The way to listen to Martin Taylor is to relax your shoulders completely. I'm serious. I heard him the first time he visited Sri Lanka and bought the "Don't Fret" tape which is now almost worn through, I've played it so many times. Every time I hear that beautiful guitar sound of his I can't help but close my eyes and feel my stress leaving me. His brand of breezy, completely accessible, complex but not complicated jazz has lead him to be one of the most critically acclaimed as well as commercially successful jazz guitarists in the world. From Ayrshire, Scotland, he has been playing for as long as he can remember, ever since his dad, a professional bassist and band leader, him a guitar at the age of four years old. One of his long time dreams was fulfilled when, playing as an 11 year old with professional dance bands onboard the cruise liner Queen Elizabeth II, he got to play with the Count Basie Orchestra. In 1979, the acclaimed jazz guitarist Ike Isaacs introduced him to Stephane Grappelli - which lead to Martin Taylor stepping into the vacant spot left by the legendary guitarist Django Reinhardt for a long and fruitful collaboration. For the next decade Taylor played with Grappelli throughout the world. They recorded many albums together, including a recent duo collaboration. In 1980, Martin met David Grisman and the two became fast friends touring in the company of the great violin maestro. Martin also played on two Grisman recording projects, Dawg Grass/Dawg Jazz and Acoustic Christmas. On the album "Portraits" he collaborated with another legend, guitarist Chet Atkins on some memorable tracks about which Atkins said ""Martin Taylor is one of the greatest and most impressive guitar players in the world. I just love his playing. This association has been quite an honor for me." Since that time, Taylor has honed his impressive but never showy style on numerous recordings of his own. In 1994, he returned to ensemble playing with his group, Spirit of Django with whom he also visited Sri Lanka. I caught up with him while he was sound checking on a beautiful afternoon at the British Council (Ed. Note: The BC is a local library) and asked him a few questions.
You've been playing guitar professionally since you were 11 years old.
In fact the very first concert that I got paid for was when I was 8 and from about the age of 11,12,13 I was playing in bands - and when I left school at 15 and started playing on cruise ships and radio broadcasts.
Do you think you've missed out on your childhood at all?
(Laughing) No, I don't think I've even grown up, I'm still kind of having it. No I think it's because I was never forced to play, my father was a musician but he never forced me to pick up an instrument. It was because I wanted to do it and I carried on doing all the things like fishing that I liked doing when I was a kid. I did it really because I wanted to do it.
But is it easier for a young person to do that nowadays - leave school and go play music?
In some ways it's more difficult and in some ways easier - you can't leave school at 15 anymore and a lot of the kind of work that I did then isn't common anymore. But on the bright side, there are now music colleges where you can go and study jazz, which I couldn't do when I was young - there were only classical music colleges. Otherwise it wasn't considered serious - you had to pick things up as you go along. I had to be around professional musicians and see what they were doing.
What advice would you give to a young person wanting to start out now?
Play music just for the love of playing music. After all these years of playing professionally, I still do it for the love of music. Obviously I have to make sense of it financially, but I play because I love to do it. If there was something else I wanted to do, I would do it. So play music if you like doing it, get involved with other people who like doing it. If it comes to the point where you start getting paid money for it, then you kind of fall into being a professional musician. But don't do it because you want to be rich and famous - that's a kind of a by product that you might be fortunate enough to get but it shouldn't be the main reason.
While you were in Sri Lanka you attended a classical Indian music concert by Pradeep Ratnayake - does that kind of music interest you?
Yes, well we in the West were introduced to Indian classical music by Pandit Ravi Shankar, and I have a sitar at home - I was very ashamed to tell Pradeep that I had one because I can't play it - I couldn't even begin to figure out how to play it like he does. But Eastern music is close to jazz - or should I say jazz is very similar to a lot of Eastern music because of the element of improvisation, and you kind of have a group thing where you play off each other like the sitar and the tabla, which we also have in jazz. Except our music is a lot younger. And from my experience in this part of the world, people relate to our music too. But even in Europe and America, the average person will find it strange because its not really an overall sound - there's a lot of interplay that goes on and mores people don't hear that. But the ears of people in this part of the world are far more attuned to things like improvisation and interplay that are more subtle. Back home they hear the group sound more than anything else, which is why all the groups and musicians who have very wide success have had a band sound - from the Beatles to Glen Miller to the Stones.
And then you also had people like John McLaughlin, doing things with Indian rhythms and chord groupings. Has stuff like that influenced you?
I don't know whether it really influenced me in the sense that I have never played anything like that but certainly there is a very fine line between the two kinds of music.
Do you think that that is the next stage in the evolution of jazz, that kind of intermingling with different musical cultures?
Yeah, in Britain especially in the Midlands there is a bhangra revolution, in fact our sound man back home does most of his work with bhangra musicians. And that's very exciting music which I like very much but don't know very much about.But these musicians who are maybe third generation immigrants and they are as English as fish and chips but in many ways they've brought this wonderful musical culture and mixed it with what was there already.
But you've always swum in the kind of mainstream of jazz music?
I have really because that's where my background is, that's what I know best - but I have done a lot of other things as well. I've done an album in the states in 87 called "Sarabande" which was quite a big hit, which was a mixture of jazz and fusion and was pretty successful. But my background goes back deeply to that kind of music, and I feel that it hasn't really been explored completely. And I like to play it in a very contemporary way - even if I'm playing music from the thirties or forties, I still play it differently. It's not as if it's going back in time
What are your upcoming projects?
I spend a lot of time in the states now and I've just signed with the Tristan label in New York for three albums which will keep me busy for the next 3 years in the states. I'm very excited about that and a lot of that will be on the lines of "Sarabande". I spend a lot of the time playing solo and it's going to be interesting working with a lot of musicians. And I really have my choice as to who I want to work with. (Later on his son reveals that he is planning to collaborate with acclaimed bassist Ron Carter and legendary drummer Max Roach on an album called "The Three Bosses" - can't wait for that one)
Whose your dream team of musicians to play with?
I haven't decided as yet. But the producer of the album is David Hungate who is the bass player for Toto a very good friend of mine He'll play on it for sure. Paulino Da Costa who played percussion on "Sarabanda", I want to get him back again.
You've redone a couple of Chet Atkins tunes, you've played with Stefan Grappelli for years - who are the other people that you want to play with of that stature?
It's difficult because there aren't very many people of that stature. ! I was very fortunate that I got to work with Stefan when I was very young. And even though we don't play together very more, we still meet up every so often. I'll be playing his ninetieth birthday in January believe it or not. (pauses to think) Ninety, whew. And of course Stefan and Django that was music I grew up with and Chet Atkins was one of my first guitar heroes, so I've been very fortunate to play with these people.
What do you think about the new wave of jazz musicians like guitarist Ronny Jordan and saxaphone player Greg Osby - people who are mixing jazz with hip hop and street rhythms?
I think what its doing is keeping the music alive. Basically all that music is based on music that was around in the sixties, people like Jimmy Smith, which I was really into - but it wasn't hip then I was the odd one out. But now they've put hip hop rhythms to it and given it a whole new lease of life. I think it's great and I think anything which draws people into the music is a good thing. You can't come into jazz like any kind of music, you need something which will draw you in at a certain level. Stefan Grapelli bought a lot of people in from classical music who didn't normally listen to jazz. I find that I bring a lot of people in who just like the sound of the guitar
Finally your father was stationed here in Sri Lanka - is that one of the reasons that you come back so often?
It was after the second world war, my father was stationed here in Trincomalee and Diyatalawa these are all names that I remember as a kid. It seems to be a bit of a magnet here, and the BC has invited me here and I would be a fool to say no. But I love things like hoppers and katta sambol and I love it here and I hope to come back.