Martin Taylor, The BlueShore at CapU, Jan. 12, 8 p.m. Tickets: $38/$35 (capilanou.ca).
The guitarist was selling off his guitars.
Since 1979, British jazz musician Martin Taylor had been consistently touring with legendary violinist Stéphane Grappelli when a French tour date during the ’80s almost changed everything.
“He didn’t feel very well, so we went back to Paris and he went to see his doctor. I went back home to Scotland and I then found out he’d had a heart attack,” Taylor tells the North Shore News from the road while touring the U.S. “We had a U.K. tour lined up after that, and a U.S. tour, and so they were all cancelled. … I was looking at an empty diary, basically.”
Taylor was at a loss. Not only had his friend and mentor suffered a serious medical blow, but Taylor, who was only in his 20s at the time and had been playing professionally since he was a kid, found his livelihood under threat as well.
“I was struggling for a bit there. I was selling off guitars and things just to keep going. I didn’t have that many, but I got down to the last one and it got down to the point where I thought, What am I going to do here?”
With his faith in the music business waning, Taylor decided on a course of action those groomed in the relative safety of group performance are often reluctant to undertake: set off as a solo performer.
He connected with numerous grassroots promoters he knew in a bid to land solo slots in Europe and was met handily along the way with numerous rejections.
“All of the promoters said, ‘No. No one’s going to sit and listen to solo guitar. Come and play with a band and do something like that,’” he explains.
He persisted, and after finally getting a promoter to give him a shot at a solo guitar performance Taylor says he took inspiration from the folk scene’s penchant for storytelling when it came to time to crafting his all-important on-stage persona.
“They would talk about what they were playing and engage with the audience,” he says about the folksy, conversational nature of a folk gig. “I knew that I could engage the audience and I could make them laugh and tell stories. I knew I could connect all these tunes into telling a story. … A lot of jazz musicians they just get up and play.”
Decades after this solo performance revelation, Taylor will get up to play his guitar, bringing along with his trademark banter and stories from his more than five-decade career, to Capilano University’s BlueShore Financial Centre for the Performing Arts this Saturday.
“One of the things about playing solo is you’re kind of spoiled. You can just do what you want,” he says, adding this his set will likely feature many interpretations for guitar of the Great American Songbook.
“It was just such great music – Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jimmy Van Heusen – but then, I’m also a composer as well, so I play some of my own music too,” he says.
Taylor was born in 1956 in the working class town of Harlow, Essex. He came from a musical family – his father, William “Buck” Taylor, was a jazz bassist and working musician – and the younger Taylor, completely self-taught, was instantly drawn into a world of music.
“I can remember the first time I played a stringed instrument I was three years old and it’s one of my very earliest memories. My dad gave me a ukulele … and I was hooked immediately. I just felt that connection with music, and right from a very early age. I understood music, I got it.”
Taylor left school at age 15, in 1971, and set off as a professional musician, scoring many gigs playing village dances and weddings and “things like that,” he says.
He got a real crash course in performing a year later after he joined the orchestra band playing on the Queen Elizabeth 2 ocean liner, where he was compelled to perform night after night alongside veteran musicians, some 50 years his senior, he explains.
“We went to New York on the ship and then I spent six months on the QE2 and that was a real grounding for me because I wasn’t a formally trained musician, so I had to learn how to read music. We used to accompany cabaret acts and things like that,” says Taylor.
Taylor’s first true musical mentor was a guitar player by the name of Ike Isaacs, who connected with Taylor after seeing the young guitarist at a club in London while he was working an opening slot for American jazz great Barney Kessel.
“Ike came along and I was very interested in playing solo guitar, although I wasn’t really doing it at that time, I was just dipping my toe in the water,” he says. “I ended up just going around to his house all the time and just absorbing lots of things from him and then in a very short time we started working together.”
Isaacs also knew Stéphane Grappelli, who along with his longtime musical partner, guitarist Django Reinhardt, were largely responsible for forging the sound of early European jazz and Gypsy swing. When the chance came up to play with Grappelli in the late ’70s, Taylor couldn’t resist.
“I grew up with that,” says Taylor. “I was brought up with that music. … It wasn’t difficult for me when I played with Stéphane because I knew all the tunes.”
Taylor went on to play with Grappelli for 11 years and recorded more than 20 albums with him.
After decades of polishing his craft, Taylor has also built up his own steady collection of accolades. He has been awarded the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II, in addition to receiving a BBC lifetime achievement award. He has collaborated with the likes of Jeff Beck, George Harrison, Tommy Emmanuel, Bill Wyman, Chet Atkins and many more, with Acoustic Guitar magazine referring to him as “The acoustic guitarist of his generation,” while Pat Metheny has stated: “He’s one of the most awesome solo guitar players in the history of the instrument.”
In 2010 Taylor started teaching guitar in earnest and has since help created a reputable online guitar school and also found new ways to connect with new and old fans alike in the social media age using nothing but a video camera, a Patreon account, and his own affable disposition.
“I go up in the studio with a cup of tea, sometimes still in my pajamas, and I just record something and I put that up,” h e says, adding that his philosophy on music is that the least it can do is cause no harm to anyone, while “the best it can do, it can actually unite people and make the world a happier place.”
While Taylor was given his big shot through his association with Grappelli, he has always possessed his own musical voice as a collaborator and a solo artist. He continues to let it ring out.
“Stéphane didn’t want me to play like Django, he just wanted me to play the way I played.”