John Taylor

Pianist and composer

Born September 25, 1942

Died July 17, 2015.

No-one who witnessed his beautifully compelling solo concert at Glasgow Jazz Festival last month would have imagined that this was to be the last time we heard John Taylor play in Scotland.

The pianist, who suffered a heart attack while performing at Saveurs Jazz Festival in France on Friday, July 17 and died in hospital afterwards, was at the peak of his powers. He was a figure who didn’t seemed to have changed much physically with the passage of time and who was still refining an already masterly style that made him one of the great musicians in European jazz of the past 40 years.

Those years were marked by long musical associations. Taylor loved the camaraderie and easy musical chemistry that he developed with, among others, the Canadian-born trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, who predeceased his old friend by a matter of months, the great Devonian saxophonist John Surman, the singer and Taylor’s former wife, Norma Winstone, and European musicians including bassist Palle Danielsson, with whom Taylor worked in drummer Peter Erskine’s trio.

Erskine’s group was special because it cast Taylor in the role of one of his heroes, Bill Evans, whose classic trio of the 1960s was the inspiration for Erskine taking the same format forward and whose lyricism Taylor assimilated into his own, individual and instantly recognisable style.

Taylor was born in Manchester, where he began playing piano by ear as a child, and save for a year of lessons in his teens with, as he told the Herald in 2008, “one of those typical old lady piano teachers” he was self-taught.

His first inspiration was Oscar Peterson, whose energy and torrent of ideas impressed until the poetic, sensitive turn of phrase that Evans brought to his improvisations set Taylor on his own path of discovery.

By this time the family had relocated, via the Midlands, to Hastings, where Taylor began to play locally and whence, as a civil servant, he moved to London in 1964 and became involved in the developing free jazz scene while at the same time finding work as an accompanist.

To be a complete pianist, he always said, you have to understand how to play a supporting role and for a time Taylor did this in the house trio at Ronnie Scott’s world famous jazz club and with singer Cleo Laine.

He also played in Scott’s quintet, contributing tunes including Interfusion to the band book, and was a crucial member of saxophonist Alan Skidmore’s award-winning quintet where he worked alongside Wheeler and composed tracks for Once Upon a Time, a landmark album in British jazz.

In the 1970s, Taylor, Winstone and Wheeler formed Azimuth, a group whose chamber jazz approach appealed to the leading European jazz label, Munich-based ECM Records.

Taylor’s reputation as a creative force had already extended into Europe but the ECM connection opened further doors and he appeared with many musicians associated with the label, including saxophonist Jan Garbarek, bassists Arild Andersen and Miroslav Vitous and guitarist Ralph Towner.

Closer to home, he continued working with John Surman, whom he’d met not long after moving to London, and contributed pieces including the lovely, enduring Windfall to Surman’s classic quintet which toured whenever the individual members’ increasingly crowded schedules permitted.

Taylor’s Scottish connections included deputising at short notice in Art Pepper’s quartet for the alto saxophone legend’s Glasgow concert in 1982, composing a piece inspired by Rosslyn Chapel, which he’d visited when at a low ebb and found uplifting, and working with saxophonist Tommy Smith off and on over a period of some twenty years.

Like Smith, he was lured into academe and he shared his wisdom at Cologne’s Hochschule für Musik und Tanz and at York University. Younger musicians also benefited from his inspired presence onstage and in the recording studio, with the group Meadow, featuring saxophonist Tore Brunborg and drummer Thomas Strønen, and saxophonist Julian Arguelles’s quartet being among Taylor’s favourite outlets.

To these musicians, as he was to everyone who knew him, Taylor was known by his initials. “JT” was a term of familiarity and endearment, of course, but also one that denoted huge respect and guaranteed that whether in Kenny Wheeler’s big band, in a duo with another long-time associate, Italian singer Maria Pia DeVito or on a solo concert that might range from folksong simplicity to something that in his own words was “so tricky I hope I can get through it”, the piano stool was occupied by a player of singular gifts.

He’s survived by his second wife, Carol, and by his sons, musicians Leo and Alex from his marriage to Norma Winstone.

Rob Adams