Monday, June 11, 2018

Mike Taylor - 1967 - Trio

Mike Taylor 


01. All The Things You Are   
02. Just A Blues   
03. While My Lady Sleeps   
04. The End Of A Love Affair   
05. Two Autumns   
06. Guru   
07. Stella By Starlight   
08. Abena

Bass – Jack Bruce, Ron Rubin
Drums – Jon Hiseman
Piano – Mike Taylor

Sometime in late January 1969, the drowned body of a young man was washed up by the Thames at Leigh-On-Sea, Essex. It took some time to establish his identity, and when he was found to be one Ronald Michael Taylor, a jazz musician of no fixed address, few took any notice. Looked back upon 40 years later, Taylor’s life and work seem so enigmatic that it’s tempting to think his whole existence a hoax. His contemporaries held his abilities as composer and pianist in the highest regard, yet he rejected opportunities to broadcast his work and refused interviews, relying on his music to do the talking. Though he is estimated to have composed over 300 pieces, for everything from solo piano to trios to big bands and orchestras, he recorded only two barely-heard albums, and the few private recordings of him have long since been lost. Though he wrote songs for the world’s most successful rock band, Cream, his attempts to destroy as much of his own music as possible have made his legacy frustratingly small. His biographical details are extremely scant, and photographs of him are virtually non-existent. As Melody Maker remarked in its obituary of February 15th 1969: “He looked like a bank clerk, but acted like a mystic”.

Mike Taylor was born in West London on June 1st 1938, and orphaned young. He and his brother Terry were raised in Ealing by their paternal grandparents, who later moved to Herne Bay, on the Kent coast. Nothing is known of his childhood or education, though he is said to have taken up the clarinet as a teenager. During his National Service in the RAF he focused on the piano, and by the time he returned to civilian life in about 1960 he’d resolved to become a jazz musician. He soon abandoned work as a trainee commercial artist in favour of jamming with like-minded musicians at his grandparents’ home, pausing only to earn a modest wage driving a van for his grandfather’s wallpaper firm. A great admirer of the Horace Silver Quintet and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, by the early 1960s he’d formed a band with Chris Bateson and Frank Powell on trumpet and John Mumford on trombone. Bassist Ron Rubin first met him in 1962, and characterised him in his diary at the time as ‘a gaunt mélange of inspiration and inadequacy, hipness and naiveté’. More recently, Rubin told me: “You could hardly have found a more immaculate and polite chap than Mike. He was almost in the Ivy League mould: highly intelligent, well-read and thoughtful, as well as being a totally uncompromising musician.”

Taylor’s music evolved with a changing cast of like-minded musicians including Dave Tomlin (soprano sax), Ron Rubin and Jack Bruce (bass) and Ginger Baker and Randy Jones (drums), combinations of whom would often play at jazz workshops in Herne Bay. Many such sessions were photographed by his brother Terry (who was also Graham Bond’s sometime road manager), but the pictures evidently vanished decades ago, along with their photographer. When Bond invited Baker and Bruce to join him late in 1963, he introduced Jon Hiseman to Taylor, having admired his drumming at a lunchtime rehearsal at the 100 Club. Hiseman brought his schoolmate Tony Reeves with him, and a quartet coalesced early in 1964 comprising Taylor, Tomlin, Reeves and Hiseman. Practising in an old photographic studio in Ilford, they deliberately disregarded all the rules of jazz, improvising around a melody until an appropriate structure (not necessarily the musically correct one) became obvious.

Nonetheless, the Quartet was given the honour of opening for Ornette Coleman at Croydon’s Fairfield Hall on Thursday 29th August 1965. Their performance was dismissed in contemporary reviews, but word of Taylor’s unusual talent was spreading ever more widely. The late Ian Carr, ever on the lookout for talent to encourage, tipped Denis Preston off about him. Preston, Britain’s pre-eminent jazz producer, was duly impressed and invited the Quartet into his legendary Lansdowne Studios in Holland Park to record Pendulum in October. Preston is reported to have been amazed to learn that Taylor had to earn a living washing up in a Lyons Tea Shop, but at this time he was still strongly focused on music – as he is quoted, with Zen-like simplicity, on the back of Pendulum: “This is what I want to do.”

They ran through numerous pieces ahead of the recording date, but Hiseman emphasises: “We were never conscious of rehearsing an album. In the studio we simply played what would have constituted a gig.” As a result, they were able to nail the pieces on the album in a very short time. The first three were radical reworkings of the standards ‘But Not For Me’, ‘Exactly Like You’ and ‘A Night In Tunisia’, while side two was reserved for Taylor’s unorthodox, largely improvised ‘Pendulum’, ‘To Segovia’ and ‘Leeway’ (a tribute to Tomlin’s baby daughter Lee). Avant-garde though they may seem on first listening, Taylor’s sheer attention to detail set him apart from his contemporaries – as Dave Gelly says: “At the time a lot of the music going on was all this splurging noise, but Mike’s was specific and finicky, very intimate.”

Preston was later to tell Jazz Journal that Taylor was “one of the handful of talented jazzmen I have dealt with in this country. Individually, although he was not a musical director, he was one of the outstanding talents – an original.” Nonetheless, it was an inexplicably long time before Pendulum appeared in May of 1966. In the intervening months the Quartet played a number of gigs, and Taylor composed for leading jazz combo Group Sounds Five (comprising Ron Rubin on double bass, Jon Hiseman on drums, Henry Lowther on trumpet, Lyn Dobson on tenor saxophone and Ken McCarthy on piano). Two of the resulting pieces featured in a groundbreaking BBC broadcast on Monday, November 15th 1965: ’13 Note Samba’ was not based on chord sequences, but on a bass figure encompassing all 13 notes of the chromatic scale, octave to octave, while ‘Black & White Raga’ had a central theme based on the black and white keys of the piano, with two central riffs transforming the tonality from the black notes to the white and back again. The broadcast caused consternation at the BBC, and no recording of it is thought to survive, though both pieces are remembered vividly by the musicians involved. On Sunday 12th December 1965 the Quartet are known to have played at the ICA in Dover Street, alongside the Dave Tomlin Sextet and The Graham Bond Organisation. By this time Reeves had left the group to focus on A&R work and his membership of Sounds Orchestral, so his role was assumed by Rubin, though Jack Bruce was also a frequent sideman. Indeed, the two bassists would occasionally play at once.

Despite favourable reviews, Pendulum sold in minute numbers when it finally appeared. Its commercial failure may have accelerated Taylor’s decline, but things had already started to go frighteningly awry in his personal life. He’d always been withdrawn, but friends started to notice radical changes in his persona and appearance. In place of the smart young man in tweeds and tie who would talk eloquently about his music was an unkempt bohemian who’d embraced LSD and cannabis, and communicated largely in hand gestures. “Earlier in the decade I used to call him ‘the 3 o’clock man’,” says Rubin, “because every Saturday he’d arrive at my house absolutely dead on time to rehearse and improvise. He was that precise. But by 1966 he’d become absolutely bedraggled and incoherent.” His long-suffering, popular and beautiful wife, Ann, left him at this time (they had no children, and she is now dead), and as drugs made his behaviour increasingly wild, so old friends began to feel uncomfortable around him. “I didn’t even recognise him the first time I saw him after he cracked up,” says Gelly. “When I’d first known him he was so smart he even wore a tie-pin. Now he looked like a hippie-come-tramp.”

Nonetheless, soon after Pendulum’s release Denis Preston asked him to prepare material for a follow-up, which he did. The sessions for Trio were held on Tuesday 12th and Wednesday 13th July 1966, without Reeves or Tomlin but with Hiseman, Jack Bruce (who’d formed Cream days previously) and Rubin. Rubin well remembers Taylor’s attitude towards recording: “Because his take on standards was unrecognisable, I asked him to jot down the changes for me on ‘The End Of A Love Affair’. He refused, telling me he preferred a random approach – and, for some reason, it worked.” With Trio taped, Taylor seemed to abandon any sense of musical or personal discipline, allowing his hair to grow to his waist, along with a straggly beard. Having moved out of the flat he’d shared with his brother and Hiseman, he was ‘of no fixed abode’ for the remainder of his life, sleeping in squats, on people’s floors and in the open. “Something shifted in him at some point, and no one ever knew quite what,” Hiseman reflects. “He created a world, pulled himself into it and shut the door.” Rubin's diary records an encounter with Taylor at a gig by the Soft Machine and Tomlin’s trio, the Giant Sun Trolley, at the UFO club on Saturday, February 18th 1967: 'Mike spent the evening lying comatose, rigid and immobile in the middle of the floor below the bandstand, dancers gyrating around him, his hands crossed on his chest. We played without him.' “He became something approaching schizophrenic,” says Henry Lowther. “I remember a gig at the Old Place when he was playing the piano, just about, and screaming his head off. It was pretty disturbing.”
Trio crept out in June 1967 (almost a year after it had been recorded), and received warm reviews. ‘Mike Taylor is one of Britain’s most original young pianists’, said Jazz Journal of the album, while Gramophone described him as ‘one of the new school of young British jazz musicians who seem to have reached maturity at a very early age’, in a review worth quoting at length: ‘‘Pianist Mike Taylor is one of the new school of young British jazz musicians who seem to have reached maturity at a very early age. This, his second LP, is one of the most refreshing piano records to have been made in this country for some time. Taylor’s style is free, flowing and graceful, a compound of elements to be found in the work of men such as Lennie Tristano and Bill Evans. But he makes greater use of his accompanists than either, and for that reason the LP is almost as much a triumph for drummer Jon Hiseman, certainly one of the very finest small band drummers this side of the Atlantic… Hiseman’s intelligent appreciation of the situation and careful attentiveness is of great help to Taylor, particularly on tracks such as ‘All The Things You Are’ (a song which has not been recorded for some time, I would guess). There is some thrilling bass playing to be heard from both Jack Bruce and Ron Rubin; they alternate on most tracks, but play together in places. In fact a great deal or care has gone into the planning and production of the LP; the balance of four originals to four ‘standards’ is ideal, while the choice of musicians could hardly be bettered… Taylor and his men show that there are paths for jazz development to follow which are logical extensions of what has gone before, without necessarily being radical simply for the sake of being radical.' Melody Maker was also ecstatic:

Though Rubin and Tomlin strove to keep him playing, his condition made promotional work impossible and sales of Trio were no better than Pendulum’s (a few weeks ago a copy sold for over £1300 on eBay). By the time of its release Bruce was conquering the world with Cream, alongside Ginger Baker, and Hiseman had departed for Graham Bond’s band. Hiseman’s departure had caused no ill-feeling – Bond, a highly versatile musician himself, became close friends with Taylor at this time, partly because both were so recklessly experimental with drugs. They jammed together frequently, though no recordings have surfaced, and Bond later commented of the music they made: “It was extremely avant-garde for the period, but also very melodic. With Taylor it was another Bach coming into existence.” This was wishful thinking, perhaps. Significantly, when Taylor moved out of the flat he’d been sharing with Hiseman in Kew, he left his piano behind. Indeed, he is widely quoted as having said that if only he could find a pianist capable of playing his music as he could, he’d happily abandon the keyboard himself. In August 1967 Rubin wrote of a gig at Ronnie Scott’s Old Place in Gerrard Street that 'Mike turned up bearded and barefooted – had a job getting past the doorman. Played no piano at all, just a broken tabla drum and pipes. Astonished American couple on front row goggling at the burning fag between his toes. At one point he started talking mumbo-jumbo. I said I couldn’t understand, and he replied: “It’s okay, Ron – I’m talking to the loudspeaker.”' Things were even worse by September, when they met again at a supposed rehearsal at Rubin's flat. 'He said he’d had an interesting conversation with a deer in Richmond Park, where he was living rough. Told me he’d walked all the way from there, and sat on our sofa picking stones and debris out of his bare feet. I think he’s going crazy.'

Perhaps surprisingly, on Wednesday 15th November 1967, Taylor put together a detailed résumé of his work to date, with a view to gaining financial assistance from the government. Clearly he could still be meticulous when he had to be. Most of the document consists of manuscript, but the first page has this introduction.

As 1968 came around, Taylor's friends started to feel distinctly uncomfortable around him. Again, according to Rubin's diary: 'Henry Lowther says Mike is going completely potty - he attacked Ann (his wife) because she "wasn’t treating the man she now lives with properly," and is almost certifiable and perhaps dangerous. Paranoia, like thinking Dave Tomlin wants to kill him. Dick Heckstall-Smith’s wife won’t let him into the house. In this weather he should be wearing snow shoes, not no shoes!' Perhaps surprisingly, at this time Taylor continued to compose sporadically, even co-writing three songs with Ginger Baker for Cream’s Wheels Of Fire album (‘Passing The Time’, ‘Pressed Rat and Warthog’ and ‘Those Were The Days’), which topped the charts in August 1968. I have attempted to contact Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker to ask them about their experiences with Taylor, but received no reply, and neither Baker's autobiography (published in October 2009) or Harry Shapiro's authorised biography of Bruce (published in February 2010) offers any illumination whatever. Regardless of Cream's interest in approaching his compositions from a rock standpoint, jazz remained Taylor's passion, and a notable opportunity came his way when he was asked to contribute material to Neil Ardley’s New Jazz Orchestra. This had been set up as a means of showcasing young UK players who wanted to play modern jazz in a big band setting, and featured Hiseman and Bruce amongst many others. Their second album, Le Déjeuner Sur L’Herbe, was recorded in London on Tuesday 17th and Wednesday 18th September 1968, and featured one original composition by Taylor (‘Ballad’) and an arrangement by him of a Segovia piece (‘Study’). The orchestra also attempted a big band arrangement of Pendulum, but it was deemed too complicated at the time.

Another unrecorded work was ‘Horn, Gut & Skin Suite’, loosely based on the mathematics used in building the pyramids, and intended to reflect their mystique. Though it featured a large horn ensemble, it centred on three drummers (Baker, Hiseman and Phil Seamen). Taylor is also known to have written at least ten so-called ‘folk songs’ over the years, most of which remain unheard (though one cropped up on Norma Winstone’s Edge Of Time album after his death). ‘Half Blue’ found its way onto a later New Jazz Orchestra album, whilst ‘Jumping Off The Sun’ was recorded by Colosseum and used by Jack Bruce in a BBC Jazz Workshop broadcast in 1969, as was ‘Folk Song No.2’ and ‘Brown Thursday’ – the latter being one of the few scores Hiseman managed to save when Taylor inexplicably decided to burn all his manuscripts at the end of the year. Henry Lowther had been in possession of some other beautifully-bound Taylor manuscripts. “After two or three years, he unexpectedly asked for them back, so I of course handed them over. Someone later told me he’d only wanted them in order to destroy them.”

Though he still showed flashes of musical inspiration, any hopes of him returning to the studio were forlorn. Towards the end of his life he experimented with electronics and sped-up tapes, but it was desultory stuff. His LSD consumption remained prodigious, and he even served a brief prison sentence at some point in 1968 (possibly for vagrancy), but it did little to chasten him: Rubin recalls receiving a letter from him in prison, requesting hashish in the post. It pains his friends to remember his last months. “He took to busking with an old, broken Arabic clay drum,” says Lowther. “If anyone tried to engage him in conversation, all he would reply was ‘I’m a man of God’.” Dave Tomlin recalled that the last time he saw him, he was walking barefoot in the street, banging his hand drum and claiming he’d just met “the King of the Gypsies”. Despite his desperate condition, there was still a consensus that he was a unique talent. He met Hiseman and others to improvise from time to time, and as late as November 1968 the Mike Taylor Trio (with Rubin on bass) was booked to play at the first of the winter concerts organised by the Jazz Society at Conway Hall. He failed to appear until almost the end, however, when the New Jazz Orchestra were playing. His spot had been filled by Howard Riley, who happened to be in the audience. It was the last time many of the musicians he’d known saw him alive, and he is said to have seemed more than usually morose before sloping away again.

Mike Taylor was barely 30 when he died. It’s not certain that he killed himself deliberately – in his state, any delusion (even the ability to walk on water, it has been suggested) was conceivable. Rubin suspects he may have tried to swim the freezing estuary to reach his grandparents’ house in Herne Bay, only to lose his life in the strong currents. Rubin recently came across the following, terribly poignant local newspaper cutting:

'Mystery Of Body In Creek: Police are still trying to identify a man whose body was washed up at Leigh Creek on Sunday. Investigations ruled out thoughts that he was one of three wildfowlers lost off Foulness a fortnight ago, and a possible link with a cabin cruiser found wrecked on Shoebury Beach has also been discounted. He is aged between 25 and 30, 5ft. 8in. tall, of medium build, with shoulder-length dark brown hair, auburn moustache, a long and straggy full beard, straight nose, blue eyes and large ears with small lobes. He was wearing a cream striped shirt, two white vests, two pairs of trousers and brown shoes. The body had been in the water for about six or seven hours - perhaps less.'

The precise date of his death is unknown, though his gravestone (in Sutton Road Cemetery, Southend-On-Sea) gives January 19th. It bears the inscrutable epitaph 'I dive from a springboard into cool clear water, and yet I furnish my springboard with my experience so that my life is more than my action'. This was apparently penned by Taylor, though its source is unknown.

His funeral, held in Southend on February 7th, was shambolic, with most mourners turning up to the wrong church. Beyond jazz circles and warm appraisals in Melody Maker (‘Taylor was one of the most original talents to arrive on the British scene in the last decade… his approach to jazz piano playing seemed to owe nothing to any other pianist’) and the Sunday Times (‘from the start he had a completely original talent’), his death went unremarked. Graham Bond, whose own career bore strong similarities to Taylor’s, perhaps spoke for many in saying: “Mike was the wellspring. Everyone dug him.”

The New Jazz Orchestra's Le Déjeuner Sur L’Herbe was released in March 1969, a month after his burial. Melody Maker was enthusiastic, writing that 'rumours that this album was something special have been filtering through the jazz scene since it was recorded last September. They didn’t exaggerate – it’s superb… All the arrangers have made use of the full tonal palette, and have not been afraid to slap on great thick slabs of sound.' After his death, Taylor's collaborators made numerous efforts to promote his work. BBC Radio 1’s Jazz Workshop broadcast a tribute to him on Saturday 17th May 1969, and a memorial concert was held on Thursday December 4th:

In 1973, Ian Carr referred to Taylor a few times in his history of British jazz, Music Outside, but more relevant to posterity is the full tribute album recorded by Denis Preston at Lansdowne in June 1973. It was the brainchild of the late Neil Ardley, and featured Taylor’s big-band arrangement of 'Pendulum'. The line-up, featuring Neil Ardley, Kenny Wheeler, Ian Carr, Henry Lowther, Harold Beckett, Jon Hiseman, Jack Bruce and others, amply demonstrates how respected Taylor was. Though it went unreleased at the time, it's now available as Mike Taylor Remembered. Other than a few scraps that remain in the National Sound Archive, however, no more of Taylor’s material has surfaced, and it seems that his work is doomed to the obscurity he apparently sought.

There’s no consensus as to what influence Mike Taylor would have had if he’d lived. Dave Gelly told Jazz Journal in 1974: “I have a horrible feeling that if Mike was still around, he’d be ignored as he was in the 60s”, while Pete Brown felt: “His music was unconventional, but it would have been latched onto eventually.” Jon Hiseman, meanwhile, prefers not to dwell on the tragedy of Taylor’s life. “I don’t find thinking of Mike depressing at all,” he says. “The flesh and bone is irrelevant – ultimately all that counts is the fact that the music he made is fascinating, and people still want to hear it.”