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Martin Taylor

September 1, 2010
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WHEN GP LAST SPOKE TO MARTIN Taylor in late 2008,he had just completed the swinging sextet outing Fraternity and Double Standards, an album of “duets” with himself. During the intervening months Taylor issued a DVD of the Fraternity sessions, produced and played on singer Alison Burns’ Kissing Bug, and released the third Martin Taylor’s Spirit of Django album Last Train to Hauteville [P3]. And in his spare time, while he wasn’t touring the globe, Taylor founded the wildly successful Martin Taylor Guitar Academy in collaboration with ArtistWorks, an online educational guitar community featuring scores of multimedia lessons, an interactive student-teacher video exchange, diverse forums, a chat room, and more.

Taylor is renowned for his singular fingerstyle approach to jazz guitar— especially solo jazz guitar—and his extensive legacy of work with luminaries such as Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis, Joe Pass, Charlie Byrd, Albert Lee, Bill Wyman, George Harrison, Dionne Warwick, Martin Carthy, Chet Atkins, David Grisman, and Steve Howe. Taylor also spent 11 years performing and recording alongside former Quintette du Hot Club de France violinist Stéphane Grappelli, a chair originally occupied by Django Reinhardt. The recipient of numerous awards, Taylor has also been made an Honorary Doctor of both the University of Paisley, Scotland, and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music & Drama, as well as being appointed MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) “For Services To Jazz Music” by Queen Elizabeth.

Last Train to Hauteville is the Spirit of Django’s first album in 15 years, and to follow up, Taylor hopes to record the group with a symphony orchestra. He also plans to begin posting archival studio and live recordings on his Web site in the coming months and years.

How did you come to found the Martin Taylor Guitar Academy and what is it all about?
It really came about through Jimmy Bruno. Jimmy has had the Jimmy Bruno Guitar Institute for a few years now in association with David and Patricia Butler at ArtistWorks. He told me about the Institute, and I thought it sounded really interesting, but I didn’t feel that I could do anything like that because I tour a lot. Then he said, “David really likes your playing and he would like you to do something.” So we had a long conversation, and as they were explaining it to me I wasn’t sure if it was something I felt like doing—but then the penny dropped when David said that it would be my legacy, and a way of passing on all that I’d learned. I remembered that long ago when I had told my mentor Ike Isaacs I had no interest in teaching he said, “When you get older, that will change.” Also, for the past year or so I’d been mentoring guitarists, helping them to deal with barriers in their playing, and I’d formulated a simple method that worked well. So, once the technology for the site was explained to me, I could see how I might be able to create my own virtual school using it.

How does it work?
There’s a curriculum of more than 80 video lessons, but rather than just viewing them like you might an instructional DVD—which is a one-sided thing— there’s a Video Exchange area where students can send me videos showing how they are getting on and I can respond. Then, their submissions and my responses become lessons, as well, because every student has access to those. And the students are also all in contact with each other in other ways. For example, sometimes when students put questions to me in the forums, by the time I get to them there are already about ten students who have replied. The students swap videos and they all encourage each other. There are some really advanced players on there, too, and a lot of them are teachers themselves, and they help the players that aren’t as far down the line.

What is the most common problem you have encountered?
One of the great attractions of the guitar is that you can get it sounding good quickly. It’s not like learning to play a trumpet or a saxophone where it takes a long time to just produce a good sound. Someone shows you how to finger a few chords and after getting the feel for them you strum and it sounds nice. Then you discover that those chord shapes can be moved up and down—you play an A chord, you move it up one fret, you’ve got a Bb chord. So we have this system that is all to do with where you put your hand. That’s fine, but it then becomes difficult to move beyond those shapes. If I say, “Play me a D7,” they immediately put their hand into the shape of a 7 chord and put it where the D is. But why is it a D7?

How do you help them break free?
It has to do with the relationship of the notes, so I start by getting students to play a scale on the bass string, along with the tenths on another string, so there are two notes—the basic scaffolding of a chord—and I have them make up melodies with those. Then I get them to play that same scale using the sevenths, after which I have them move all three of those notes around, playing scales and melodies. Instead of having shapes, you’ve got three lines that are moving independently, and suddenly the fretboard opens up. You recognize where the notes are and the relationships between them. At that point you can move on from just being a “guitar player” to being a musician. The light bulb comes on, everything fits, and suddenly there’s this incredible freedom.

Do you have them learn the spellings of all the chords in the various keys?
Yeah, I get the students to play in lots of different keys. And although we start with what are essentially exercises, almost immediately I get them to make up their own melodies and compositions and not play the material as exercises, so from the beginning they are improvising and composing. I just give them the means and say, “Go and play with that for the next few weeks and see what you come up with.” You’d be surprised at the quality of some of the things they come back with.

Moving on to Last Train to Hauteville, who are the other players on the album?
The band is the same as on the previous Spirit of Django records, except that we added Alan Barnes, who is renowned here in the UK for his concert and session work. Alan mostly plays alto sax, but he’s a fantastic baritone player as well, and also a wonderful clarinet player. And, like me, he was brought up listening to the old stuff, so he has a real understanding of the history of the music. Then there’s Jack Emblow on the accordion. He just celebrated his 80th birthday, and he’s been on a million and one sessions and film soundtracks, including the Beatles’ very famous broadcast of “All You Need Is Love” live from Abbey Road Studios. On rhythm guitar is John Goldie, who plays in more of an American swing style than in the Gypsy style, and on acoustic bass guitar is Terry Gregory. My son James plays drums and percussion, and his wife Alison sings, in French, on a couple of songs.

What guitar did you play on the album?
I played a Yamaha archtop that I designed back around 1990 with [luthier] Martyn Booth. I used it on a lot of recordings, but then I didn’t play it for a long time. Chet Atkins had signed it, though, and I decided I needed to do something with it, so I gave it to a friend and he stripped it down, patched the holes where the electronics had been, added some Celtic-style inlays, and installed new hardware. I got it back just before starting the recording and after giving it a listen I decided to use it.

Is there some reason why you don’t use traditional- style guitars when playing Gypsy jazz?
At one point I had a 1935 Selmer- Maccaferri guitar, and I used it once while playing a couple of Hot Club pieces with Stéphane at his 80th birthday party, though generally he didn’t want to play Hot Club material. He might play something like “Swing 42,” but apart from that he just played standards and he didn’t want the chunking four-in-the-bar rhythm guitar backing. He wanted what he called “sophisticated transatlantic jazz.”

You have also avoided the standard Gypsy jazz approach and lineup with the Spirit of Django.
I didn’t set out to do some sort of Hot Club tribute band, and not going with the standard lineup has given us a lot more options. Also, while I do play with Gypsy jazz inflections, I don’t play those arpeggio kinds of lines. My lines come more from the bebop tradition.

When you say “inflections” do you mean things like playing a little harder or closer to the bridge or employing Django-like ornaments?
Yes. You can tease those notes out. It’s all in how and where you strike the note with the pick, combined with the left-hand vibrato. In fact, there are some songs on Double Standards in which I’m playing what sounds like a straight archtop, and then on the solo there’s what sounds like a different guitar—but it was just one take and all I did was play slightly differently and suddenly it went from sounding like a Gibson L-5 archtop to a Maccaferri.

How does the fact that Django played his lines with just two fingers enter into it?
If I am trying to play more in Django’s style I find that I just unconsciously tend to use two fingers a lot of the time. I’ve also discovered that many of the chromatic phrases that Django played are actually easier to play with two fingers than with four.

What does the 100th anniversary of Django Reinhardt’s birthday mean to you?
Gypsy jazz was the first music that I heard. My dad came from a Gypsy family, and he was very proud of Django and used to play all his records. But I was never into impersonating him. The reason the band is called the Spirit of Django is that when I played the music for Stéphane he said, “You’ve captured the spirit of Django but in your own style.” Interestingly, I’ve seen a lot of guitarists from rock and blues backgrounds that have discovered Gypsy jazz, and they respond almost like someone discovering a religion that they weren’t brought up in. They become totally obsessed and trade in their spandex trousers for French suits and little Django mustaches [laughs].

I play at a lot of the festivals in France and Germany, and many of the younger guitarists play in a sort of offshoot of the traditional Django style in which speed is everything. But Django didn’t actually play fast very often. Django told Stéphane his favorite jazz musician was Louis Armstrong, and if you listen you can hear it in much of his playing. A lot of Django’s phrasing comes from Armstrong, which is something that most of the impersonators don’t get because they don’t realize that.

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