The James Taylor Quartet bring a night of funky acid jazz to St Mary in the Castle, Hastings, this month.
The giants of the genre perform on Saturday, January 25 (7.30pm, doors 7pm), courtesy of The Rye International Jazz and Blues festival.
The event is one of two top-notch concerts at the venue this winter, the first being an evening with legendary American singer Judy Collins on Thursday, January 23.
James, 55, from Rochester, is looking forward to returning to Hastings after performing in front of a lively crowd here last time.
“When we do a concert we always try to evoke a bit of excitement and passion in the crowd,” he says. “That makes us play passionately and I seem to remember that Hastings has got quite a vigorous, exciting crowd. That’s what I look forward to.”
In fact, James continues, the energy of the audience can be a really life-affirming thing.
“Gigging for us, for me and the musicians I work with, is just sort of a way of life,” he explains. “For us, it’s what makes the world go round, if you know what I mean, the interaction between fans and audience.”
In short, JTQ aim to “rip it up” while playing live. They want people to dance, not to sit down and ruminate on some complex, high-brow jazz performance in front of them. But, James makes clear, this doesn’t mean any lowering of standards – quite the opposite, in fact.
“I’m a big fan of high art,” says James. “So what you want to do is present something that’s of really, really high quality in a way that’s accessible to everybody. That’s a hard thing to do. We try to do stuff that is challenging and exciting but that goes to the core of it, so there’s a kind of honesty and truth at the centre. What I sometimes find frustrating with jazz music is that it feels in some way dishonest in that a lot gets said but nothing gets said. We’re slightly suspicious of that whole thing so we try to cut to the chase.”
It’s an approach to the genre that has contributed to JTQ’s sterling reputation as an extraordinary live group.
So, I ask, what’s in store for Hastings?
“It’s a strange thing,” James replies. “You take the stage in a certain frame of mind and you really don’t know. It’s like a blank canvas, you really don’t know where it’s going to go. We don’t write set-lists, we don’t even know what our first song is going to be when we walk onstage. We just walk onstage and we look at the audience and we go ‘it’s a crowd...hmm’.” And then we decide what to play and start playing that and see where that takes us.”
“Very often, when it’s a successful gig, you reach a point where something kind of sticks into another...zone,” he continues. “I can’t really describe it any better than that. It just becomes sort of wild.”
James laughs: “I’ve never really understood what brings that about or why, but it’s something to do with the relationship between the band and the audience and you’re looking for what might make that happen. For me, that’s the adrenaline point and then before you know it you’re in another zone completely and then it’s like...anything can happen. That’s the highlight of any gig – that click out of normal, mundane existence into this kind of godly, divine state.”
When he was a kid James found himself drawn to jazz, funk and soul, and he was particularly fascinated with the sound of the Hammond organ, an instrument he’s since mastered.
“That instrument seized hold of me when I was a young kid and I was listening to Booker T. & the M.G.’s. I heard ‘Green Onions’ and I just thought ‘what the hell is that sound?’ Then I was hooked.”
“It sort of spoke to me,” James explains. “In the ’70s when I was growing up it had been pretty much overlooked, that instrument was left behind. But for me the real electrical nature of that sound, the distortion on that sound, was quite exciting.”
As he says, when you have an amplified keyboard going through a rotating Leslie speaker, the result is a huge amount of power at your fingertips, a huge sound and a huge dynamic range.
“With the best will in the world, you’re never going to get that amount of power out of a piano,” James says. “My favourite instrument is piano, but for working with an audience an organ, especially a Hammond organ, really cuts through.”
James formed his quartet in 1987 after the break-up of his previous group The Prisoners. Their first single was ‘Blow-Up’, a version of Herbie Hancock’s theme for Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 thriller of the same name. The song received praise from the NME and John Peel, so the band went on to offer more thrilling covers on their first seven-track album, Mission Impossible, with tunes like ‘Alfie’ and ‘Gold Finger’. On a similar note, the band’s next record, The Money Spyder, offered a soundtrack to a pretend spy flick. A decade later JTQ contributed to an actual spy movie (albeit a spoof) producing Austin’s Theme for the 1997 hit Austin Powers.
They’ve created a lot of original material, of course, and worked with many pop artists – like Tom Jones, The Wonder Stuff and Manic Street Preachers – but it seems like JTQ have a real affinity for TV and film themes.
I ask whether this is the case.
“Yeah, particularly when we were getting started that seemed like a way in to the psyche of the British public,” says James. “Very often when I’m watching a film, I’m thinking ‘oh, what a lousy film but the music is fantastic’ or ‘it’s a great film but the music is terrible’.”
He cites George Fenton and John Barry as two of his favourite composers and recalls trying to work out TV themes (like Star Trek) on piano when he was very young.
“And it’s instrumental,” James points out, when discussing his use of soundtrack music at concerts. “In most music, especially when I was gigging, everyone had singers so an instrumental was something quite different. How do you connect with an audience without any singer or without any words? Those sort of tricks worked for us, just the fact that those tunes were latent in people’s memories.”
Looking to the future, the band have a new record out in March – People Get Ready.
“The first single from that album comes out a week after we play in Hastings,” James confirms. “Hastings is the first night of a tour to promote that new album.”
James explains that People Get Ready will contain all the essential JTQ elements: “The groove is what we’re all about essentially, how we make people move, how we make them nod their head.”
“We’ve taken that and we’ve expanded that out and we’ve added an orchestra and singers and everything. So it’s a big, big project we’ve recorded at Abbey Road studios.”
“It’s a very, very big sound,” he emphasises. “Soundtrack From Electric Black (2018) had all of those elements, but without vocals.”
And James has a big artistic goal to match his group’s sound. To finish the interview, I ask what the overall goal is of his music career.
“To try to make the world a better place really,” he states. “If you play a concert what you want is that everybody (or as many possible) leaves feeling better and feeling good about life. And we drive home feeling good about life because we all had a kind of celebration together.”
“I know it’s a bit of a broad, kind of pompous answer,” he admits. “But, in essence, that is why you do what you do, you know? You sort of reach out in whatever way you can.”
Higher aspirations aside though, for now the band are just looking forward to playing a blistering gig in Hastings.
“It’s going to be the first night of our UK tour so we’re going to be nervous and full of adrenaline and wanting to make it happen.”
Tickets cost £30 (unreserved seated and standing, booking fee applies). There will be a fully licensed bar and access for wheelchairs. Visit ryejazz.com. Email email@example.com to find out more.
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