“Jazz improvisation”: what comes to mind? The blistering brilliance of Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis or the not quite so mesmeric parody that is Spinal Tap’s Jazz Odyssey? Or, perhaps, the considered, imaginative, often unexpected but never self-indulgent development of musical ideas … the kind of thing so well conveyed by pianist Paul Taylor over the course of two releases from the Bandcamp website. For this is music that is rewarding for both the musician and the audience in, as Taylor himself puts it, “the sense of freedom and the exploration of creative possibilities.” And these things certainly do not imply a wilful, undisciplined extravagance. Taylor’s work is rooted in the pioneering and often exquisite beauty of Debussy, yet it is also influenced by George Enescu, a prodigy of Romanian origin, trained in Vienna, who like Debussy was strongly influenced by Eastern music. For Taylor, as for Enescu, the integrating of disparate elements within a well defined structure characterises a music that delineates a range of moods and styles.
The track ‘Mythago Wood’ on Askance, for instance, has an elegiac quality that yet resists any sense of the overly-sentimental. And that’s one of the impressive points in Taylor’s music: the willingness to suggest, to evoke without being, as he says, “patronisingly programmatic”. It’s a difficult balancing act: to create a mood and, at the same time, to avoid a narrow insistence on spelling out the precise nature of that mood. All this could convey an air of the precious, in the worst sense, but Taylor avoids this by a dry sense of humour. ‘As Granada’, the opener on Askance, alludes not to a heat haze vision of the Andalucian city of medieval Moorish architecture but to newspaper television listings of the Manchester-based channel responsible for the rather less exotic Coronation Street.
Suggestive allusions, though, can be engaging, and ‘Klinikák’ is a useful illustration. The fourth track on Askance, it is named after a station on the way to / from the airport on the Budapest Metro. Taylor explains: “When I completed the piece, I thought that it encapsulated a certain mitteleuropean melancholy due to the way plucked and struck keys of the ‘prepared’ piano resembled the sound of the Cimbalom, the Hungarian national instrument.” Indeed, eerie echoes of the dulcimer-type instrument give the piece a strange musical texture, and the Eastern bloc link is strengthened by Taylor’s admitted fascination with the faded grandeur of Soviet-style public building projects of the sort treated with comparable sympathy in Owen Hatherley’s new book on the architecture of the communist states.
Reverberations from a closer past form the basis of ‘Bells on Sunday’ and highlight one of the most distinguishing features of jazz – its scope for adventurous development. The track, says Taylor, had its origins in a late night Radio 4 broadcast of church bells ringing. It’s almost an archetypal English pastoral soundscape, but Taylor manages a remarkable range of variations, from the first version on Askance, to some fine explorations easily found on YouTube, and on to a paraphrasing on the title track of Cusps as a starting point for moves in even newer directions, without ever losing a sense of musical order. Taylor himself puts it particularly well: “I see improvisation as a means of playing with the structure which should always be inherent in music, rather than dismantling it in a modishly iconoclastic manner.” It’s this awareness of creative potential within a disciplined framework that enables a track like ‘Cusps’ to hold the listener’s attention across shifts in pace and tone over twenty-five minutes of exploration that never drifts into musical meandering.
While ‘Klinikák’ evolved from an urban, specifically Hungarian feature, with a direct reference to the “stand clear of the closing doors” announcement in that language (words that Taylor muses on in terms of their possible metaphorical meaning, ‘seize the opportunity before it is gone forever’), there’s a distinctly English pastoral sensibility in ‘Lammas’, with its imagery drawn from Taylor’s love of the rural beauty of Northumberland’s Hedley on the Hill. It’s a restrained, considered reflection on his regular “escape”, as he says, from the city, and it’s not a surprise to learn that Ralph Vaughan Williams is a favourite composer. Here, instead of a vigorous journey into the hitherto unknown, there is a sense of the contemplative; a country calm removed from the city storm, maybe. As often in Taylor’s work, there is a sense of the elegiac and / or nostalgic. Wordsworth defined the origin of poetry as emotion recollected in tranquillity (think of ‘Tintern Abbey’) and Taylor himself aptly cites the famous opening of L. P. Hartley’s novel, The Go-Between, “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” when agreeing with the suggestion that particular memories, of places and events, inform certain tracks. The delicate wistfulness in ‘Auriol’ (on Askance) captures the essence of a particular time and place from some of his childhood years, as he reconstructs a sound picture from his own memories of innocence and experience.
Askance and Cusps are thoughtfully sequenced, developing a range of tones that compel attention. The former album has a carefully focused sense of control, while the latter, as a result of Taylor’s developing pianistic dexterity and confidence, suggests more adventurous directions for further exploration, with a daringly artful use of synthesiser suggestive of new ideas as yet only at the embryonic stage. These are exciting possibilities, and he is determined to avoid what he acutely terms “an anodyne pseudo-ambient soup”. It’s that critical self-awareness and a (largely self-taught) pianistic fluency that suggest there is a lot more to come from the intelligently creative spirit of Paul Taylor.
Feature Writer: Ray Honeybourne
Photograph by Jon Forster