by Ian Mann
February 02, 2021
Fans of the solo piano genre would do well to turn their ears in the direction of the supremely accomplished and increasingly distinctive Paul Taylor.
(New Jazz and Improvised Music Recordings – NEWJAiM2)
Paul Taylor – solo piano
This solo recording by pianist Paul Taylor is the second release on the Newcastle Upon Tyne based New Jazz and Improvised Music label established during 2020 by Wesley Stephenson.
The following paragraphs, extracted from my review of the label’s début release, “Calling” by Danish saxophonist Laura Toxvaerd, explains something of the story behind the imprint;
“It represents a pretty courageous move to to establish a new record label during the Covid pandemic, but this is precisely what Wesley Stephenson, who describes himself as its “Project Director” has done.
Stephenson is the curator of the annual Newcastle Jazz and Improvised Music Festival and the label represents a direct offshoot of this. The decision to establish a record label came about as the result of the cancellation of the 2020 Festival, which had been due to take place in late September / early October, but which was eventually reduced to just a couple of livestream performances.
Stephenson’s main objective with regard to the establishment of a label at this time was to offer a creative and economic outlet to musicians who had been denied live performance opportunities due to the pandemic.
The label set up was assisted by a successful Crowdfunder campaign and the new imprint is currently rolling out its first four releases.
An ethos of sustainability also informs the project with the label deploying a carbon neutral manufacturing plant and distribution network and using recycled and biodegradable materials wherever possible.
The new label plans to issue six releases between December 2020 and April 2021, with the first four currently available on its Bandcamp page;
In chronological release order the first four albums are;
Laura Toxvaerd – “Calling”
Paul Taylor – “Via” (solo piano)
John Pope Quintet - “Mixed With Glass”
Andy Champion and Graeme Wilson Duo - “Shoes For Losers”
I was initially inclined to publish a feature on the new label and to review all of the recordings as part of the same article.
On reflection I decided that it would be fairer to the musicians involved for the albums to be reviewed as separate entities, thus granting greater exposure to the individual artists.
As might be deduced from the name of the new label much of the music is at the more adventurous end of the jazz spectrum, with its roots in free jazz and the avant garde”.
Turning now specifically to this recording which was made possible with the support of Arts Council England plus a number of regional arts bodies based in the North
East, all of which receive appropriate credit as part of the album packaging.
Newcastle based Taylor is devoted to the art of improvisation, usually working as a solo acoustic pianist, but sometimes deploying electric keyboards such as mellotrons and synthesisers. Occasionally his recordings have included the contributions of guest musicians, such as saxophonist Faye MacCalman, on “Oneiric” from 2019, and vocalist Richard Phipps on “Axismundi” from 2018, the latter recorded live at St. Dominic’s Priory in Newcastle.
Taylor clearly enjoys recording in sacred spaces and his solo piano set “Wise Ghosts” was recorded at Durham Cathedral in 2019 and subsequently released in 2020.
“Cluj Concert” is the complete recording of an improvised solo piano performance for Transylvania Jazz Festival, at the Hungarian State Opera House and Theatre, Cluj-Napoca, Romania, on 6th November 2017. Indeed Taylor has established something of a following for his music in countries such as Romania and Slovenia. In the UK he has raised his profile with appearances at Manchester Jazz Festival and Stephenson’s own Newcastle Festival of Jazz and Improvised music.
A glance at Taylor’s own Bandcamp page https://paulstephentaylor.bandcamp.com/music will reveal that he has recorded prolifically in recent years with both full length albums and individual tracks available, mainly in the digital format.
In addition to the recordings mentioned above a number of other full length solo piano albums are available, among them “Altceva” (2019), “Quandaries” (20i6/17), “Cusps” (2016), “Anomalies” (2015) and “Askance” (2014). Meanwhile “Listopad” (2016) finds him exploring the possibilities of electric keyboards.
The majority of Taylor’s solo piano output was recorded at The Sage in Gateshead and the venue’s trusty Steinway was pressed into service again for “Via”, which was recorded at two separate sessions in 2019 and 2020.
“Via – Parts I – V” were recorded between March 16th and 19th 2020, just before the first Covid lockdown. The lengthy “Planare” was recorded at an earlier session at the same venue on March 14th 2019.
Taylor’s approach to solo piano improvisation is very much his own and draws heavily on the classical tradition, particularly with regard to harmonic complexities. However his playing also embraces the spontaneity and restlessness of jazz.
Extracts from an interview conducted by Martin Donkin (any relation to bassist Phil, one wonders) for TQ Magazine, reproduced as part of the album packaging, explains something of Taylor’s process;
“I do not think about how I am going to start, when I sit at the piano I can play any motif, I am experienced enough to know that I can work from there. Piano is a solitary instrument, piano works at its best when it’s unaccompanied, it is a very self-sufficient vocation. Playing solo, it is a bit of a high wire act”.
Taylor’s technical expertise is apparent throughout “Via I” which combines darting motifs and dense clusters of notes to create a surprisingly full sound as Taylor investigates the ‘orchestral’ possibilities of the piano, but does so without resorting to extended ‘under the lid’ techniques. Harmonic, tonal and dynamic variations keep the listener engaged as Taylor takes his audience on a voyage of discovery, varying the mood with the introduction of gentler, more lyrical passages alongside the more intense explorations.
The process continues through “Via 2”, which is arguably even more dramatic, with Taylor deploying his phenomenal, classically honed technique to create complex rhythmic patterns, deep sonorities and startling dynamic contrasts.
The seventeen minute “Planare” has previously been available as a digital track but is well worthy of its inclusion here. On this piece, more than ever, Taylor takes his listeners on a pianistic journey, the music consistently unfolding and again exploring a wide range of harmonies, rhythms, sonorities and dynamics. Lyrical and melancholic passages are effectively contrasted with intense low end rumblings as Taylor establishes a compelling narrative arc within the context of the improvisation.
“Via III” is the shortest improvisation on the recording and evokes an almost pastoral feel, strongly influenced by the classical tradition.
On “Via IV” Taylor adopts a more dynamic, percussive approach, the music full of bold, dramatic motifs, the intensity of the performance combining with Taylor’s superior technique to create music that is both powerful and compelling. However it’s not all hammer and tongs as Taylor subsequently introduces an element of balancing lyricism.
The album ends with “Via VI”, which concludes this series of improvised pieces with a beautiful and elegiac performance of almost hymn like solemnity.
As a piano improviser Taylor has shared stages with such maverick geniuses as Matthew Bourne and the late Keith Tippett. Taylor’s own approach is very different, more firmly rooted in classical traditions and techniques, but no less rigorous or exploratory for all that. Taylor’s technical ability, allied to a now well honed improviser’s instinct, allow him to make music that is consistently unfolding and which is capable of drawing in the attentive listener. There is no reliance on extended technique or gimmickry in Taylor’s music making, and it’s the single minded purity of his approach that helps to mark him out as ‘different’ in the world of improvised music.
I’ll level with you here, writing as a non-musician with no knowledge of music theory it isn’t always easy to describe solo piano music, but I hope I have managed to do some justice to Taylor’s artistry here. His approach to solo piano is very different to Keith Jarrett, the most famous exponent of the art form, and neither does he explore the world of extended technique and the avant garde. As a result he has developed a style that is very much own, an impressive blend of freedom, classical technique and self discipline.
“Via” won’t be for everybody’s ears, but in general it does represent a more accessible listen than the Laura Toxvaerd recording. Jarrett has helped to develop a substantial market for improvised solo piano performances and fans of the genre would do well to turn their ears in the direction of the supremely accomplished and increasingly distinctive Paul Taylor.
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