John Taylor Trio: Rosslyn

Rosslyn will come as a shock to those who have not kept up with British pianist John Taylor over the past 40 years: It is one of the important piano trio recordings of the new millennium to date.

It has been easy to not follow the career of John Taylor, especially from the United States. Although he has appeared on 18 ECM albums going back to 1977, he has rarely recorded under his own name, and he’s never done so for ECM. Many who hear Taylor for the first time will assign him to that large, active pianistic category called the Bill Evans School. Taylor recalls Evans in his introspective intellectual romanticism, and he also shares more substantive elements of the style. These include precision of fingering, a sensuous yet firm touch, harmonic erudition, an elongated sense of line and a rapt lyricism that makes all songs ballads, even very fast ones. But Taylor is his own man. He often breaks his ideational flow into irregular fragments very different from the results of Evans’ processes, and he is interested in material from composers like Ralph Towner and Kenny Wheeler, whose structures are liberated from the popular songs that were Evans’ focus. Taylor’s own compositions, like the mesmerizing title track, are cumulatively incantatory in a way that would not have occurred to Evans.

When Taylor does play a standard that Bill Evans played, like “How Deep Is the Ocean?” he thinks about it very differently. On Evans’ 1961 Riverside album Explorations, the chord voicings are fresh but the tune is kept largely intact. Taylor, on the other hand, scatters it like loose change. He starts by strumming the piano strings and brings in little drum rolls and disparate clusters of piano notes. Implicit far below the surface is Irving Berlin’s theme, sometimes touched by the bass of Marc Johnson, sometimes hit glancingly by the piano.

Another Evans connection to Rosslyn is the central presence of bassist Marc Johnson. He was a member of one of the great piano trios, Bill Evans’ last one, but he has avoided the format since Evans’ death in 1980. He believed that he had nothing more to say in the piano trio context. Fortunately, he changed his mind. Johnson drives powerful energies through Rosslyn, but he also stops for poetically lyrical solos. Joey Baron, known as a volatile, edgy, free-spirited drummer, is all of the above on Rosslyn, but also shows that he understands subtle shading and coloration.

Bill Evans founded the concept of the piano trio as a collective, interactive enterprise among equals. The label that keeps the flame of this idea alive is ECM. A disproportionate number of today’s strongest piano trio/cooperatives reside on ECM, like the ensembles of Keith Jarrett and Bobo Stenson and, now, John Taylor. ECM is also the place where piano trios are recorded best. This digital recording by engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug gets both the glistening surfaces and the hard centers of Taylor’s piano notes, as well as the bottom octave of Johnson’s bass and the lightest whispers of Baron’s brushes on cymbals.