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A Mike Taylor discovery

When the English jazz pianist and composer Mike Taylor walked into the sea and died in 1969, aged 30, he left behind two albums — Pendulum, by his quartet, and the self-explanatory Trio, recorded in 1966 and ’67 respectively — as a memorial to a talent silenced by the kind of problems experienced by too many creative souls in that era.

Taylor’s gifts and instincts put him somewhere in the line of pianists running from Thelonious Monk through Herbie Nichols and Elmo Hope to the young Cecil Taylor. His playing had a similar sense of a private language being put on public display. There could be a hint of obsession in the way he jabbed at his phrases, testing their resistance before turning them to catch the light from a different angle, but there was nothing forbidding about his music.

His story, from bright promise to unexplained death, was told in a feature in Jazzwise magazine by Duncan Heining in 2007 and at greater length in a useful biography by the Italian writer Luca Ferrari, published six years ago. Taylor remains much mourned both by first-hand witnesses to his short career and by those who know him only from those two albums, produced by Denis Preston for EMI’s Columbia label and now collectors’ items.

A third Mike Taylor album, then, is quite a significant discovery. Mandala consists of a live session by Taylor’s regular quartet — with Dave Tomlin on soprano saxophone, Tony Reeves on double bass and Jon Hiseman on drums — at the Studio Club, Westcliff-on-Sea in January 1965. It was Hiseman who recorded the gig on a reel-to-reel machine and filed the tape away in his archive. On August 29 that year the same group would support the Ornette Coleman Trio in an historic concert at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon; the following May they would assemble at the Lansdowne Studios in Holland Park to record Pendulum.

Mandala contains one jazz standard and four of Taylor’s compositions, making 38 minutes of high-octane music in which the musicians display an obvious reverence for the John Coltrane Quartet of the early ’60s while conveying the impression that, given time and scope, they will find a way to move beyond the template towards the expression of their own character. It can be heard emerging in the hectic exuberance of “Night in Tunisia” — more linear and less dense than the version of the Gillespie favourite captured on Pendulum — and Taylor’s “Folk Dance #1” (a 6/8 tune with unexpected modulations), and in the interesting rhythm section figurations behind Tomlin on “Half Blue”.

Tomlin is the main soloist, confidently feeling his way towards a Trane-like level of incantation while keeping a few more emotional buttons done up. Reeves is slightly under-recorded, as was often the case on amateur recordings from the period, but he can be heard to work well with Hiseman, who is a rewardingly active presence throughout, providing an incessant but constantly stimulating commentary reminiscent to me of Charli Persip. Together they create a powerful momentum.

If there is a regret, it is that Taylor chose to take only two relatively short solos on this occasion, on “Son of Red Blues”, the agile opener, and “Night in Tunisia”. Both are typically intriguing, if somewhat subdued. There might have been a third solo: the title track, which closes the album (and was left untitled until the album’s compilers borrowed one from a painting by the pianist), fades to silence just as Tomlin closes his long, intense solo and Reeves appears to be bridging into what might have been a piano improvisation. Maybe the tape ran out. But Taylor’s accompaniments are so consistently interesting that this is a minor reservation: the point here is the music of a fine group, captured in full and free flight.

* Mandala is available as a download and a limited edition CD from the Jazz in Britain label: http://www.jazzinbritain.org. A vinyl release is forthcoming. Luca Ferrari’s Out of Nowhere: The Uniquely Elusive Jazz of Mike Taylor is published by Gonzo Multimedia.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Crowe #

    Thanks, Richard. I was only barely aware of Taylor’s short life and recording career, know nothing of Tomlin and was introduced to Hiseman and Reeves in 1969 when they formed Col…….

    April 14, 2021
    • Mick Steels #

      Interesting film about Dave Tomlin

      April 14, 2021
      • Thanks for pointing out that video.

        April 22, 2021
  2. GRAHAM RICHARD ROBERTS #

    Jazz in Britain is doing a great service by making these recordings from the UK 1960s jazz scene available. And there’s a very nice looking set of recordings from Mike Gibbs’s ‘Tanglewood 63’ sessions on the way from them soon.

    I found the backdrop to your photo of the Mike Taylor ‘Mandala’ CD strangely re-assuring; I am clearly not alone in having stacks of CDs that defy attempts to bring some sense of order to them! Thank you!

    Lovely film about Dave Tomlin courtesy of Mr. Steels; many thanks.

    April 15, 2021
    • Mick Steels #

      One of life’s small pleasures perusing other people’s cd collection!
      Wouldn’t imagine there would be any other Gary Burton discs there?

      April 15, 2021
  3. Johann Heinrich Lüth #

    Dear Mr., Williams

    interesting as always

    I read about 4 or 6 Weeks ago, that swiss label hat hut (sub label ezz.thetics ) is planning to release the 2 Albums recorded by Mile Taylor + 3 songs, recorded by Cream,

    Best wishes and hope to see you in Berlin some time , gladly remembering the bright ideas you gave to Jazz Fest Berlin.

    Best wishes

    Heino Lüth

    April 21, 2021

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