Guitarist Chris Taylor Interview
Seemingly from out of nowhere, New York-based guitarist-composer Chris Taylor has emerged after nearly 30 years on the scene with a brilliant, fully-realized first album as a leader. And though it’s been a long time in coming, Nocturnal may be the most auspicious debut of the year.
Reflecting the influences of such potent bands and composers as Weather Report, Pat Metheny, Tribal Tech and the Zawinul Syndicate, as well as such guitaristic icons as John Scofield, Bill Frisell and Allan Holdsworth. Taylor’s compelling album also stakes out strikingly original territory. Taylor is ably supported on his maiden voyage by a stellar crew featuring drummers Gary Novak, Dave Weckl, Joel Rosenblatt and Kirk Covington, keyboardists George Whitty and Scott Kinsey, bassists Ric Fierabracci and Gary Haase, and saxophonist Steve Tavaglione.
Jazz writer and author Bill Milkowski conducted a interview with guitarist-composer Chris Taylor on the eve of his Abstract-Logix debut, Nocturnal. As their conversation progressed, Milkowski realized that he had more in common with Taylor than he had imagined coming into the interview.
Bill Milkowski: Very impressive music. You’ve created this whole sound work on this project.
Chris Taylor: Thank you, man. That means a lot coming from you.
BM: I’m sure there’s a story behind it. I’m not really familiar with your playing. This is an introduction for me, and it’s quite a fully-realized debut.
CT: Thanks so much. I really appreciate that because I’m a fan of your writing. I loved your Jaco book [JACO: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius, Backbeat Books]. I was around the Village when Jaco was there and it really captured the vibe of those times.
BM: So you went to some of those gigs at the Lone Star?
CT: Yeah, I was around for some of those and the Bleecker Street clubs, and also the whole 55 Grand scene. Mike Stern and Jaco used to do duet gigs there. It usually sounded great, but man…The 80’s… it was scary.
BM: Yeah, that was a notorious place…affectionately known as 55 Grams.
BM: So if you’re telling me these stories, that means you’re not a new young kid on the scene, which is what I was expecting.
CT: No, no, I’m 50! I’m definitely no kid. I’ve been playing around New York, in the area, for most of my life. I went to Berklee way back in January of ’80 and was up there for three semesters. I ran out of money and decided I’d go gig for a while. And I ended up gigging for 20 years or so…never got back to school. And since then I’ve done just about every gig imaginable.
BM: 1980…was that when Kevin Eubanks was at Berklee?
CT: I didn’t know Kevin, but I used to hear his name. There were so many great musicians there it was hard to keep track. Branford Marsalis was in his last semester when I started. The first gig I saw after enrolling at Berklee was Branford playing with Billy Pierce and Alan Dawson. And I was like, Damn! These cats are serious up here! It was ridiculously swinging, inspiring and at the same time completely intimidating. And there used to be this great club called Michael’s where Mike Stern used to play at regularly before he was with Billy Cobham’s or the Miles’ band. Mike was already an amazing and completely developed player at that point. Boston was definitely a scene at the time.
BM: Was Steve Vai at Berklee then?
CT: I think it was Steve’s last semester and I remember he had a band called Morning Thunder, but I never caught them. He had a reputation as a player by the time I got there, this was just before he went to play with Frank Zappa. I probably saw him around, but I didn’t know who he was back then. I used to see Aimee Mann all the time. She lived on the same street as me and was always walking by with her bass.
BM: So here we are 30 years later and you’ve finally come up with your first record.
CT: Yeah. It’s the first record under my own name. I’ve written for other people and I’ve played some of my material with some of the groups I have gigged with over the years…. I guess I never really thought of myself as a leader, even though I’ve been writing music since I was fairly young.
BM: Some of this material on the new record is very cinematic. It really paints a picture for me…not your typical AABA forms. It’s a real musical journey.
CT: Thank you. I definitely go for the more through-composed approach. Weather Report is one influence in that regard. Cinematic is a good description of what I am trying to do. Movies are not in an AABA form. I tend to stay away from that type of structure for the most part. I prefer to let things develop organically, allow the music to expand and follow it’s own path without having to be so regimented in design. If I let the music go where it wants to I find it is always better for it.
BM: I hear that Weather Report influence on a couple of tunes, like Ear to the Rail and Odd Hours.
CT: Yeah, definitely. Ear to the Rail should probably be dedicated to Weather Report and Tribal Tech, another band that was a big influence on me. They were able to take that Weather Report vibe and make it into something uniquely their own. And their compositions were always great. That’s the thing I like about those bands, the writing was always so strong. The playing was amazing, but on top of that the compositions were just incredible. Those Weather Report discs…Night Passage and the others…still sound cutting edge today. People will be talking and listening to that music for a long time to come.
BM: Talk about what went into the making of this project? Was it conceived over a long period of time?
CT: The music was mostly written over the last two or three years as far as what made it onto the disc. I think what got me started was I was posting some of my music online and [guitarist-producer] David Torn heard some of it through a website called The Gear Page he contacted me through the site and was really encouraging. And coming from someone like David….I was floored. I have always had great admiration for his work. We eventually spoke both on the phone and in person and he mentioned that I should consider putting out a disc, that got me thinking about it. George Whitty was also prominent in pushing me towards doing a disc of my own. I’ve known George for a long time and we have worked together both live and in the studio over the years. He’s such a multi-talented musician with big ears and a great aesthetic. I have a serious respect for his opinion. And my experience with him is he doesn’t mince words. So when he would hear music I was working on and tell me that he dug it and thinks I should put it out, I listened. He also ended up sharing the mixing work with me on the recording and did the mastering. He really tightened the disc up sonically and played his ass off on all the tracks he was on.
BM: Where are you based now?
CT: I’m up in Westchester County. I live here with my wife in South Salem, near Katonah. We have a house here.
BM: That’s up in John Scofield country.
CT: Yeah he is up this way. I took some lessons with Sco in ’82 when he was still living in the city, at Westbeth. And it was funny because he kept telling me, Look, I might have to cancel you at the last minute. I got this weird gig and rehearsals come up real fast. And the next thing you know he’s playing with Miles. So then it all made sense.
BM: I can hear a little Sco influence in your playing.
CT: Yea, absolutely! He has always been one of my favorite players.
BM: Certainly on the first track, Voices in my Head.
CT: Yeah we are swinging during the guitar solo so his influence is probably more obvious. John has this kind of speaking quality in his playing that I dig, a conversational way of playing that stems from his phrasing and use of space. He is such a brilliant improvisor and a unique and prolific composer as well. I particularly like when he plays with Joe Lovano, they are a great pairing in my opinion, they both have that thing.
BM: Listening through your album, I did hear that Scofield influence a bit. But you also have this very nice legato quality happening, which made me wonder if Allan Holdsworth was also an influence on you.
CT: Oh, a huge influence! Anyone who plays electric guitar in any kind of modern improvisational setting has to be influenced by Allan. His originality alone should be an influence. I’ve definitely been inspired by his playing and have taken a page out of his legato book for sure. He is a genius, otherworldly.
BM: Tell me about that opening track, Voices in my Head. Who’s the soprano player on that?
CT: That’s Steve Tavaglione. We are planning on doing a disc together this year. A glitch jazz disc for lack of a better term. We get a nice blend when we play melodies together. He’s such a lyrical player. I’m sure you’ve heard him.
BM: Yeah, with Scott Kinsey’s band.
CT: Right, they play a lot together. He’s all over Kinsey’s record [Kinesthetics on Abstract Logix], and he has played with everyone and their brother at some point in his career. He has several records out as a leader as well. Steve’s plays saxophone in a way I really dig…great lyricism and depth. He’s has plenty of chops but his playing doesn’t rely on them.
BM: Who is the rhythm section on that first track?
CT: It’s Gary Novak on drums, George Whitty on piano and Ric Fierabracci on bass.
Ric is a great cat and bass player. We met through a recording project for another musician whom I was doing some writing and production for and I was really impressed with his sound and playing, so he was the first one I thought of for this track. He’s has a record with the drummer Joel Rosenblatt called Hemispheres, which is really great. Steve Tavaglione is on that disc , so Ric hooked me up with Steve and then through Steve I got introduced to Gary Novak. I can’t say enough about all the musicians on this project and what they brought to it.
BM: Ear to the Rail has that strong Zawinul influence going on.
CT: Yea, no doubt.. Joe has been a huge influence on me. I love how Zawinul seamlessly integrates different cultural elements into his music and no matter how dense he gets harmonically the groove is always so deep. On this track it’s Tracey Kroll playing E-drums …he plays an electric kit and does this cool improvised electronica looping thing. The keyboard player is a very talented friend of mine from Toronto named John Findlay. And the bass player is Kevin Freeby another monster player. It’s probably the oldest tune on the this disc, but I have always liked it’s vibe.
BM: The title track, Nocturnal, is a very evocative composition. Are you playing slide guitar on that?
CT: Yeah, it’s my Telecaster with a volume pedal and a long delay, trying to go for a steel guitar type of thing, kind of like the stuff that Greg Leisz does with Frisell. That was one of those stream of consciousness tunes that just I wrote and recorded in a few hours. I played the keyboards, bass and programmed the drums, and then later I got Joel Rosenblatt to come in and replace my programmed drums and also had Ric come in and redo my bass parts. I asked them to take more of a classical approach with this track and play it as written. The tune starts out in 3 and moves into 7/8 with a 3-2-2 pattern that I took advantage of in orchestrating all the different parts to give it that percolating thing it has. I’m real happy how that one came out.
BM: You mentioned Frisell. I hear a bit of that Frisell looping influence on the intro to the next tune, Know What I’m Saying.
CT: Totally….the backwards guitar loops..
BM: It goes into something else, but that solo guitar intro with the backwards loops reminded me of Bill.
CT: Both Bill and David Torn have influenced me with those type of sounds for sure. And that’s Gary Novak, Ric and Steve playing on that one. Scott Kinsey plays the synth solo at the end trading with Tav. Kinsey has such a unique and completely burning thing going on in his playing, he is truly one of a kind. Novak is bad dude! He’s such a technical monster but he’s got this organic kind of underpinning to everything he does that keeps it grounded. He gets that whole storm-type thing going on but it never feels like math, OK, now we’re subdividing 13 over 7. It just feels really natural.
BM: His playing on You Know What I’m Saying is particularly super-charged.
CT:Yeah, I left that section after the guitar solo really open for him to kind of improvise over. So basically the band is playing time for him through the hits and it’s just amazing what he played over the top of it. He really brought that tune to life.
BM: Green Divided by Blue is an interesting title.
CT: That’s actually the name of a Mark Rothko painting. He didn’t title anything for the most part but that was one he did, I think it was to reference it for a gallery. I’m an admirer of his art and I was inspired to try and write something tonally influenced by his work.
BM: When I heard that tune it somehow reminded me of that band that Mike Stern had in the ’80s with Bob Berg. You remember that group?
CT: Oh yeah, I saw them a bunch of times. They used to play at Mikell’s all the time. That was an amazing group. And Bob, man…he is missed. What a force of nature that guy was.
BM: So who is playing on this track?
CT: That’s Steve again, this time on Tenor, Joel Rosenblatt on drums, Ric Fierabracci on bass and George Whitty on piano. Ric played a beautiful bass solo on this. I had originally written this tune and some of the others for upright bass, but Ric has a unique way of capturing the quality of an acoustic bass with his electric fretless that worked really well in the ensemble sections.
BM: Next tune, All of Us, sounds like you’re doing some bluesy fingerstyle playing on the beginning of that one.
CT: Yeah, I actually play fingerstyle on a lot of the tunes. I go back and forth from the pick and fingers even when I am playing lines. I dig that sound. I get more snap and warmth with the fingers then I can get with a pick.
BM: And that’s sampled tabla on that one?
BM: It’s a very atmospheric piece.
CT: I debated including that tune on the disc, but I wanted to get something in there that showed that side of me, because I do write a lot of tracks like that as well… atmospheric remix kind of stuff. I listen to a lot of electronica music like Squarepusher and Venetian Snares. I really love what Prefuse 73 does too. I have pretty diverse listening habits and this tune is probably a product of them.
BM: And then you involve some spoken word stuff on the tune Bela.
CT: That’s Bela Lugosi from the movie Bride of the Monster the track is dedicated to him. There is spoken word all over the disc, it is something I like to use as a texture. I don’t use it in a random way, I generally hear a place where I want to put it as I am writing or mixing, often knowing exactly what spoken word sample I want to use. I ended up writing some hard changes to blow over on this track. I didn’t think they were difficult til I tried to play over them… That happens a lot to me with my own tunes. George played the synth solo of doom on that track… I wisely took the first solo.
BM: This piece Recluse is a very dreamy soundscape. I can hear slide guitar on this. And is that bass clarinet?
CT: Yes, that’s Steve playing bass clarinet and Gary Haase playing upright bass on there as well. I worked with Gary for years. He is a great musician and producer.
BM: A very cinematic piece.
CT: Thank you. That’s what I was going for…tell the story through the sound.
BM: Who is playing that amazing harmonica on this next piece, Here to There.
CT: That’s Steve Tavaglione on EWI wind synth with a harmonica patch.
BM: I thought it might’ve been one of those virtuoso cats like Gregoire Maret.
CT: Yeah, I first heard Steve use that sound on a Gary Willis record, and he also uses it on Kinsey’s record [Kinesthetics on Abstract Logix]. He plays beautifully with that sound, it is very natural. That’s Dave Weckl on drums on that track along with George Whitty and Ric Fierabracci.
BM: The last track, Odd Hours, has this Weather Report/Tribal Tech influence coming in again.
CT: It does. I also tried to go for a Jeff Beck approach there too, melodically. And that’s Kirk Covington on drums and Scott Kinsey on synth, which definitely helps push it into the Tribal Tech zone. Kirk has this beautiful loping quality to his playing that was perfect here. Scott Kinsey was the one who suggested Kirk for this track and for that very reason. Kirk plays in a very unique and soulful manner, he has a real identifiable sound and feel. Kinsey is such a brilliant musician, he is one of those cats when you bring up the fader on his track you never know what you are going to hear only that it will be deep and you would of never thought of it yourself. Tav’s soprano solo on this is my favorite moment of the whole record. The way he floated in and out of the orchestration in that section is a thing of beauty. I also brought in my composer/guitarist friend John Czjakowski in to play the baritone power chords of death you hear towards the end of the tune.
BM: Did you play various guitars throughout this recording?
CT: Yeah, I used bunch of ’em. I have a ’67 Strat I’ve had since I was young. I have a ’66 Telecaster I bought in high school for $30. I also played a borrowed Rick Canton Custom Guitar which I used on Know what I’m saying? and I broke out my Martin D-18 on a couple tracks as well. I am not that big of a gear head, mainly because I can’t afford to be. But I do spend a lot of time trying to get the best sounds I can with what I have.