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Peter Erskine Remembers John Taylor

9.25.42 – 7.17.15

John Taylor
John Taylor (l.) with Kenny Wheeler, 2005

Each year, in our March issue, we ask prominent musicians to pay tribute to fellow artists who have passed in the previous year. This piece appeared in the March 2016 edition of JazzTimes.

To recount a tale told in my book, No Beethoven, as my fourth trio recording for ECM was drawing near, I was sending copies of some new tunes of mine to John Taylor in England but getting no response. “Is John’s fax machine working?” I wondered. “Yes,” came the reply, and so I didn’t think much about it, and traveled to Oslo from L.A. I arrived in the late afternoon and went from the hotel to the studio for a private evening rehearsal with John and bassist Palle Danielsson. “Let’s start with this tune,” I ventured. John then did his best Art Carney/”Ed Norton” imitation, looking at the music but unable to bring himself to play the keyboard. He tried and tried again, but he just couldn’t put his arms down onto the piano. Finally, after performing this pantomime several times, he turned to me and said, “Peter … um, this would work perfectly well in a Clint Eastwood film.”

“Hmm. Oh, yeah? … Which one?” I asked.

John readily replied, “The one with the bridges in Madison County. After all, Peter, you have been living in Hollywood for some time now, and…”

I felt defeated. I finally suggested that John play one of his new compositions, and after he ran it down, I said, “You know, that would work terrifically well in an Arnold Schwarzenegger film.” It was all downhill from there. The next day ECM label head and producer Manfred Eicher asked me what was going on with John, and I had no idea what to tell him.

With time and distance and a little bit of growing up, I came to understand exactly what was going on with John. The same way he could not bring himself to repeat anything he had just played, such as a redo of an intro he had brilliantly come up with on the spot, he could not bring himself to play anything that did not suit his aesthetic sensibilities. We hear or use the word “uncompromising” when discussing the greats, but John Taylor was the walking definition of the word, as far as I’m concerned. He didn’t have it in him to play any bullshit. (Me? I’ve played plenty of bullshit in my time.) John Taylor was incapable of being anything other than completely truthful when it came to music. And you can hear that in every note the man played.

This is not to say that making music with John Taylor was a joyless experience. On the contrary, his purity allowed a rhythmic and tonal vitality to burst forth that was astonishing in its virtuosity as well as in its free-spiritedness. And that kind of musical joy is contagious on a bandstand or in a recording studio. He was also terrific fun to be with, that last ECM trio session aside.

His genius extended to the written page as well. John’s compositions are peerless explorations down the path trod by Bill Evans, informed with British compositional elegance, wit and charm-with some devilish Indian talas thrown in for good measure. The man did enjoy a good curry, musically and otherwise. And John was a steadfast ally and friend to the late Kenny Wheeler. It’s hard for me to think of one and not the other. They were both geniuses in my book.

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Originally Published