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Emmanuel (left) and Taylor (right)
Since the first time they met, over 20 years ago in Australia, Tommy Emmanuel and Martin Taylor have shared many songs together—mostly in backstage jams and occasional sit-ins when their busy schedules would coincide. "Every time we would see each other we would say how we should record [an album] because we have a chemistry together," says Emmanuel, a native Australian. And Taylor, who hails from the U.K., says that chemistry is a rare thing between two established artists who aren't afraid of carrying the musical load entirely on their own. "When you're playing solo you have to cover so many things but you don't have to do that when you play with another guitar player. You can just lay out and play some single lines, or interplay between the two."
But with Taylor coming from a more traditional jazz approach and Emmanuel rooted in the Chet Atkins school, both guitarists bring enough of a different perspective to the table to keep things interesting. On The Colonel and The Governor, Taylor and Emmanuel demonstrate the chemistry that was first discovered when the two worked out on some Django tunes during that fateful meeting in Sydney. "We're all standing on the shoulders of giants—the guys that came before us. Django was probably the biggest influence on every guitar player I know. When people ask me who is the greatest player of all time, that's easy, Django. He had no competition," mentions Emmanuel. And considering Martin Taylor did a considerable amount of time with Stephane Grappelli's group, this shared root of influence was a natural starting point.
Throughout the album, which covers everything from the Carpenters and Don McLean to classic jazz standards, the duo deftly demonstrates their natural sense of melodicisim while keeping their individual identities intact. We caught up with Taylor and Emmanuel shortly after the European leg of their tour to discuss the art of solo guitar, ’70s pop music, and why guitar education is near and dear to both of them.
Geographically, you guys are from opposite side of the world, but you've probably crossed paths pretty often on the road. Tommy, when did you first come across Martin?
Emmanuel: Years ago in Australia. I saw him on TV. It was a Saturday-night program that had comedy and music and Martin came on and played "I've Got Rhythm." He just blew the thing right out the door. I was playing a concert the next night in Sydney at a beautiful theater there, so I rang him and asked if he could come to Sydney and play with me. He flew up from Melbourne and played with me the next night as my guest.
Taylor: While I was there, everyone I met was talking about Tommy. I had never heard of him because, at that time, Tommy was a household name in Australia but he hadn't spread his wings yet to other shores that much. This was about 1990. He was playing mostly electric in those days—some acoustic—and he had a band with him. Kind of a big production. I came out and played a few tunes with him and we then just became good friends from there on.
Do you remember what tunes you played?
Emmanuel: We just played some Django tunes and it just brought the house down. Ever since then, our paths keep crossing. The funny thing is, we are almost exactly the same age—I think I'm, like, three months older or something. We've stayed in touch all those years, and every now and then I would see Martin at a guitar festival and we would end up jamming and playing together.
Tommy, is it true that Martin actually helped you get your gig with Bill Wyman?
Emmanuel: Yes! When I moved over here in England in ’98, Martin was working with Bill Wyman and the Rhythm Kings. What Martin did for me, which was really nice, was he showed Bill a video of me playing a Merle Travis tune. Bill was a big Travis fan, and the next thing I know, Bill calls me and I end up playing on three albums, and he asked me to play on a whole bunch of songs.
After being friends for so long—with so many impromptu jams—when did you guys decide to take the plunge and do a full album together?
Emmanuel: It turned out last year, in July, Martin was invited to the Chet Atkins festival in Nashville, and that's where I live. I invited him to stay at my house and come in early, and we just put the songs and arrangements together and recorded the album. Then we did the photo shoot and he was on the plane the next day—gone.
With your busy touring schedules, the pre-production process was probably a bit tough.
Taylor: That was the problem for us. We are both really, really busy. We also did some things over Skype, just talking to each other. At my house, we also filmed our rehearsal so we would remember everything, hopefully [laughs]. Tommy and I were both touring independently in the U.S. and had planned to meet in California, but I got ill and we weren't able to get together.
Once plans were made, how did you decide what tunes to play?
Emmanuel: Martin had a list of songs and I had a list of songs, and when he would get an idea he would call or Skype me and he would play it to me. On things like "I Won't Last a Day Without You"—that’s a Paul Williams-style pop song—he said, "I really love this melody but I want to change the chord structure." So we changed the structure of the chorus of the song, gave it a bit more meat and changed the chords around. I enjoy playing that song so much. We normally open the show with it.
Taylor: Tommy came to my house in Scotland when he had a couple of days off. We spent a couple of days together and, as it turned out, most of the tunes that we played came from my list. Usually when you do this you get a mixture of the two. I don't know, it just kind of worked out that way.
Tommy, were you familiar with the Carpenters tune before the sessions?
Emmanuel: Absolutely. I knew it very well from when I was a teenager. In fact, I know all the lyrics as well. Sad, isn't it? [Laughs.]
Taylor: I just had this idea about that tune because I always liked it. I started playing it pretty much the way the Carpenters did it, with that kind of feel, and then we thought it wasn't going to work so we left it alone. I came back to Tommy after a while and played it more in that kind of fast, bossa nova, almost samba-type feel. I reharmonized it and added a few extended things here and there, and it gave it another life. Before, it just didn't have any kind of life to it. Around the time that that was out, I was actually in the U.S., but it was hugely popular in all the European countries. I remember seeing the Carpenters on a TV show when I was a kid growing up, well a teenager, and just really being taken with her voice. At the time, because I was such a jazz nut, I thought, "Wow, I would love to hear her sing jazz."
So '70s pop was a real influence in your formative years?
Emmanuel: Yeah, absolutely. And some of the other songs, like "Heatwave," Martin played me the original arrangement by Carl Kress and Dick McDonough, who are two players from the 1920s and ’30s. We loved their arrangement of "Heatwave," so we borrowed the idea and jazzed it up a little, put a nice key change on it. It was really a chance for us to play some of our favorite tunes and do our own thing as if we were onstage and the songs had to work. It had to sound very spontaneous. There was no dropping in and fixing up. The solos were as they went down.
Taylor: When I played "Heatwave" for him, I could see straight away that his eyes lit up. A spark kind of went off in his mind that he could really get his teeth into this. So we based it on their arrangement, but we changed it here and there.