An interview with jazz guitarist Martin Taylor
So what’s in a name? Martin Taylor. Martin. Taylor. It sounds almost as if he were given a sign at birth, a predestination to follow a path of the six-string arts. It was Martin’s father, bassist Buck Taylor, who set him on the course by giving young Martin an acoustic guitar as a present at age four.
Completely self-taught, Martin soaked up the sounds from his elder’s record collection, imitating what he heard. Coming into prominence in the late seventies with jazz great Stéphane Grappelli, Taylor has since built a reputation as one of the world’s finest guitarists—whether in a group setting, such as with his award-winning, Gypsy jazz-inspired Spirit of Django and more recently with his Freternity ensemble, or as a fingerstyle jazz soloist. The latter proves how scary and mind-boggling his ten fingers and six strings can be!
Now with his recent release, Double Standards, Taylor offers a new slant on guitar duets by weaving his way through a set of time-honored chestnuts and teaming up with none other than himself. We spoke about the trials and tribulations of such a venture and how much fun it can actually be to play with oneself.
How did you come up with the idea of doing solo duet recordings?
I’ve done a few tracks on other albums like that in the past, but I’ve never made an entire album like that. Of course, I’ve played a lot in the guitar duo form over the years. When I’ve done a few tracks like this, I’ve really enjoyed it. These are the kind of guitar duets that I would have to do myself in that I’m not playing the guitar and trying to make the guitars sound different, I’m trying to make it like it’s one big sound. If I had another guitar player playing with me, they would have their own sound and I couldn’t say, “Don’t do that, try to sound like me.” [laughs] That would be a bit pretentious! On some tracks, you can hear two guitars playing the same thing together and it sounds like one guitar, only a big version.
If you listen to “Triste,” the bass strings almost sound like they’re an entirely different instrument; they’re warmer than the rest of the rhythm track or the other guitar. Did you experiment with sounds like that, or is that just the way it came out?
No, that’s just the way it came out. I think maybe it was boosted just a bit. But, really, whenever the guitar sounds do change, I’m changing it myself by the way I actually play the guitar—closer to the bridge, or not playing with a pick, things like that. It’s pretty much a set sound. One of the things I do, and I’ve talked about quite often, is the whole idea of what I call “internal dynamics.” When I’m playing fingerstyle guitar, I don’t treat every note I’m playing the same. I give them different sound textures and balance. For instance, on “Triste,” I may have wanted the bass to sound a certain way, so I’d play that with my thumb and maybe bring the melody out quite loud. Underneath, the chords in the middle might be played very softly, almost wispy. Because of that, I’m getting a different tone out of every note that I’m playing. That’s one of the things that gives it akind of three-dimensional sound, so that some notes are way up front and some appear to be more in the background.
Not unlike the depth of field in a photograph?
I’ve never thought of it that way, but you are absolutely right. The chords in the middle do have that slightly out-of-focus feel. But that’s something I try to do with feel. I really don’t mess around with the sound of the guitar at all. Maybe a few reverbs here and there.
You went into detail on the CD about mics and things, but you don’t mention any ambient effects.
There is reverb, but the guy who mixed it didn’t give me any of that information. I should have gotten it and put that in there. All that information I got from the engineer… but, the guy who did the mixing and mastering is kind of a man of mystery. He probably didn’t want anybody to know what he did. He certainly didn’t tell me.
Was it harder to sit down and do the duets by yourself than it might have been with another guitarist? How was it planned out?
I started with a very, very long list of tunes. I went into the studio the first day and told the engineers that I wasn’t going to record anything. I just wanted to set up the sound. We worked really hard on that. It’s actually harder to get a really good pure sound. You can always add things. With this, we really made sure we had a good sound. We had so many options as well. We had so many mics everywhere—and we used all of them! The first thing I did was “Triste.” I thought that would be the most simple and pretty straightforward. It’s just a backing track and a lead. I did that more for the engineer. Also, I wasn’t 100 percent sure how I was going to go about all this either.
A lot of times when the dynamics of the rhythm tracks pick up and get a little more intense, the solo does as well. Are you reacting to the rhythm track when you are doing the lead?
Usually, yeah. Sometimes what happened, I would actually do a section where I was playing with the rhythm guitar and putting the lead guitar on top, and sometimes I’d play something on the lead guitar that would give me an idea for the rhythm guitar. So, I’d go back and change the rhythm guitar. Often, I wouldn’t keep the original tracks. By the time I’d finished with them, I’d gone through quite a few changes. It was like doing an oil painting, really.
When you were choosing the tunes, did you think that maybe this one would be done in the style of Joe Pass and Herb Ellis? Or did that not come into play at all?
No. I don’t think in those terms. I’ve really only got one way of playing, and one sound.
You mentioned in the liner notes that you had done a bunch of duos with other guitarists. When did you work with Joe Pass?
I knew him in the seventies, but we didn’t play together until shortly before he died. In fact, we were planning to make an album together. We played a few festivals in Europe. He already knew he was ill at that time. In a few days I’m doing a gig with Mundell Lowe. We’ve known each other for years and years, but we’ve never recorded together. I think about all the guitar players—Barney Kessel, Charlie Byrd, Tal Farlow—that I’d worked with so often and I haven’t got a single recording with them.
How long did it take to record this CD?
I did it in ten days.
Are these all the tracks you did?
There was one I abandoned about halfway through. I recorded for four days, then I had to leave for two days for some live dates, then came back and did another five days. Then I spent three days in London doing the mix. For a jazz album, that’s quite a long time, really. I probably could have used another day, but then you could end up ruining it. You risk over-thinking it.
How long does it take you to record one of your solo albums?
It varies from two days to about a week. I’ve actually become more interested lately in DVDs. A large part of the audience plays the instrument as well—or likes the idea of playing it—and they want to see you play it.
Didn’t you do a live one?
Yes. I’d like to do another one. The gig tomorrow night is being filmed for the local TV station. If it comes out good, it might be usable.
You use Elixir stings now, right?
Yes. They’re perfect for me. Ever since I started playing guitar, it seems as if I sweat battery acid. I always thought that it would be great if they could invent some kind ofcoating... I didn’t have any idea of what it could be. When I found out about Elixirs, I went into a store and bought ‘em. They have just the right amount of brightness and they stay like that. They’re not for everybody or every guitar. I’ve got an old Martin 000- 45, and I keep Elixirs on it, but if I were to record with it, I’d want heavier strings and something with a bit more sparkle. But all my guitars are strung with Elixirs.
Do they help cut down on finger noise?
They do, but I’ve never really had too much trouble with finger noise anyway. And, the amount that I do get, I quite like.
Like the end of the one tune where you actually slide your hand up the neck...
Yeah, “Bluesette.” I like the noise; it makes it sound more human. It’s like a sax player when you can hear him take a breath. There’s one track, “Young and Foolish,” if you listen to it in headphones, you can hear me breathe. I wasn’t aware of this at the time, but it seems I do this. I breathe like a horn player—with the phrases.
You recently worked with luthier Mike Vanden to design your signature archtop guitar; can you tell me how that came about?
When I spoke to Mike about it, I said I wanted to design the guitar with him. I wanted it to be a jazz guitar and I wanted it to be a small guitar.
What size is it?
It’s only fifteen inches. I also wanted it to look like a classic archtop guitar, but brought into the present a little bit. I wanted it to be a little more European. Like the cutaway being a bit more like the Maccaferri. I didn’t really want it to sound too much like a standard jazz guitar. I wanted it to have a big bass response and have sustain. So, it is and it isn’t a standard jazz guitar. The other thing about Mike is he also makes guitar pickups as well.
Does he do the Mimesis pickups? I’ve been curious about them. They have a beautiful sound. It’s got the transparency of the tone, but the fullness and richness of the guitar.
Well, he designed the pickup and did a deal with Fishman. A lot of those Fishman blend pickups are Mike’s. Mine has a magnetic pickup but has a piezo in the bridge as well, which I only use live because in the studio I only use microphones. But even when I play live, I like to use a mic, too. It was important to me to have really good electronics in the guitar. So often you see really nice guitars and the pickups just seem like an afterthought.
You mention you might do a few more of these duet albums over the next few years. Who’s on your list?
Well, there’s me, me and me. I see it as an ongoing thing, particularly now having done this one. I can now see more possibilities, and I’ve only just scratched the surface. It’s also going to be a lot easier now—it got so much easier as we went along. I like to use the studio as a tool, not go in there and pretend it’s like a live performance.
That’s interesting for a jazz guitar player to say because usually it’s treated as a live performance.
It’s unique, I think. I like that too, but I would sooner just do a gig and have that recorded rather than go into the studio and pretend you’re doing something live.
On “Drop Me Off in Harlem,” the harmonies reminded me of Tony Mottola.
I haven’t heard any of those, actually. On that song I did a lot of improvising and listened back a little at a time, to see what I could then do with the second guitar. It was just another way of doing the arrangement, really. I’d like to do more like that, because I discovered that way later on in the sessions.
Was any of it written out after the fact?
Well, I don’t really read music. I can read music, I just prefer not to read music. I can, I just don’t do it very well. So to stay out of trouble, I tell people that I don’t.
What about the Spirit of Django, will you be doing anything else with them?
We haven’t done anything for a while. The problem is, our accordion player retired and he doesn’t like to travel much. We do get asked to do summer festivals and we did one this past summer.
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AER Compact 60