If the great pianist/composer/educator Dr. Billy Taylor had only one of those “angles” to lean on, he’d still be a “hall of fame” level force in jazz, and the sum of the three (and the fascinating ways they’re interwoven) make him an extraordinary figure in the music’s history, something that itself belies the delightfully positive energy that radiated through any space he entered. He championed jazz on network television, he was a committed educator and wrote a book on the history of jazz piano that hasn’t aged, and he generally worked to help the music reach wider audiences without diluting any of the substance. His determination to help jazz earn the respect it deserves is consistent with this being the guy who wrote “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” (perhaps best known via Nina Simone’s interpretation), just one of his many noteworthy compositions. And yet when I was first exposed to his music I literally didn’t know any of this, I just knew he was charming and played the bejeezus out of the piano.
I’m getting in just under the wire to acknowledge Dr. Taylor in his centennial year (shameful confession: I was waiting to see if I could find the snapshot of me posing with him at an event – nope) but it’s always a good time to remember him and dig his music. He was quite prolific so this paring-down was challenging (made perversely a little easier by a lot of his music being out of print).
1 ) “Mad Monk” from Afternoon in Musik by Don Byas and Tyree Glenn Orchestra (1947)
Billy had recorded “Mad Monk” several times prior to this version from a Paris session alongside Byas and Glenn (on tenor and trombone, respectively). All three of these jazz giants solo wonderfully on the tune, which represents a strong example of the swing-to-bop transition occurring at that time.
2 ) “The Cuban Caper” from Taylor Made (1951)
Though Dizzy Gillespie rightly gets the lion’s share of the credit among American bebop-era musicians incorporating Cuban music, Billy Taylor was one of the others on the front lines of that movement, as evidenced by performances like this hard-grooving mambo. The extended piano solo drives hard over the fascinating hodge-podge backdrop of percussion featuring “Papa” Jo Jones on drums (!), Zoot Sims on maracas (!!) and Frank Colon on conga.
3 ) “A Live One” from Billy Taylor Trio with Candido (1954)
Billy’s fondness for conga drums wasn’t relegated to Latin music, as can be heard on this important collaboration with the important Cuban percussionist Candido Camero alongside the popular Billy Taylor Trio (here featuring Charlie Smith on drums and longtime Taylor associate Earl May on bass).
4 ) “I Wished On the Moon” from Stay With Me by Billie Holiday (1955)
This late period Billie Holiday performance demonstrates Billy’s inventive and sensitive work as a vocal accompanist and interpreter of ballads. He weaves around Holiday’s voice expertly and takes a wonderfully lyrical solo after statements by Charlie Shavers and Billy Bauer.
5 ) “It’s A Grand Night for Swinging” from A Touch of Taylor (1955)
Billy and his trio (with May on bass and Percy Brice on drums) dig in hard on this minor-key blues tune that has a Latin flair to the groove and yet does indeed swing as much as the title might suggest. This tune, which subsequently became a theme song of sorts for Mary Lou Williams, is one of Billy’s most oft-performed compositions
6 ) “Easy Walker” from Custom Taylored (1960)
Playing a slow-tempo swing tune is one of the underrecognized challenges of jazz and it is not surprising that Billy (accompanied here by drummer Ray Mosca and a young Henry Grimes on bass, taking the long-held baton from Earl May) manages the lyricism and restraint needed while also providing no shortage of excitement.
7 ) “Bye Y’all” from Sleeping Bee (1969)
Billy Taylor has had a number of exceptional trios (and it particularly pains me, due to what’s currently in print, not to be able to represent his late-80s/early-90s trio with Victor Gaskin and Bobby Thomas) and I’m going to go out on a limb and declare this one (with bassist Ben Tucker and drummer Grady Tate) as my personal favorite. If you don’t already have Billy’s live I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free record with that trio, it is worth some crate-digging (indeed it is one of my favorite piano trio albums in all of jazz). In the meantime, this record is delightful too and this Taylor original swings like crazy.
8 ) “Titoro” from It’s A Matter of Pride (1993)
The Latin jazz trio-plus-conga format returns here with Ray Mantilla joining Dr. Taylor as a fellow featured soloist alongside Christian McBride and Marvin “Smitty” Smith. They all play with serious fire on this Taylor composition first recorded more than 40 years prior.
9 ) “Early Bird” from Ten Fingers, One Voice (1996)
This tune, a Charlie Parker tribute and bebop workout, is another one first recorded earlier in his career (in this case part of the same session as tune #5 above). He revisits it in a live solo recording that demonstrates his undiminished skill, his masterful and deep vocabulary, and his playful explorations in a solo piano setting.
10 ) “Memories of You” from Swing ‘Em Gates by Jay Hoggard (2006)
Several of the adjectives bandied about above come into play in both Dr. Taylor’s soloing and accompanying on this duet (a Eubie Blake tune, presented here in a manner reminiscent of this album’s inspiration, Lionel Hampton) with vibraphonist Jay Hoggard – lyrical, playful, masterful, sensitive. I’ll add beautiful to the list, not to mention inspiring, especially when one considers what represents reasonable expectations for a pianist in his mid-eighties.