Interview With Chris Taylor: Jazz and Electronica

By: Rick Landers

Images: Courtesy of C. Taylor

New York City jazz guitarist Chris Taylor’s music transports jazz aficionados on a sonic wave that is both aurally and imaginatively appealing and one that is magically visual in its coloration and drive. East Coast jazz can be grounded in traditional jazz, but some artists dig into the improvisation mode to channel the essence of their musical palettes in very personal journeys. And from what I’ve heard of Taylor, his willingness to drive hard into improvisation can be tastefully melodic and fearless.

Taylor bumped into the Berklee College of Music for three semesters back in the early ‘80s and got back on the street when he ran out of money. He’s been landing gigs ever since and has earned the respect of the New York City jazz community with his exploratory jazz that can pounce, shift gears or pull us into a dreamy groove.

His new CD, Nocturnal, is a stunning debut from a guy who’s plowed through the world of jazz for thirty years before conjuring up a set of tracks that jazz heads and others will find to be a powerful inventive fusion of sound, beat, and hipness that all draw us into his fire.

Chris Taylor

Photo Credit: Carolyn Taylor

Rick Landers: Listening to your CD, Nocturnal, it was natural to conjure up apparitions or visuals from the tracks and pull in more than just an aural feel from it. Would you describe your music as not only having a soundscape, but also a visual territory that it evokes for you and others?

Chris Taylor: All music has a definite visual aspect for me. I have always associated colors and imagery to specific key centers, pitch and even rhythm in a subconscious way. I compose music with a mental image of the sounds I am creating and even when mixing I visualize the stereo field between myself and the monitors, but it is not a conscious or learned thing, just something that has always been part of the process for me.

For some reason sound has always been associated with image in my minds eye. A lot of my music is through-composed, and I think that helps add a cinematic element to it. I do listen to a lot of film music as well. Composers like Thomas Newman, Gustavo Santaolalla and Sigur Ros are a few of the many artists that have had that visual influence on me you are describing.

Rick: With Berklee being a stopover for you, how did the experience at the school change the way you played or approached music, if at all?

Chris Taylor: I was at Berklee for 3 semesters. For me the biggest change in my own playing or approach is hard to pinpoint because I wasn’t a very developed player at that time, so I found everything I was exposed to both influential and inspiring, excepting the school’s cafeteria food. It was a great experience to come from my hometown where I only knew a handful of musicians and overnight find myself in an environment where everyone I now interacted with, both in and out of the classroom, were musicians or at least aspiring to become one. You end up living and breathing music there 24/7, and that is a great catalyst. Even though my tenure at Berklee was short I felt like a large sponge thrown into a deep pool.

I left Berklee to make some money and get more gigging experience with the intention of returning and finishing my education as soon as financially possible, but once I got out in the real world of playing for a living it became increasingly less desirable to return. In a sense, it is like I transferred to another school at that point.

Rick: Some guitarists harness themselves to a structure, but never go rogue and improvise. Your music appears to have more than a fair share of improvisation and I wonder if you find that invigorating, stressful or do you get into some zone and you find it more a place where you enjoy the search for a sonic groove?

Chris Taylor: I think I would leave the going rogue to Sarah Palin. She is a unparalleled virtuoso ….

Improvisation is the keystone of all jazz based music and getting into the “zone” is where you want to be all the time as an improvisor, how to be consistently in that zone remains somewhat of a mystery to me. When improvisation happens at the purest level everything seems both effortless and meaningful and you can feel the whole vibe elevate. Without trying to sound too metaphysical or new age, I think it is about stepping completely out of your own way and just letting the music happen, which for me is often easier said then done.

There is definitely some magic in getting there and it is one of the profound and mysterious elements that I continue to love about improvised music. The music I write does have quite a bit of structure, but I don’t use traditional forms all that much and the solo sections are often not based on any previous section. I like the idea of music that transitions from written sections to improvisation in a subtle way so that you don’t really notice the change. I think it keeps the music moving forward and as a composer and listener that appeals to me.

Rick: Are you playing traditional jazz guitars or have you found those typically used for rock to be more versatile and useful?

Chris Taylor: For Nocturnal I am using Fender and Fender-style guitars for the most part. I used my ’66 Tele and ’67 Strat that both have been with me for a long time along with a Levinson Blade guitar and a generic Strat I put together with humbuckers in it that I used quite a bit.

I also borrowed this very nice Canton Custom Guitar that was used on the track “You Know What I’m Saying?” Rick Canton is building some unique instruments; they are chambered and have this great resonance to them that I am intrigued with, it got me playing stuff I had never played before right out of the case. I would really like to find a good semi-hollow 335-type guitar at some point as well.

Rick: Ever get into a groove on stage and get into such a reverie that you discover that you’ve lost your audience and need to change gears?

Chris Taylor: Sure, that is just part of live improvisation. You put yourself way out on a limb because that is often where the deepest moments happen, but it is also the point where the branch is most likely to break. Instrumental music audiences are pretty sophisticated and generous listeners; they are also an integral part of the whole thing. Live music is at it’s best when the energy is bouncing back and forth between the stage and the audience, so if you feel that energy waning, then shifting gears is probably a good idea and often happens on it’s own.

Rick: You’ve been at this for over 30 years and in the hub of jazz in the U.S., New York City. How much has the jazz scene changed over time and are you finding the scene more or less experimental as during the ‘70s and ‘80s?

Nocturnal - Chris Taylor

Nocturnal – Chris Taylor

Chris Taylor: The nature of jazz is to experiment and push boundaries and that is always going on regardless of the era. Technology seems to be the big dividing line between those two generations. I have found that same technology to be a double-edged sword.

It is a pretty exciting time to be making music now, but a more difficult time to be making a living. It is much easier for any musician to make a record of their own because of technology, but it is in turn much more difficult to make any money selling the music with all the illegal downloading and file sharing going on. It has gotten to the point where breaking even on a disc is considered a success even when you have good label promotion, as I am fortunate enough to have with Abstract Logix.

I do miss a lot of the old venues from back in the day that have since closed, places like “The Bottom Line” & “Mikell’s”, where so much great music was played, and of course the players who are no longer with us. But, there are currently a lot of young musicians in New York doing completely new and exciting things and others playing more in the tradition but approaching it in a unique way, all of which I find inspiring.

Rick: I read that you’re into electronic music like Prefuse 73. Are you listening to newer Scott Herren music, like Diamond Watch Wrists? Who else in the electronic realm?

Chris Taylor: I like everything Scott Herren has done. The Prefuse 73 discs have just had a bigger impact on me because I have spent more time listening to them. There are so many great artists both involved or influenced by electronica that I listen to. Venetian Squares, Squarepusher, John Hassel who is an absolute genius and pioneer.

Trumpeter Cuong Vu I have been listening to quite a bit lately. Gary Willis has been doing some totally unique and burning discs post Tribal Tech with his group Triphasic that take the electronica thing into a different world altogether. Steve Tavaglione recently turned me onto Alpha Pup records, a label which has a bunch of cool new artists like Young Montana that are doing really interesting things. I could go on and on here, there is just so much great new music being made that is, or is inspired by electronica.

Rick: John Scofield recently worked with Mali guitarist, Vieux Farka Toure’. Have you explored African music or discovered other world music that you’ve incorporated into your music?

Chris Taylor: I went through a fairly extended period where I got pretty deeply into African music and in particular the different guitar styles from certain regions of Africa. It is not something you would necessarily hear on Nocturnal, but for instance, I love the Soweto township guitar style and spent some time listening and learning to play it a bit.

I am also a big fan of West African music, the music and the musicians from there have a rhythmic swing to what they play that is remarkably deep. I have had the opportunity to play and record with some great African musicians like Bakithi Kumalo, and it was an extraordinary learning experience.

I think it is better to have world music filter it’s way into and influence my own music organically then for me to try to play another culture’s music authentically. Joe Zawinul was a master at the ability to absorb all these different and diverse world music influences and incorporate them into his thing while still always sounding uniquely like Joe Zawinul. It probably didn’t hurt that he was a complete musical genius as well.

Rick: Getting back to Nocturnal and its cinematic appeal, what have you done as far as writing for film or television?

Chris Taylor: I have done quite a bit of television work, but that tends to be different then the music from Nocturnal. I have recorded film work as a player, but not any major motion pictures as a composer, just some small projects, which I really loved doing. Most of the film work is out in L.A. and it is not an easy field to break into, particularly without focusing on it solely. I would love to get the opportunity to try my hand at more film scoring, the little I have done was rewarding.

Rick: Having been part of the New York jazz scene for some time, have you worked with or mentored any younger jazz guitarists in the City to help them with respect to either music or how to build a lucrative career in music, as much as that may be possible?

Chris Taylor: I cannot honestly say I am an integral part of the New York jazz scene, I think I have been on the very fringes of it at best, but I have certainly been around it for a while. As far as mentoring I have not done any in a direct way. I could learn a lot myself from some of the younger guys on the scene. There are so many great young players in New York City now that I find inspiring, like Mike Moreno, Lage Lund and Nir Felder, etc.

One of the things I have learned over the years is that music lives for a large part outside of the practice room. I think as a young musician it is easy to get caught up in the mechanics of playing the instrument and spend all your time in the woodshed with a metronome, which is an important part of any players development, but you also have to remember that music is, like all art forms, about expression and you truly can express only what you have experienced.

Life away from the guitar is just as important to your development as an artist as any practice session or gig. To fall in love, have your heart broken, see the world, help those less fortunate then yourself, or even spend the afternoon at the park or a museum is to gain life experience which in turn will find it’s way into your music and add humanity to everything you create. That is something that will be picked up by the listener and connects them with what you are doing.

Rick: What other projects do you have going, and when can we expect some more Chris Taylor tracks?

Chris Taylor: I would like to get out and play the music from Nocturnal locally and perhaps abroad if possible, and that is something I am currently working on. Steve Tavaglione and I are gearing up to do a record together that I am looking forward to starting soon. It is still in the demo stage but we are talking about it being a glitch based jazz disc. We have a few other musicians in mind, and I would like the core of it to involve some live studio playing.

I also have a fairly large collection of unreleased compositions where I am playing or programming everything and I have thought about sorting through it and putting a disc together of the right material. I am pretty confident in saying I don’t think it will be anywhere near a thirty year wait for me to release another record under my own name.

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