to Evensong when my father was ill and came away feeling soothed and better, and I still go there when I feel I need that. That sound used to really pierce my emotions and get really deep down inside me. It wasn’t until about six months of going to Evensong I started thinking ‘I wonder if there is some, even a millimetre of common ground between that musical world and my musical world.’ I dared to have the thoughts if you like and then about six months later I spoke to the Dean and very slowly it came together. The choir master came to my house, and we looked at a tune and thought about it. Lots of things had to fall into place for it to happen and luckily it’s one of those things that just did. Lots of musical ideas had to be played with and thrown away, lots of things had to be jettisoned, but ultimately there was common ground.
MW: Did the cathedral let you have a go on their organ?
JT: Oh yeah. I did a TV programme on that organ 20 years ago. I was always slightly bemused by that sound, but now I absolutely adore that sound. Again it was education. I was a Hammond player, and I sort of went ‘oh yeah and, by the way, the Hammond’s an organ, and the organ is something they use in church. I didn’t see a connection there. I didn’t see the two as the same. Then I got to do a gig on a big pipe organ in London and really enjoyed it.
This was a project for someone else, Nitin Sawhney; we did it at the Albert Hall. I played that great big organ there. When I finished working on that, and it was quite a long project, I then commissioned the restoration of an old pipe organ for me which I now have at home and play every day.
MW: I was walking down the street in Frome just today and happened to glance through the door of a local beauty parlour, after that I was greeted with the sight of the legendary jazz saxophonist and original JB horn, Pee Wee Ellis, having a pedicure. It got me thinking – do you have any pre or post gig relaxation rituals?
JT: In the old days gigging was everything. The whole of life was about gigs. Everything was about waiting for the gig and then doing the gig and going nuts and then afterwards the party and all the stuff that goes with it. And then that party continues through your twenties and thirties. I’m now 51, and it’s still very much in my blood, but I’m really hard pushed… the gig is the party for me now. I used to love everything around it, every aspect of that culture. I’m not so mad about it now. The other night we were in Bournemouth, and I walked on stage, and I saw the audience and thought ‘there’s a bit of a funny vibe in here’, a little bit tense or whatever. We started to play the first number and in about four seconds I felt the whole audience melt, and you just get hit by this wave of warmth and you know you’re in that place for the next hour and a half or whatever. You look around, and people are smiling and having a good time, and that’s a wonderful, wonderful thing, and that makes me happy. That is the party. But wind down… quite often you have to get the Hammond downstairs and then drive home, and then I’m knackered for at least a day. It’s a struggle.
MW: For someone who doesn’t know what you do, what can they expect from a JTQ gig?
JT: Excitement, intensity, passion. We’re considered one of the most exciting live acts in the country. Real quality, something that stands out from the crowd and that’s how we’ve survived. If you come and see us in Worthing, I’m proud to say that’s what we offer.
Read the review of the James Taylor Quartet in Worthing.