Review: John Taylor Octet at Cheltenham

John Taylor, Geneva 2005
Photo Credit: Juan Carlos Hernandez
John Taylor Octet
(Arena, Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 6th May 2012. Review by Jon Turney)


Here was a BritJazz event worth settling in for at the unnatural hour of 1.15 p.m. John Taylor, one of the great UK players who came up in the 1960s and 1970s, has built a solid international career since then without ever quite getting famous. To celebrate his 70th birthday, he gave us a festival commission from BBC Radio 3, performed by the band of his choice.

Not for the first time, he turned to Kurt Vonnegut Jr. for inspiration (come to think of it, he looks a little like the late writer these days as well). This time, the text was Harrison Bergeron, an early brief satire on the perils of enforced egalitarianism in which the talented are officially handicapped. It is pretty heavy-handed, by Vonnegut’s standards. The music, fortunately, wasn’t.

The text is dark, with flashes of humour, but Taylor presented a suite of mostly pretty jaunty pieces. Bass, trombone and tuba (Chris Laurence, Henning Berg and Oren Marshall) gave the sound a nice density, and Taylor gave free rein to the more rhythmic, percussive side of his playing and writing. There were excellent solos from those four, and from Chris Batchelor on trumpet, and especially generous helpings of saxophonist Julian Arguelles. The latter, whose work with Taylor goes back more than 20 years, just goes on getting better – he is certainly one of the world’s finest saxophonists nowadays, whether on tenor or soprano. A lustrous tone, complete command of the horn, clever dynamics, lines that are somehow simultaneously sinuous and springy: all combined with real emotional force.

Family support came from sons Leo on drums and Alex on guitar and, in a couple of brief scene-setting moments, on vocals. These were surprisingly affecting, the second introducing a lovely song theme which had echoes for me of Kit Downes’ recent ballad Skip James. Other influences abounded, but there seemed a definite nod to Kenny Wheeler in one of the mid-set pieces’ lilt. By then, Taylor was on a roll, his inspiration seeming to feed off the audience, the band and the occasion in the best possible way. I don’t think I’ve heard him play better.

There was real drama in the following piece, cued by the climax of the story (an execution), a reprise of the opener, then a genuinely festive encore. No boundaries were stretched at any time, but there was any amount of confident, carefully crafted music, played with huge enjoyment by all. Jazz on 3 will be broadcasting the gig on May 14th. I’ll be listening.

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