For a quarter of a century, the James Taylor Quartet have set the standard for the coolest sounds in funky acid jazz. On dozens of mighty albums and at their legendary gigs at home and around the world, they’ve quietly become a byword for distinguished British creativity. But the great artists never let the grass grow under their feet, and now James Taylor’s impassioned musical curiosity has led to the most ambitious and exciting project in JTQ’s illustrious history. Allow us to introduce the new album ‘Closer To The Moon,’ the like of which you’ve never heard — because in addition to their infectious trademark stylings, the quartet have brought together the worlds of jazz and classical music in a brilliant and unexpected marriage.
From the moment the metronome counts in at the top of ‘Tick Tock’ until the conclusion of the typically atmospheric, filmic title tune, ‘Closer To The Moon’ is a unique listening experience and a career landmark. Not to mention that it sports James’ first-ever lead vocal performance on ‘Closer To You’ and the little matter of a Beethoven piano sonata.
On ‘Closer To The Moon,’ released on his own Real Self label, Taylor’s trusty Hammond and the group’s ever-alluring horns are not content with delivering a range of juicy new jazz flavours. Throughout the record, they’re also conversing with a wild array of classical instrumentation, including celeste, vibes, harp, zither, gong, glockenspiel, even tubular bells, many of them custom-built for the bandleader. “I’ve been into classical music for a long time,” says Taylor. “It must have the fire to be really good, and when it does, it’s just amazing. You want it to explode the same way you want a Charlie Parker solo to explode, and very often it does.”
The follow-up to 2011’s acclaimed ‘The Template,’ the album was inspired by James’ life-changing opportunity to play the organ at the Royal Albert Hall, at the invitation of his longtime friend and collaborator Nitin Sawhney. These guys go back so far, they were at school and in their first band together at 15. “We were always in the music rooms at school messing about with ideas,”James remembers. Sawhney was a touring member of JTQ before his solo career beckoned, then Taylor produced Nitin’s debut album, way back in 1990, with the future Anglo-Indian star’s first band the Jazztones.
“About two years ago, Nitin asked me to play the organ [The Sound of Jupiter, as it’s widely known] at the Albert Hall. It was for a 16-minute piece of his that was commissioned by them especially to reawaken interest in that particular instrument.” For Taylor, this was a dream come true. “I was given several days to acquaint myself with the organ, I had the whole Albert Hall to myself and I spent the time blasting away at this incredible instrument. The sound was so powerful, it dwarfed any accompanist, and it was extremely beautiful. The purity of tone took my breath away. I thought wow, I’ve had a lifetime in music, and
I’ve just discovered something about the beauty of tone. “I was profoundly nervous to perform the piece in front of a sellout crowd, and then Nitin introduced me as ‘The UK’s finest organist,’ so no pressure!
Anyway, it went well, and I found the experience genuinely life-changing. I started a love affair with orchestral sounds, particularly those generated by metal, like celeste, vibes, glock, gong and tubular bells.” After that, there was no stopping him. “I commissioned a new studio to be designed and installed at my house, and I also commissioned an orchestral master craftsman to build for me a set of bells and vibes. I commissioned Yamaha to build me a new celeste, I sourced a harp and a zither, and set about writing this new album, setting the Hammond in among these more classical settings. “I thought ‘There’s something here to be joined together,’ and I realised it’s not something that’s been massively done. The jazz label CTI released bits of the Brandenburg Concerto played by Hubert Laws, and there’s some funk things in the ’70s which were classical but really commercial. But to do both things in a serious way, there’s been no real bridge between those two worlds, because they just look in such different directions. It’s really
interesting.” The vocal track ‘Closer To You’ marks the first time that Taylor has recorded himself as a lead singer. It grew out of the haunting ‘Closer To The Moon,’ which John Barry himself would have been proud of. “That particular piece of music lends itself to a baritone,” says Taylor. “Slightly weird and spooky, with lots of reverb. I don’t know who else I’d have used to do a baritone,” he laughs, “apart from Frank Sinatra.” Taylor has always been completely his own man, the dark horse who sings in his local Rochester Choral Society and has an entirely separate life as a psychotherapist. It was 1986 when the first Quartet coalesced after the demise of psychedelic mod scenesters the Prisoners. Notice of their dexterity in updating the cinematic jazz sound of the ’60s and ’70s, from spy themes to freeform jazz, was duly served with the debut single ‘Blow Up,’ followed by the ‘Mission Impossible’ EP. John Peel was soon offering a Radio 1 session.
The ensuing quarter-century has produced a bulging catalogue of remarkable albums and show-stopping gigs that continue to see JTQ in hot demand everywhere from Ronnie Scott’s to Rome. Along the way, there’ve been chart entries (notably the 1993 hit ‘Love The Life’ featuring Noel McKoy and the parent album ‘Supernatural Feeling,’ both of which nestled in the top 40), a MOBO Award nomination for 1998’s ‘Whole Lotta Live,’ and guest appearances by James with everyone from the Pogues and Manic Street Preachers to Tom Jones’ multi-platinum chart-topper ‘Reload.’ In a career that has embraced jazz, soul, rock, funk and often tipped its hat to classic detective and action movie soundtracks, JTQ delivered their own filmic moment in 1997, contributing ‘Austin’s Theme’ to the score album for ‘Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.’ In 2007, the band completed their full-scale Motown tribute, ‘Don’t Mess With Mr. T,’ featuring guest vocalists Omar, Hil St. Soul and Donna Gardier.
The same year brought both the spinoff project James Taylor’s 4th Dimension and a Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Award nomination for JTQ. That attraction to film music is deep-rooted in Taylor, who still marvels at such timeless images as the opening scene in ‘The Italian Job,’ where an Alfa Spider speeds through the Italian Alps to the accompaniment of Quincy Jones. “It’s the excitement of dealing with music that creates that sort of luxurious feeling.” he says. “And I find I don’t need to go to the ltalian Alps to do it.” So let’s hear it for a band well past their first quarter-century but still finding new challenges to meet, new peaks to climb. 2013 is looking like another vintage JTQ year. “What interests me at the moment is combining those two disparate directions of jazz and classical music,” enthuses Taylor, “because there is a point at which they meet, and exploiting that creates
such an excitement on stage. There’s something to kick against.”