Billy Taylor: Taylor Made Jazz

Melodic warmth and soul are to the fore in a set of swing, Latin and smoky ballad featuring such luminaries as Clark Terry and Johnny Hodges

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Famed for his memorable 1964 tune I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free (which later became the theme to a long-running BBC film review show), North Carolina-born pianist Billy Taylor began his pro career in 1944 as sideman to the likes of Ben Webster, Dizzy Gillespie and Latin luminary, Machito in New York City. After a spell in Europe touring  with Don Redman, Taylor returned to the Big Apple to work with Sylvia Syms and Billie Holiday before taking the throne as the longest-serving pianist at Birdland, where he played with, amongst others, Stan Getz, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker.

While his credentials as sideman were impressive, much of Taylor’s experience in the studio was as leader. Indeed, between Piano Panorama (for Atlantic) in 1951 and 1959’s Taylor Made Jazz (originally issued on the short-lived Argo label), Taylor released a staggering 18 solo albums, each contrasting stylistically. Arranged by bassist Johnnie Pate, the eight Taylor-composed originals that make up the instantly appealing Taylor Made Jazz bounce between mid-tempo swing, Latin and smoky ballads.

From the opening bars of the bop-melodic Biddy’s Beat, featuring strong solos from the core trio of Taylor, Earl May on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums, there is an unmistakable Ellington small-group vibe to this recording. This comes as no surprise given that the extended horn section hired for this date are all former Ellington alumni – Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Brit Woodman, Willie Cook, Harry Carney and also the great Clark Terry – who blows his unmistakable scat-style lines to the five of the more uptempo tunes here.

These more upbeat tracks – Biddy’s Beat plus the sassy Daddy-O, Latin-laced blueser Cu-Blu and bop-fast Tune For Tex – all stand up strongly melodically and benefit from the defined snap of May and Thigpen’s tight accompaniment. Both as soloist or accompanist, Taylor too plays well throughout, his lyrical lines and use of space in turn bringing about some nice interplay and solos from the horns in particular.

As swing discs go, this criminally overlooked release is a go-to record from an era that produced some of the best post-bop records, but it would be fair to say the set’s ballads, spotlighting just the trio and the sublime sounding Hodges, reveal themselves as the album’s highlights. Over a the swish of brushes, warm bass and Taylor’s soft tinkling and delicately placed chords, Hodges is at his most soulful blowing over Theodora, Can You Tell By Looking At Me and the Strayhorn-style Daydreaming – tunes that sound like Taylor personally penned them for the acclaimed altoist. Essential listening.

Discography
Biddy’s Beat; Theodora; Mood For Mendes; Daddy-O; Day Dreaming; Cu-Blu; Can You Tell By Looking At Me; Tune For Tex (30.34)
Taylor (p); Clark Terry, Willie Cook (t); Britt Woodman (tb) Johnny Hodges (as); Paul Gonsalves (ts); Harry Carney (bs); Earl May (b); Ed Thigpen (d). Chicago, 17 November 1957.
Fresh Sound Records FSRCD111