I find it hard to say anything about John Taylor’s artistry that hasn’t been said by now, but more as a personal thank you I’ve decided to write a little about my own time with him, in full knowledge that my experience is shared by countless other musicians who have been lucky enough to get to know him over his lifetime. I know it’s just my story, but I hope it might be of interest to anyone who has a musical or personal connection to John (plus it starts with a funny coincidence, which is always a good way to begin things).
Between the ages of 11 and 18 I hopped on a school bus that went past our house in rural Kent at 7.37 a.m every day. Barring any major disruptions (the most common being combine harvesters, livestock and ice), it wound its way through the North Downs to Ashford over the next hour or so, taking in some fairly typical Kentish scenes – whilst there were some picturesque villages, stacks of hay bales, rusty gates and herds of friesians, there were also many unremarkable rows of bungalows, cottages and post-war terraces, behind whose doors seemed to live ordinary people going about ordinary lives. A couple of years ago I found myself retracing that route for the first time in 10 years, having finally managed to pluck up the courage to call up John. In the process of our first brief phone call I learnt that, not only had I passed by his house hundreds (if not thousands) of times on my way to school, but my parents had been using the same builder as him and his wife Carol was good friends with a very old family friend. I wonder how many times he was there as we passed by on our way to and from school, doing distinctly un-ordinary things in his studio at the back of one of those cottages.
In a line of work which frequently calls on musicians to ‘put themselves out there’, dialling John’s phone number still counts as probably the boldest thing I’ve ever done – I suspect that John never really realised (and I doubt his humility would have let him believe) the degree to which I had been captivated and obsessed with his music during the two years leading up to our first session together. You can see some of the fruits of that obsession on this blog, which focused for a while on the CD Phases.
John listened to the music I sheepishly sent him with intent, and my first visit consisted most of him asking me questions, which I found frankly pretty unnerving, not least because I found myself unable to answer most of them! I was in a familiar position to many musicians – out of music college a few years, having released some music, keeping busy with gigging and teaching, but well past the initial rush of almost survival-instinct dynamism of the early twenties. I was in the middle of compiling a large system of triad-pair voicings, the scale of which eventually defeated me, and had just started to flail around in the dark looking for ways to make the most of the Treehouse music I’d written. In truth I knew that I was a little adrift and starting to question whether what I was doing was really any good or not.
Over the next few years John would become the most important person in my musical life. I’d made that phone call because I thought, misguidedly, that I might be able to satisfy some of the burning curiosity I had about his music. Today, thankfully, the soul of that music remains a mystery – we would talk about harmony and composition, texture and touch, composition and improvisation, everything – but when he sat down at his old German piano what emerged remained otherworldly, beyond anything I could really grasp. Lines like little characters with their own complex narratives, humour, optimism and melancholy, complex cloud formations passing by, the kind of groove that seems to make the air thick. Without really trying, he made me question where I was looking in my efforts to improve my musicianship.
We saw each other about a month ago in the pub in that little village. He was completely full of the joys of life and music, telling me about all his various projects, the joy of his recent recording, even his ideas for our planned gig together in the London Jazz Festival this autumn. I left having had a good laugh, as I usually did after meeting John and spending a few hours with his refreshing irreverence and mischievous wit, his eyebrows popping up over his sunglasses as he made light of whatever aspect of this sometimes mad way of life he was dissecting. Despite getting to know each other well over the last few years, I could never shake off the kind of childish wonder I felt at actually sitting and having a pint with, for lack of a better word, my musical hero.
Now he’s gone I know he leaves myself and many, many other musicians unable to count the ways he’s affected their lives. I hope I can repay his constant encouragement to pursue absolute musical goals, not to mention his unflinching generosity in helping open some of the more mundane doors that can nevertheless be very difficult to open. Every note we have of his on record takes on a little extra meaning now that we know there won’t be any more; what we do have, though, is more than enough to sustain anyone for a lifetime.