Interview With Rich Murray for "The Guitar Channel"
Though Nocturnal (Abstract Logix) is Chris Taylor’s first release as a solo artist, you can hardly call him a newcomer. The New York-based guitarist has been gigging for 30+ years as a session player, sideman, composer, producer, you name it. His striking debut reveals that despite his history as a “hired hand," Taylor is a highly original artist in his own right. His unique take on modern jazz and fusion combines samples and electronica influences to create an atmospheric soundscape out of the music, giving the listener a fresh framework from which to experience these genres. Taylor utilizes these textures to great effect on Nocturnal, by applying them in ways that thoroughly mesh with the melodic and harmonic content of his writing.
Nocturnal isn’t just about the compositions, however. The disc is also loaded with state-of-the-art playing, not only from Taylor - a highly advanced improviser with shades of Allan Holdsworth and John Scofield - but also from his jaw-dropping supporting cast; a veritable wishlist of jazz and fusion luminaries that includes Steve Tavaglione, Ric Fierabracci, Scott Kinsey, George Whitty, Gary Novak, Dave Weckl and many others.
With its rich production, memorable writing, and incredible performances, there’s a lot to listen to on Nocturnal. I asked Taylor about the origins of the album, his influences, and more.
Rich Murray: Right off the bat, I want to ask about the origins of Nocturnal. Even though you’ve been around a while, for most people I’m sure this album has seemingly come out of nowhere, and they’re having a “who is this guy?" sort of experience upon hearing it; especially since you have a very original style, and the disc is loaded with big name monster musicians. How did this project come about?
Chris Taylor: How this project came about is a question probably best answered by me first giving a little background about the disc and myself as a musician. Nocturnal is a collection of 10 of my tunes that reflect the sounds and direction I have been experimenting with for some time now. I have been writing and playing music professionally for 30 years and quite a bit of that has involved more commercial endeavors, Pop music, TV etc... at the same time I have always been composing, producing and playing more experimental jazz based music and that is where my heart lies musically and also where Nocturnal comes from. I have some musician friends whom I have enormous respect for that encouraged me to record and release a disc of some of this work and that played a major role in me finally doing so. Being virtually unknown is a reality for me and one I am wholly responsible for. I have always thought of myself as a sideman or someone behind the scenes more then a leader and if you think of yourself as someone in the shadows people will tend to see you that way as well. Finally stepping out front with my own disc has been a cathartic experience for me and one I want to continue exploring.
RM: You have some real heavyweights supporting you on this disc. Have you worked with these players in the past in some capacity?
CT: Strangely an "All Star" disc is not at all what I set out to do, it just fell into place. I have worked with quite a few of the bigger names on my disc in the past and they were all people I planned on using because they are both great musicians and good friends. Some of the other big names came to Nocturnal in a serendipitous way. For example, bassist Ric Fierabracci who I have worked with before has a great disc out called Hemispheres and Steve Tavaglione played on that disc. Steve is a musician whose playing I have always been a big fan of, so I asked Ric for his number and gave him a call, he really liked the music and agreed to be part of the project. Steve played a couple tracks for Gary Novak who dug the tunes and wanted to play on them. Steve also recorded some of his tracks at Scott Kinsey's studio where Scott heard the music and was up for playing on a few tracks as well. With one of those tracks, "Odd Hours," Scott thought Kirk Covington would be the perfect drummer (he was right) so he facilitated that. I am so fortunate to have been able to work with all the musicians that were part of Nocturnal. Regardless of their stature or name recognition everyone involved brought something unique to the project that elevated the music. There was a spirit of art before commerce that I really appreciated.
RM: From a harmonic standpoint alone, Nocturnal is a great jazz record, but there’s much more going on as well, particularly where the production is concerned. I know this is your first solo recording, but when you’ve written music in the past, have you always brought in these other textures such as samples and electronica ideas?
CT: Thank you. My approach to composing and production has been developing almost as long as I have been playing and those particular elements you mentioned have been part of my approach for some time now. I think a lot of it comes from the diversity of the music I listen to, and that I consciously don't impose rules on myself in the process of creating the music. I have unreleased recordings from as far back as 30 years ago where you can hear traces of some of my current production techniques.
RM: Who were some of your influences in these other styles, such as electronica?
CT: Bill Laswell with Material, particularly the Memory Serves disc. John Hassel, David Torn, Brian Eno, Squarepusher, Bjork, Imogen Heap, Prefuse 73. Coung Vu, Venetian Squares and so many more I am sure that I am forgetting. I have been really digging the Simplexity disc Extreme Measures which has both Steve Tavaglione and Gary Novak on it; very original remix jazz disc. The music Gary Willis has been doing with his trio "Triphasic" has been a revelation to me, just great forward thinking ideas and tunes. David Torn's Prezens is another disc that shouldn't be missed, in fact his whole catalog is a game changer in my opinion.
RM: At what point in your writing process do you envision the samples and sonic effects that you want to bring in on a given song? Does that all come to you while you’re working out the harmony and melodies? Or do you think that stuff later after the core parts of the song are written.
CT: All of those attributes are textures to me and just as important as a chord voicing, bass line or anything else. I don't like the approach of writing a tune and then dressing it up with production in post to fit into a different genre, to my ears that usually sounds forced. Compositionally wise everything happens for the most part at the same time for me and I need to hear it in my own head first. I think there is a lot of truth in the idea of stepping out of the way of the music and just letting it happen. I am pretty instinctual with my production and writing and there is a lot of cause and effect in the way I go about it. If I envision say an fx tweaked sample at a certain point and then go about creating one, that might affect the mood of the tune and cause me to alter the harmony and melody at that point just as easily as the other way around.
RM: “You Know What I’m Saying?" is a track that really stood out for me, especially for the way the samples and effects were utilized. To my ears, those extra sounds take what was already an intense tune, and ratchet up the intensity even further. Was that your intention on that piece?
CT: With that tune it was all about intensity and the samples were a part of magnifying that, absolutely. There are a lot of layers going on with the samples and effects in that track, some of which are well below the surface. The other thing contributing to the intensity is obviously the uptempo nature of the track and the somewhat chromatic melody that the guitar and sax are playing. Gary Novak really brought the intensity way up with his approach and playing on that track, he played so brilliantly on all the tracks he was involved in.
RM: What was your inspiration for “Odd Hours"? The mood of that song seems more sinister than the rest of the disc, especially when John Czajkowski comes in with the heavy power chords near the end.
CT: The thing I was going for with "Odd Hours" was a through composed piece with a lot of layers and texture and I agree it does have a darker vibe to it. There is a Bjork influence in "Odd Hours" that may not be that obvious, but is definitely there. Also with both Kirk Covington and Scott Kinsey on the track it definitely pulls it towards the Tribal Tech sound almost by default. I am certainly not the level of musician Scott Henderson is, but he has been a big influence on me and a whole generation of guitarists for that matter, so I think a Tribal Tech influence is apparent with that track. I originally played the power chords at the end of the tune, but I wasn't getting that big sound I wanted, so I brought in John who has a real affinity for that type of part and sound. He tracked it with his baritone guitar and it worked out perfectly. I wanted the record to go out with a definitive bang and John's guitar helped accomplish just that.
RM: Prior to Nocturnal I was only familiar with you through your work on Czajkowski’s West ZooOpolis project, and a couple of Ed DeGenaro albums. How did you get involved with those guys?
CT: John Czajkowski and I have known each other for a few years now as fellow guitarist/composers. The West ZooOpolis record is a both daunting and impressive project on so many levels. I am honored that John asked me to be part of it. I wouldn't want to overstate my role on the disc, I was like one pinch of salt in the seven course meal that John & Marco created. I ended up playing guitar and keyboards on two tracks one of which we co-wrote. It was great working with John, we share a similar work ethic as composers and we come from quite different musical backgrounds, all of which made for good chemistry. John is a very talented musician and I look forward to working with him again.
With Ed DeGenaro I wrote, produced and played on one track from his Dog House CD. Ed was happy with the results on that so he hired me to work on the follow up disc Less Is Seldom More. I produced 8 of the tracks on that record, five of which I wrote, two I co-wrote and one I remixed. I also mixed and played guitar, keys and did the programming on all eight. Ed gave me a lot of creative control on the project and my concept was to bring his guitar voice into my musical world. Ed is not a jazz guy, he is coming more from the shred school of guitar. I decided to take a more minimalist approach with his playing with the use of editing. I tried to distill his playing down quite a bit, get more space and contour into what he does while still keeping his musical personality intact. It was a one of the hardest projects I have ever worked on because of all the editing involved, but in the end I believe it worked out well. I think I wrote some real nice tunes and did some cool production for that disc and maybe helped Ed kind of re-invent himself.
RM: As a guitarist, you have a very modern-sounding jazz style, but I hear other influences in your playing as well. Who have been your big guitar influences over the years?
CT: Early on it was Hendrix, Page, Beck all the usual suspects. Somewhere in High School I heard Charlie Christian and he knocked me out and got me introduced to jazz, from there it was Wes Montgomery which lead to Miles, Trane etc... and before you knew it I became a complete jazz snob, even though at that point I couldn't really play jazz at all. So I did the logical thing and enrolled at Berklee where I could back up my new found elitism with some credentials. Fortunately Berklee and my fellow students there helped open my ears to a lot of new music along with reconnecting me to the guys I had stopped listening to and I gave up the jazz elitist thing rather quickly. I got into Allan Holdsworth pretty deeply at Berklee, he is still such a inspiration to me and one of the most original voices I have ever heard on any instrument. I saw his first solo tour in Boston for the I.O.U. album. A bunch of us were psyched to see him play in person because we would finally be able to see how he technically played all this beautiful legato guitar, of course we left as dumbfounded as ever. Another big guitar influence on me is John Scofield, I actually got to study with him a bit after Berklee and he remains one of my favorites, I love his writing, it is as fully developed and original as his guitar playing. Scott Henderson has had a similar effect on me as both a composer and a player and the same goes for Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, David Torn and a whole host of other players who are also composers. I have also been influenced quite a bit by other instruments, horn players, pianists etc.
RM: How else did your Berklee experience help shape you as a musician?
CT: Just being immersed in that 24/7 musical environment that is Berklee opens your mind and ears to so many different things. I think for me the students were just as important as the faculty. I remember pianist Joey Calderazzo used to come up to visit his brother Gene who is a drummer and was at Berklee then, Joey was probably about 14 or 15 at the time and looked about 12. He would knock on the ensemble room doors in the evening and invite himself into a jam session without a piano player sit down and call a McCoy Tyner tune and just burn so hard from the downbeat that it was scary. You would be back in your dorm room later wondering "Wait...what am I doing here?" I think you can let those kind of situations either frustrate you or inspire you and I learned to find inspiration in the talents of others while at Berklee. When you stop measuring your own self worth as a musician by where you stand in comparison to others it is easier to hear your own voice and get to the core of what you want to say as an artist.
RM: How much of your current improvisational vocabulary was developed during your time at Berklee versus the years since?
CT: Like most musicians I am a work in progress and I would hope my vocabulary is constantly evolving. I think where I am at currently is more a product of recent years then anything I developed at Berklee. As I have gotten older I am much more interested in playing something that is meaningful to the moment than playing some difficult line I have practiced. I am also more interested in the shape and sound of the individual notes and the space between them in a way I wasn't quite ready for back then. I am still searching for the things that resonate with me and always have that feeling that I am almost arriving at something uniquely my own.
RM: Besides your big influences, are there any other guitarists around today that you particularly admire?
CT: Yes, many of whom have become good friends. Marc Guillermont is a guitarist/composer from Paris that is brilliant and well worth seeking out if you have not heard him. He came to stay with me in New York a few years back for 3 weeks or so and everyday he would play something on guitar I never heard anyone else do. John Findlay who played Keys on "Ear To The Rail" is also a ridiculously good guitar player, composer, singer, songwriter and producer. Chuck D'Aiola from Saratoga is a friend and a brilliant modern jazz player and educator. All three of those guys you can find in the "links" section on my website: christaylorguitar.com. Jimi Tunnell is another musician I just can't say enough about. He is certainly more well known then the other guys I just mentioned, but if there ever was a talent deserving even wider recognition as a guitarist and as a musician my vote goes to Jimi. Some of the young guys in NYC I really dig are Lage Lund, Mike Moreno. Nir Felder, Jack Broad, Dan Acramone and Gilad Hekselman to name a few. There are so many great guitarists in NYC right now it is frightening.
RM: Let’s get into some gear stuff. What guitars and amps did you use on the record?
CT: My workhorse guitars are my 67 Strat and 66 Tele both of which I have had since the 70's, I also used a Levinson Blade and a Strat I built with Humbuckers. On "You Know What I'm Saying" I used a Canton Custom Guitar Equinox model that I borrowed. Rick Canton is making some fantastic and innovative instruments that I find inspiring to play. Amp wise the whole disc was done with my old Marshall JMP-1 pre-amp into a Boogie 2:90 power amp. I really love the OD tones on that combination, but the clean tones are a bit lacking and take quite a bit of tweaking to get the sound where I am happy with it.
RM: You’ve got a really cool tone on “All of Us." What are you using for the vibe effect on that tune?
CT: Thank you. That was a Dunlop Univibe, the big silver one. I don't use it often but when I combine it with my 67 Strat it gets a sound that inspires you to play a certain way, which I think you can hear on that track.
RM: What other effects did you use on the album?
CT: A "COT50" by Lovepedal I used quite a bit on clean sounds actually, it gives the guitar a little oomph and by turning the volume control on the guitar down I can keep the grit out if I want. I also used a Tonefreak "Severe" which has become my go to distortion pedal, it is a very flexible and cool sounding pedal that has a unique vibe. My Fulltone Octafuzz showed up in a few places on the disc, I also have an old rack mount "Intellifex" that I use for a specific sound that is on a track or two. Pretty much everything else was done in Logic with various plug-ins many of which are 3rd party.
RM: Are you a “tone chaser" sort of guy who’s always trying different gear and tweaking your sound?
CT: I am a "tone chaser" on a very limited budget. Being a bit of a studio rat I do love to tweak, but I can't afford to feed that compulsion with a lot of new gear which is probably a blessing in disguise. I think the endless tone quest via gear can become a distraction to actually making music and perhaps has developed into an art unto itself. I spend a lot of time tweaking samples and creating sounds in the studio, but less so on my actual guitar sound. I do think you can alter your sound and tone dramatically with your hands. A real interesting thing to do if you own some sort of DAW is to record yourself using different degrees of touch and velocity from both hands and then take a close look at the wave forms. I have found the softer my touch is the rounder the front of the wave is when I look at it and it also has a more appealing sax like sound to it, which makes sense because it looks like you are breathing into the note. In contrast the harder you pick the more pronounced and vertical the front of the wave is, which of course is more percussive. Similarly the gauge of the pick itself has an affect on the attack and is one of the reasons I have moved to lighter picks (Fender Mediums) and now play with the round end of them as opposed to the pointy end. When you remove the pick all together and play softly with just your fingers the roundness of the wave is even more obvious and to my ears has what I think is the most appealing tone, so I often play that way. I have spent enough time working with digital audio and looking at waves now that I usually know if one is going to sound cool just by looking at it.
RM: What are your future plans now that the album has been released? Will you be going out and playing the Nocturnal material live?
CT: I really want to get out and play the music from Nocturnal live and am working towards that now. Being unknown and on a budget isn't helping matters, but I am determined to do so. I know from past experiences when you get your own tunes out on the bandstand for a few gigs they develop in ways you could never imagine by yourself. I have just started working on a glitch, electronica, jazz disc with Steve Tavaglione. I am very much looking forward to working in collaboration with Tav, he is a brilliant musician and I am psyched on what we might be able to create together. I also have a huge backlog of compositions that I would like to do something with at some point, maybe less so as a player and more as a composer and producer, perhaps with another guitarist involved. Regardless, I am determined to remain out of the shadows and stay in whatever light Nocturnal generates for me.