Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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James Taylor Quartet: Chorus of approval

James Taylor
James Taylor James Taylor James Taylor James Taylor Quartet: Rochester Mass James Taylor Quartet - Andrew McKinney: Rochester Mass James Taylor Quartet - Gareth Lockrane: Rochester Mass James Taylor Quartet - Mark Cox: Rochester Mass James Taylor Quartet - Nick Smart: Rochester Mass James Taylor Quartet: Cathedral Mass - Rochester Cathedral James Taylor Quartet - Pat Illingworth: Rochester Mass James Taylor Quartet: Rochester Mass James Taylor Quartet: Rochester Mass James Taylor Quartet: Rochester Cathedral - Rochester Mass James Taylor Quartet and Rochester Cathedral Choir - Rochester Mass

“With the co-ordination of it, we expected there to be a lot of bumps along the way but it actually went very, very smoothly”. James of legendary funky acid jazz band, James Taylor Quartet says of their latest project “The Rochester Mass”. The album which infuses their signature funky grooves with classical melodies and celestial 34 voice choir was recorded within Rochester Cathedral during a single day. “We could only afford six hours in that studio, we needed a massive studio (to accommodate all the people and the instruments) We got there early to set up, we got the mics in place, the choir arrived and off we went” he continues. “We ran everything once and recorded it. We decided whether we were happy with it and either we re-recorded or moved on. We had to finish at 6 and we finished at about two minutes to 6. It was beautiful. It was really good fun, the kids are really good fun. They’re really funny and excited by the project. If the record sounds good I think that’s the key to it. It was a bizarre mixture with us coming from our world and them from their atheistical world and there was just something really really lovely about it”.

Having first gained success in the late eighties with tracks like “The Blow Up”, and later with “Love for Life” and “Love Will Keep Us Together”, the new musical direction certainly took the band out of its comfort zone. But were all the band members on board with it from the beginning? “They didn’t voice it but they were like “oh no, what are you making us do!” (laughs) When they got into it, they were like “Oh Yeah”. It wasn’t until we had the final mixes and they had a bit of vinyl or the CD that they said “Oh God, I really like this” Even me, I didn’t know. It really was a leap of faith. I thought “there must be something in this”. The thing about sounds, you can think “that’s a good sound I like” but it conjures up all the preconceived ideas about what that sound represents. We live in a divided society where certain sounds means certain things politically, psychologically, socially and you don’t go there. So I thought why not! But I didn’t know if it would work or not, even me until the final mixes then I said “I’m pleased with that”. Even when we were recording it, it felt really good fun but I didn’t know if people would take to it, if people would like it and understand it. It’s been a real revelation”.

On its face, blending the free flowing vibe JTQ’s sound with the fiercely structured nature of classical and choral music could have created a square peg, round hole scenario but in the end, finding a way to fuse the seemingly polarising concepts and form a cohesive sound was part of the challenge “(With) something like “Sanctus Part 2” we wanted to get into this area of choral music which is slightly like the French impressionistic composer called Faure. He used to write masses and requiems and things but he’d be doing it on a harp but we had a guitarist so we felt like we could create something similar to the effect Faure used to create but also that lent itself to something quite fusiony and actually quite modern. We felt there was actually a massive cross over there. So we stretched out and exploited that and then introduced the voice, the choral element so I felt that was a successful blending of the two worlds. You can also write a bit of jazz funk and then put voices on top and we certainly did that as well but that’s a sort of forced joining. The most natural sort of joining was when we tried to in impersonate classical or atheistical sounds. We broke everything down in rehearsal which was very enjoyable and illuminating because you really don’t know where that’s going to end up. It was weird but massively enjoyable.”

“It’s risky because everything is safe when you’re known for doing one thing, but if you stay on that one thing, it dies, for you, it dies” says James. “I don’t get too concerned about the risk because it’s so exciting to pursue new avenues. I am very obsessional. If I’m into a certain thing at the moment and just every hour, every minute I’ve got, I pursue this thing. That’s how I was with the choral thing because you have at the centre of yourself, a sense that you’re on to something so you’re prepared to do whatever you need to do to get to that point, to see if it comes to fruition or not”.

With early influences including rock bands like The Small Faces and Deep Purple, James formed his first band The Prisoners. He later moved towards the sound artists like Jimmy Smith and Booker T and would go on to form the James Taylor Quartet. However, his love of the piano beginning at age 4 or 5 was actually triggered because of some healthy sibling rivalry. “Music is something if the seed is planted early; it sort of grows at its own rate. Also the more you put into it, the more you’ll get out of it. When I was a kid, I come from a large family and my elder brothers; they all had different aspects of existence sown up. One of them was very sporty, another was arty... A piano arrived in the house and remember quite conscientiously thinking “that’s me” and I quickly formed a relationship with the instrument. I enjoyed sitting at it. If someone came they’d say “oh James play us a tune” My mum and grandmother showed me how to do different things. Unlike other aspects, this was something I could do that my brothers couldn’t do or they couldn’t do it as well as me”.

In his younger days as a musician, James was a bit of a purist when it came to the recording process but now he is happier to use all the tools at his disposal to get the sound he wants “whatever works” he says regarding live musicians verses digital ones. The mass thing was all performed like a gig but on loads of records I’ve used digital things. Looking back over the years, this is our thirtieth year this year; I got massively into using break beats and samples. I just do whatever feels exciting. I don’t have precious (feelings) about it. I did when I was much younger. I’m less dogmatic about it now. I’m just looking for the end result to be engaging. Also sometimes the origins of the piece need to be put together when you’re on your own so technology is handy for that. Sometimes you need a bit of space for an idea to become cohesive so you can present it to other people. I’m sitting here in a studio and in front of me I’ve got a seventeenth century church organ and next to that I’ve got an apple mac. My central message is that all music is one. That’s the core message.

As well as their own compositions, over the years, JTQ have been often been inspired by film music, with their own versions of the themes from Starsky and Hutch and Mission Impossible among their biggest hits. The band even wrote a soundtrack to a fictional film called “Money Spyder” While James is happy for his music to be used in film, he isn’t waiting for scripts to fall through his mailbox “These days I want to create music, and then at times that gets used in film or television because I sell it to production companies but I don’t have scripts coming through the door and I’m wondering what can I do with that. Friends of mine do that, they get commissioned for a specific bit of music for a specific film. I don’t do that anymore. Increasingly as I get older, I’m in my fifties now, what I want to pursue in music is less literal and more pure. It’s less about a job. Life is short and I don’t want to be just a jobbing musician, although I still love performing”.

Known for their live performances, the band has played to diverse audiences at some unusual gigs including a heavy metal festival and a car launch event (which also had Kylie on the bill). James is determined that music’s goal should engage the audience and with “The Rochester Mass” he wants to question the social divide associated with certain musical genres .“In England, society is massively divided. The upper classes, (classical music) is their thing, they’re not here and were not allowed there. So it’s political and social, it’s experimenting and questioning why society is divided in that way. If music can’t sort that out, I think nothing can. We go and do a funk gig but I’d like to open with a Beethoven Sonata because when would you get to hear that. The whole danger with music is that it doesn’t evolve so if it provokes a different view then it’s achieved its aim”.

Aside from fronting one of the UK’s best loved jazz funk outfits, James is also a qualified psychotherapist. Our chat concludes with him explaining how his work with clients ultimately helps to feed and inspire his music “Yes, absolutely, those two worlds feed off each other and overlap. As a psychotherapist you need to get out of the way of the client and let them get into their stuff and bring something to that when it’s appropriate. I suppose when you’re in a supporting role as a musician that’s the same and that’s where the empathy comes in. There’s lots of similarities, the differences would be interesting to explore. As a musician, you strut on stage and as much as you try to remove ego from it, ego is at the centre of things. I believe the more you can remove ego from the music, the more it will touch other people, in a paradoxical way. Definitely for me those two worlds feed each other even though on the face of it, they are completely different”.

Album "The Rochester Mass" is out now on Cherry Red
Words Karen Lawler

From Jazz Funk & Fusion To Acid Jazz

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