If Martin Taylor ever decides to quit playing guitar, he can always launch a career as a stand-up comic. Asked where he grew up, the guitarist states, “I was born October 20, 1956, in England, near a town called Harlow, about 30 miles north of London. As a child, I couldn’t leave the house because my family was so poor they couldn’t afford clothes for me. I was 27 before they had enough money to buy me a baseball cap so I could look out the window.”
The truth is, by age 27 Taylor was touring the world with jazz’s greatest violinist, Stephane Grappelli, and had been playing guitar for 23 years, 15 of them professionally. Any guitarist playing with the late Grappelli was essentially stepping into the shoes of Django Reinhardt, the violinist’s legendary partner in the 1930s and ’40s. But, having toured with Steph, off and on, for 11 years, recording more than 20 albums together, Taylor’s tenure is actually the longest of any Grappelli guitar player.
When Vintage Guitar last interviewed Taylor in 1996, Tone Poems II, his collection of duets with mandolinist David Grisman, was a recent release; he was working on Masterpiece Guitars with Steve Howe, utilizing rare guitars from the Scott Chinery Collection; and his newest solo CD was Portraits, featuring three duets with Chet Atkins.
The decade since has been his most prolific. His group, Spirit Of Django, recorded two CDs, including tracks featuring Grappelli, who died in 1997, at age 89. Taylor’s trio, Gypsy Journey, recorded a self-titled CD, and he and Grisman released a blowing ensemble session, I’m Beginning To See The Light.
Taylor also toured with and appeared on five albums by former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings, and teamed with flamenco great Juan Martin, folk singer/guitarist Martin Carthy, and eclectic fingerstylist Martin Simpson, as Martins4 – releasing a live CD and DVD. He continues to perform with Simpson in Guitars3, with Neil Stacy.
Further, he recorded a CD of duets with Australian musicians, Two’s Company, and formed an as-yet unrecorded configuration, Le Nouveau Trio Gitane, with Christian Escoude and David Reinhardt, Django’s grandson. Martin Taylor In Concert, an unaccompanied live date from ’97, was released on CD and DVD. He recorded two ensemble albums for Sony, Kiss & Tell and Nitelife, but his most recent CDs, Solo and The Valley, amply illustrate why Pat Metheny declared, “Martin Taylor is one of the most awesome solo guitar players in the history of the instrument. He’s unbelievable.”
The highpoint of the latter, and in concert, is his original “Kwami,” in which he imitates a team of African drummers, playing five independent parts in a polyrhythmic display that would seem impossible for one guitarist to pull off.
Along with a couple of method books, several instructional DVDs, and organizing an annual guitar festival, he was featured in the documentary “Stephane Grappelli: A Life In The Jazz Century,” and managed to find time to recount his life in music in Martin Taylor: Autobiography Of A Travelling Musician (Sanctuary). First published in 2000 (when Taylor was all of 44), it was recently issued in paperback to include such updates as his Honorary Doctorate from the University of Paisley, in Scotland (1999), and the Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) he received from Queen Elizabeth in 2002, “for Services to Jazz Music.” A year later, he was awarded the Pioneer To The Life Of Nation, also by Her Majesty, for his Guitars For Schools charity.
The book is both poignant and side-splitting, and anyone who has read it could tell that the now-famous, outrageous tour rider attributed to him, which made the internet rounds, was indeed legit – albeit tongue-in-cheek, and pulling no punches (at promoters, fans, and even some fellow musicians).
In the early ’80s, Taylor considered moving to America, where many jazz and guitar aficionados are still just discovering him. “David Grisman asked me to join his band several times,” he explains. “And I was being offered all kinds of work in the U.S. My decision not to move was because I didn’t think it was fair to drag my wife and kids thousands of miles away to a foreign country, where they had no family support or friends. Kids should always come first. I can honestly say it was definitely the right decision and never harmed my career. I’ve been spoilt by the relative success I’ve enjoyed over the past 15 years or so, and I’ve got used to the good life. I still have a farmhouse in Scotland, but I now live mostly in France. I own horses, enjoy fine wines, and have a wife who has more shoes than Imelda Marcos! The fact that there are Americans out there who are only just discovering me, 33 years and 87 albums later, is actually very exciting. I think it’s fantastic being an overnight success after all these years.”
Vintage Guitar: Your family’s heritage is Scottish, but you grew up in Bath, England, correct
Martin Taylor: My family heritage is a mixture of English, Irish, Scottish, and Romany Gypsy. On my father’s side, my grandmother was a Scottish Traveler and my grandfather was an English Romany gypsy.
Until I read your book, I wasn’t familiar with the term “Travelers.” Does it connote people who lived a certain lifestyle or had a certain ancestry?
In Britain, Traveler is the general term used for gypsy. Travelers are a nomadic race; it has nothing to do with lifestyle. You cannot become a Traveler; you’re born one – it’s ancestry. Some people think if they adopt a nomadic lifestyle, traveling in a caravan, they can somehow “become” a Gypsy/Traveler. Well, I could buy a Chinese restaurant, but I’ll never be a Chinaman. Albert Lee comes from the same background as me.
There seem to be almost “rules” as to how most of the Gypsy-style guitarists play – all downstrokes, the position of the picking hand, etc. Do you subscribe to any of that when you play in that style?
One of the reasons I never really got deeply involved playing Gypsy jazz is for that very reason – just too many rules. It’s wonderfully evocative, passionate, and exciting music, but I find playing within the boundaries of that style too restricting. I want to create rather than re-create. With my group, Spirit of Django, we play music that allows us to flow over those boundaries while retaining the spirit of the music in a contemporary way. I’m really happy that the music has become so popular in the States over the past few years, and I’m excited that there are so many great players out there keeping it alive.
I owe everything to Django, but right now I’m having too much fun exploring other things on the guitar, particularly solo playing.
I attended a fascinating workshop by John Jorgenson. His knowledge of Django’s music was amazingly impressive – figuring out how Django must have fingered passages, able to play solos note for note. Did you ever go through a period of learning solos note for note?
John is an amazing guitarist. I love his playing. When Stephane and I recorded “Undecided” together in Paris a year or two before he died, we recreated the original recording from the 1930s. That’s my favorite musical moment with Stephane, but that’s only time I ever learnt a Django solo note for note. It was something I just wanted to do for fun, and Steph got a kick out of it, too. He was brilliant. As a kid I used to learn little phrases that Django played but never had the attention span to sit down and study. I don’t have a particularly analytical mind. Whenever I try to practice, within 10 minutes my eyes glaze over and I start to lose the will to live.
You play Django festivals, but you don’t seem to confine yourself to Django’s repertoire. Do you purposely avoid the Gypsy style in those settings?
I just play the way I play. Some people like it, which is great; some people don’t, which is fine, too. I only play the music that I want to play – which means if I like a Nora Jones tune, like “Don’t Know Why,” then I’ll play it no matter what the gig is. Fortunately, most people coming to hear me know what I do, so I’m not under any pressure to play something to fit the gig.
What’s your main electric archtop?
My guitars are built by Mike Vanden, in Scotland. I play the Martin Taylor Artistry, which Mike and I designed together. I have two of them. It’s a small, 15″ archtop, fitted with Mike’s pickup blend system, which comprises a magnetic pickup and piezo. I also use a Milab microphone on the guitar both in the studio and on live concerts. I don’t use or even own an amp; I always DI. I use Elixer Nanoweb Strings, .012 to .052. I play fingerstyle 95 percent of the time, but have been known to pick up a Jim Dunlop Gator Grip pick in anger on a few occasions. [Ed. Note: Mike Vanden details: "Artistry Number 2 is different, being more robust to cope with Martin's international schedule, is X braced, and uses the current Mimesis jazz blend pickup system. Number 1 is fitted with a prototype preamp. The acoustic sound of Number 2 is rounder and smoother than 1. The top is spruce on all Artistry guitars, as they are designed to perform as acoustic instruments. For the Artistry, I buy the Fishman elements and build them into my own piezo bridges. Martin had a good deal of input into the Artistry. I was surprised initially when he wanted to go for a 15" body, but, when he explained his reasoning - lightweight and easy to play standing - it made sense. The design has not changed at all up to the present, apart from the X bracing option, which I think is a tribute to Martin's design input."]
What type of acoustic do you use, for instance, on the Gypsy album with Spirit Of Django? Do you own a Selmer copy?
On the Spirit of Django albums, I played a Yamaha AEX; I can’t remember which model it was. It had a round hole in the middle and was just an inexpensive factory model with no modifications, but it worked fine. I owned a 1935 Selmer Maccaferri D-hole guitar many years ago. It was beautiful, but I lost it. Don’t ask me how; it’s something I don’t like to talk about. All I do know is that it’s now in good hands. [Ed Note: Martin and Vanden also co-designed the single-cutaway, roundhole Martin Taylor Gypsy model.]
Do you still have the W.G. Barker arch-top? What do you know about its builder?
Yes, I would never part with it. It was a twenty-first birthday present from Ike Isaacs. I got to know Bill Barker and his brother Jack, and visited them several times in Peoria, Illinois. He made some fine instruments, but never achieved the acclaim he deserved. (Ed. Note: Martin’s Barker is a 1964, built in Toledo, Ohio. Bill Cook, who apprenticed under Barker and bought the shop in 1987, estimates that Barker made approximately 120 guitars. He says, “We manufacture the same style guitar, but now under the Cook Guitar logo.” He adds that Barker typically used Sitka spruce for the soundboard, with curly maple back and sides, and a five-piece neck lamination of curly/flamed/bird’s eye maple with two center laminates of walnut and one of maple. The pickup is a DeArmond 1100.)
I don’t know how old instruments need to be to be “vintage,” but I also own a 1935 D’Angelico Excel, a 1929 Martin 000-45, a 1925 Gibson L-4 Eddie Lang Model, an Epiphone Deluxe from 1935, and a ’58 Clifford Essex of London. I’ve got two Gibson A-style mandolins – a 1918 and a 1908 “Plain” A-style.
Did Grappelli have any preference as to whether his guitarists played acoustic or electric, what type of tone they got, etc., or did he leave you to your own devices?
When I first played with Stephane, I played the Barker acoustically into a microphone. After a while I decided it was too much like hard work, so I sneaked a Polytone Mini Brute amp under my seat, and for quite a while he didn’t even notice that I’d plugged in. Eventually, he commented on how much he liked my sound and was amazed that it was electric. Stephane never told me what or how to play. He was always open to suggestions, and every member of the group contributed to the musical arrangements.
How did you get the gig with him?
I first met Stephane in 1975, when Ike Isaacs was working with him. In 1979 I got a call from Stephane’s bass player, saying he’d recommended me for a short tour of France and Belgium. I did the tour, and Steph liked my playing and asked me to play on a U.S. tour. On that first tour I decided to ask Stephane if he could give me any advice. He said, “Yes. Never tell your wife where you keep your money.” Those were his only words of guidance to me; I wish I’d listened to him.
Let’s talk a bit about Ike Isaacs. Was he an influence as a player or just as a person?
Both. I met Ike in 1975 when I was opening for Barney Kessel at the 100 Club in London. As a kid, I used to listen to him on the radio when he was the guitarist in the BBC Radio Show Band, and also on BBC Guitar Club. I also saw him on British TV with Stephane, so I was thrilled to meet him that night. We got talking after the show and he invited me over to his house the next day.
Ike came from Burma, and when I arrived at the house his wife Moira had made the most fantastic Burmese fish curry. We had this delicious meal, then Ike and I went into his front room and he picked up his guitar and started to play and explain things to me. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing; I’d never heard anything like it. Suddenly I realized that for the past 15 years I’d just been pretending to be a guitarist and it was now time for me to start working at it. That was the beginning of my musical education.
Too proud to ask him for lessons, I offered him a weekly gig with me on a Thursday night playing guitar duets in a pizza restaurant. To my amazement, he accepted. So we used to meet at his house regularly and work on arrangements, then do the gig every Thursday. What an education – and I was being paid to be his student!
We then started doing radio broadcasts for the BBC and quite a few jazz club gigs around the country. Ike loved it. He’d been a studio musician for over 25 years, so playing in public was a real novelty. I loved it because I was getting to hang out with this old guitar master and fascinating bloke. I would hang on to his every word, like I was hearing the meaning of life from the wisest guru on earth.
But Ike wasn’t only teaching me about music; he was teaching me about philosophy, religions, languages, how to lead one’s life, you name it. I’m truly thankful for meeting him, and everything he did for me. I miss him and still think about him every day.
I assume you’re the first British jazz guitarist to receive an MBE. What was that ceremony like?
I’m not the first jazz musician to receive an MBE from the Queen, but I am the first, and only, jazz guitarist. It was an amazing experience. Going to my investiture at Buckingham Palace was a mind-blowing, surreal experience. It was like being in one of those strange dreams you have if you’ve eaten hot chili beans and chocolate ice cream covered in cheese sauce just before going to bed.
This may sound like a joke, but, honestly, this is exactly what happened. I’m standing in the State Room at Buckingham Palace and somebody announces, “Her Majesty The Queen.” There was a sudden trumpet fanfare. I remember thinking, “Wow, I didn’t know the Queen could play the trumpet!”
To cut a long story short, a bunch of those guys you see on the front of gin bottles marched into the room carrying spears, which made me realize pretty serious stuff was going on here. The Queen followed in, wearing a blue dress and carrying a matching handbag. She placed her handbag on the throne, and a very posh guy with too many last names called my name. I walked towards the throne; bowed to the Queen; she pinned on my medal; then told me how much she loved Stephane Grappelli’s music and that she had all the Hot Club of France records. She shook my hand; I bowed again; I walked out the front gates of Buckingham Palace and straight into The Old Nellie Dean, my favorite pub in London, where my sons had a pint of frothing English ale waiting for their dear, old, newly honored dad.
The whole experience left me asking myself two very important questions: 1. What does the Queen of England carry in her handbag? and 2. Why does the Queen of England carry a handbag?
Who would you list as your major influences?
Ike was my major influence, because I was so close to him. Barney Kessel had a big influence on me; we toured together a lot in the ’80s. Also, Herb Ellis was very good and encouraging to me when I was young. I think George Van Eps was one of the most beautiful guitarists. Tal Farlow blew me away the first time I heard him; I was fortunate to work with him, too. I was also fortunate to work with Joe Pass, who obviously had a big impact on me. Joe and I were planning to make an album together, but sadly he passed away – such a great loss to jazz guitar.
One of my guitar heroes is Ralph Towner – a wonderful musician. Pat Metheny is a genius. George Benson is the greatest straight-ahead jazz guitarist in the world. My God, this list could go on forever. Buy Maurice Summerfield’s book, The Jazz Guitarists; they’re all in it! I love Jim Hall, Jimmy Rainey, Wes, Charlie Christian, Teddy Bunn, Carl Kress, Eddie Lang, Dick McDonough, John Abercrombie, Bireli Lagrene. And Django should be in there somewhere.
Even prior to “Kwame,” you were one of a select few guitarists I can think of who could keep three parts going at once – melody, comping, and bassline. When and how did you start experimenting with that?
I can’t remember when it started; it was such a long time ago, and it developed very slowly. I’d always been fascinated by the guitar as a complete, self-contained instrument, like the piano, so quite early on I started to listen to piano players more than guitarists, particularly Art Tatum. Again, Ike opened my eyes to the possibilities, and steered me in the direction of George Van Eps and Lennie Breau.
“Kwame” came about when I was touring in Ghana, West Africa. I was imitating the way five or six drummers play parts that seemingly are unrelated to each other until they are all played together. It was just a groove. In fact, it was a groove in search of a melody, so I tagged on an Earl Klugh tune called “Kiko” for a while. Eventually, I came up with my own tune and recorded it on The Valley. It just evolved over the years, and is still evolving.
When you were last interviewed by VG, you had just recorded the Masterpiece Guitars album with Steve Howe and the Chinery guitar collection. Why did it take until 2003 for that CD to be released?
Well, after Steve and I recorded it, I think Scott kind of lost interest in the project. Which surprised us, as he was so enthusiastic about it. Every so often I would hear a rumor that it was going to be released, but nothing happened. Then came the terrible news that Scott had died. I really thought the CD would never be released, but there was a limited-edition release of 1,000. Following that, my son and manager, James, released it on his label (p3music.com).
The two albums for Sony seemed aimed at more of a “smooth jazz” audience than the rest of your catalog. Was that a conscious effort on your part, or something that Sony was looking for?
I never aimed them at the smooth jazz audience. I don’t like smooth jazz; it bores the s*** out of me. On the albums, I included a few instrumental versions of “pop” tunes that included lots of blowing on them. Sony edited some of those tracks for the smooth jazz market, which meant they just took all the jazz out. It was like being castrated. I hated what they did to it.
Tell us about your Kirkmichael International Guitar Festival.
I started the festival in 1999. Kirkmichael is a small village in southwest Scotland, near my house. I wanted to put something back into this community that’s been so good to me over the years. We started out with a tent on the village green that seated 300 people, and over the years it’s just got bigger and bigger, and has now become a major event in Scotland. We now attract over 5,000 people over the weekend. I also started a charity called Guitars For Schools, which buys guitars and provides tuition for all the schools in the area. We’ve bought over 100 guitars for kids so far.
Guitarists who have played there over the years include Tommy Emmanuel, Bob Brozman, Woody Mann, Alex de Grassi, Bobby Cochrane, Albert Lee, Muriel Anderson – so many great players from every musical style imaginable. The festival generates over $1 million to the local economy, and is always the last weekend of May.
Can you name a few guitarists you’ve felt a special connection with, either jamming or as part of the same group?
Emily Remler was wonderful. We toured together several times. I loved working with Ralph Towner, and I’m currently working a lot with Martin Simpson. We really connect together despite our different styles. I’ve also worked with the 17-year-old jazz guitarist Julian Lage. I met him when he was 13 years old. He played great even then, and he’s now turning into a real giant player. He’s touring as part of Gary Burton’s Generation Band. Julian and I plan to make a duo album together sometime in 2006.
In your book, there’s a picture of you and Jeff Beck together onstage. How did that come about, and what was it like?
Jeff and I met at the Royal Festival Hall in London a couple of years ago. I was a guest with Bill Wyman’s band. I was talking to Ronnie Wood and Charlie Watts backstage, and Ron told me that Jeff wanted to meet me. I’d been a huge fan of Jeff’s for many years and was amazed to hear that he was really into my playing – or that he’d even heard of me! Anyway, Jeff came along to one of my concerts, and we played “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” together.
I sometimes go to Jeff’s house, and we have a jam in his studio. We’re planning on a recording project together. I hope we get to do it.
How did you come to join Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings?
I can’t remember when I first worked with Bill; it was actually before he formed the Rhythm Kings. He would get me into the studio once in while to play over some pre-recorded tracks, and kept threatening to put this band together. I think it was probably around 1997 at Jimmy Page’s old studio. He would get different guitarists in for different styles. I played on the jazzy tracks, and Albert Lee played on a lot of them and was also a Rhythm King. Mick Taylor played on a few, as did Chris Rea, Eric Clapton, and George Harrison. I first toured with the Rhythm Kings in 1999. I was on five of the albums, but I’ve never actually heard any of them.
Albert Lee, Terry Taylor and I were the guitarists. Sometimes Peter Frampton or Andy Fairweather-Low played. Guitar duties depended on the tune. I was featured on the jazz and blues tunes, and Albert played on anything that was more country or rock and roll. Albert and I used to duel on “Tear It Up,” but he used to beat the musical crap out of me every night. I can’t play that stuff!
Your infamous tour rider took on a life of its own on the Internet. First, can you confirm that you actually wrote that – and how did it come about?
Yes, that’s me. Unfortunately, someone cleaned it up by taking out all the swear words and deleting the really funny bits, because they thought Americans wouldn’t understand it. The original is the best. My needs are actually very simple, but I was getting fed up with promoters not reading my very simple and unassuming rider, so I made up this outrageous one. I wrote it on a flight from Tokyo to London. I got the idea from a band that insisted that an oil drum painted in a certain shade of red be on center stage when they arrived at the venue. The oil drum served absolutely no purpose but to inform the band if the promoter had actually bothered his ass to read the rider. I played at Yoshi’s [in Oakland] a couple of years ago, and the promoter actually went to great lengths to provide all the stuff on the rider. What a great guy!
When you decide to add a song to your repertoire, how analytical is your thinking? Do you work out entire arrangements, just a basic outline, completely wing it, or what?
I’m not at all analytical. My brain just doesn’t work like that. Sometimes before a gig I just imagine in my mind that I’m playing the most amazing stuff, and that gives me ideas. I don’t work too much on arrangements; they just evolve over a period of time. I’m never conscious of technique; in fact, most of the time I’m not even conscious that I’m playing a guitar. There have even been times onstage when I haven’t been conscious at all, but that’s another story.
Your tone is more “complete” than a lot of jazz guitarists, electrically or acoustically. Unlike some jazzers, you’re not afraid of having some highs. What do you strive for in terms of tone?
Purity, warmth, and breath. You’ve got to make the tone breathe.
What’s your next project?
I just finished working on a BBC TV documentary about Gypsy music, culture, persecution, and prejudice – “What The Gypsies Did For Us.” I have a new double CD out soon, The Best of Martin Taylor, which includes tracks from 1978 to 2004. It’s now released in Europe and Japan on The Guitar Label, and a U.S. and Canada release is planned for early 2006. And I’ve got a very exciting recording project that will be launched on my fiftieth birthday, next year. Unfortunately, I’ve been sworn to secrecy, and if I told you I’d have to kill you.
For more information on the Kirkmichael International Guitar Festival, visit kirkmichael.org.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Jan ’06 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.