Martin Taylor: Band-width

Guitarist launches a state-of-the-art online guitar school and releases a new album with his Spirit of Django ensemble

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Martin Taylor
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Martin Taylor
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Martin Taylor

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The April launch of the Martin Taylor Guitar Academy didn’t go exactly as planned. A certain volcano in Iceland saw to that, spewing enough ash into the atmosphere to strand Taylor in Hong Kong for over a week. But even the most improbable force majeure couldn’t prevent the innovative online site, designed by Taylor and ArtistWorks, a West Coast firm created by AOL co-founder David Butler, from attracting students from around the world on opening day. In all, 15 countries were swiftly represented.

Nor did the unexpected layover in Hong Kong stop Taylor from immediately interacting with members of the site’s inaugural class. He took advantage of the academy’s “video exchange” dialogue function to welcome students and begin customizing lessons, thus adding to an extensive, high-definition-video-based curriculum for solo guitar, taped in California last year with Butler’s guidance and assistance. (ArtistWorks is also home to the Jimmy Bruno Guitar Institute, the Qbert Skratch University, the Andreas Öberg Guitar Universe, Peery Piano Online, the Tony Trischka School of Banjo and the Howard Levy Harmonica School.)

Though self-taught, Taylor is no stranger to guitar education. Over the years, he’s released a series of well-regarded videos and DVDs. But the academy (www.MartinTaylorGuitarAcademy.com), with its thoroughly interactive online platform, is a league apart, an instructional fingerstyle guitar site with social networking capabilities. “It’s really exciting,” says Taylor, calling from his home in Scotland. “You couldn’t have done this just a few years because the technology wasn’t there.”

Not surprisingly, the acclaimed British guitarist—appointed MBE by the Queen Elizabeth in 2002, “for services to jazz music”—is also excited about the release of Last Train to Hauteville (P3), the first recording by his renowned acoustic jazz ensemble Spirit of Django in almost 15 years. Recorded in Scotland, the album coincides with the Django Reinhardt Centennial and, for many longtime fans, its luminous performances will occasionally evoke memories of Taylor’s pivotal association with violinist and Quintette du Hot Club de France maestro Stephane Grappelli. Suffice it to say that Taylor had a lot to talk about when he phoned from Perthshire.

JT: The new CD has a string of delightfully colorful compositions and arrangements. Did you write them over the years, or did you have a burst of creativity prior to the sessions?

MT: I guess I really had a burst of creativity just before going in. I have a house in France, and very often I’ve written music by observing things. If I look around and imagine that it’s a movie, I ask myself, “What would the soundtrack be like?” So that’s what I did, inspired by some of the people, my neighbors there.

A less-than-graceful unicyclist, I see, inspired one engaging track—“Monsieur Jacques.”

Well, that’s a perfect illustration: Tom and Jerry meet Jacques Tati. It was this bizarre thing I used to watch every day. I had an idea of the kind of tracks I wanted on there, but then I had to sit down and think about it. That was one of the most enjoyable things about making the album—writing the music.

All the while you were composing with the band in mind?

Most definitely. Not just the instrumentation but the musicians I kept in mind. I always like the fact that Duke Ellington didn’t write for a big band, he wrote for his big band. I think that’s why this worked, because I knew these musicians so well.

JT: How has the group evolved?

It’s more or less the same people, except for the saxophonist. [Ed. Note: Alan Barnes replaced David O’Higgins on sax; the rest of Spirit of Django is Jack Emblow on accordion, Terry Gregory on bass, rhythm guitarist John Goldie and percussionist James Taylor.] We made three albums before, in the ’90s, and there were different things going on there. I really think we distilled and refined those three albums. As good as the first three records were, I think this is by far the best. The band really has developed a personality without becoming caricatures of ourselves. I think all bands that are successful have an overall sound, and our sound is very, very happy. It’s sunshine music; [it] makes people feel good.

And now there are Hot Club ensembles springing up everywhere, and not just because this year marks the Django Reinhardt Centennial.

It’s incredible. When I first started playing with Stephane [in the late ’70s], we had a very small underground following for that kind of music, and then there was a revival of it, and of acoustic music. Ironically, the reason why acoustic guitar is so popular now is because of electronics. Now you can hear the acoustic guitar—and with a pure acoustic guitar sound.

The Spirit of Django and other contemporary groups and artists have had a lot to do with keeping the music alive. That has to be very gratifying.

I played in Germany a while ago with a lot of young players, and many of them got into the music listening to Spirit of Django in the ’90s. So we’ve had a little to do with exposing the music to new audiences. Of course, we didn’t have the Hot Club lineup—we have a saxophone and accordion—[and] a lot of bands in continental Europe are doing that now, too. I think, for guitarists, it’s easy to become fascinated with the music. It’s so melodic and lyrical, and then there’s that feel-good factor. It almost becomes a religion for some of them—the whole lifestyle.

And yet the music in the right hands doesn’t sound retro.

No, it’s timeless. We’re not trying to copy the Hot Club and I’m not trying to copy Django. The lines that I play aren’t Django lines. I play with those inflections, but my lines are more bebop, which is exactly the direction Django was going in during the latter part of his life.

When you look back on your years playing with Stephane, was there something about his playing or personality that instantly stood out?

He didn’t talk a lot about music. I played with him for 11 years, but I knew him for about 20 years, so he was a big part of my life. When I first played with him, what struck me was the way he knew how to communicate with people. So often—and I had already worked with wonderful jazz musicians—players couldn’t sell what they were doing to an audience; they couldn’t give it away. Stephane always had a little smile on his face. You knew he was enjoying every minute he was onstage. You know what they say about Miles, that he played with his back to the crowd. But he was in there cooking things up. He knew how to communicate because he was a great showman.

The rest of this article appears in the July/August 2010 issue of JazzTimes.

Originally published in July/August 2010

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