James Taylor Quartet
"New World" is a suitable title. This is the best James Taylor album for quite some time.
Hammond organ specialist James Taylor first came to prominence as part of the "acid jazz" movement of the late80's and early 90's. His trademark mix of jazz, funk and soul attracted a loyal following and Taylor has toured and recorded prolifically in the intervening years. It has to be said that much of his output of late has become rather cliched and laboured with an increasing reliance on vocals. It is therefore a pleasure to report that from a jazzer's point of view at least "New World" is the most interesting James Taylor album for some years.
Although credited simply to JTQ (James Taylor Quartet), "New World" actually deploys a six piece line up. This includes seasoned jazz musicians Gareth Lockrane on flutes and John Parricelli (guitar). Taylor has also deployed young music college graduates in the form of Nick Smart (trumpet/ flugel/ horn arrangements) plus a rhythm section of Andrew McKinney (bass) and Adam Betts (drums). Taylor is responsible for the tunes including two co-written with guest vocalist Corinna Greyson.
In addition to the increased jazz content brought to the table by this new line up the other major change from previous JTQ releases is the leader's use of additional keyboards. Taylor deploys both grand piano and Fender Rhodes but it is his playing on the acoustic instrument that is the big surprise element here. Taylor exhibits a lightness of touch at the piano that breathes fresh life into his music and allows it to escape, at least in part, the formulaic nature of much of his recent output.
This expanded instrumental palette makes for a much more varied and interesting record.
That is not say that Taylor's signature surging Hammond sound is absent. It still forms the backbone of his playing and is much in evidence on the opening "Blacksmith", a tune powered by McKinney's springy bass and Betts' propulsive drumming. Here as elsewhere Lockrane's flute gives the tune a 70's "cop show" feel.
That "cop show" vibe is also present on the following "Rochester Rain", it's light urban funk featuring flute, trumpet, Rhodes and Parricelli's elegant guitar stylings.
Greyson's powerful soul voice is featured on the funk strut of "Same Old Fool" with Smart's blues inflected trumpet shadowing the singer. It's not an especially profound item but it is effective and eminently enjoyable. Greyson's second contribution "Get On Your Feet" appears later and is a disposable piece of "let's party" fluff that adds little to the album. I just found it irritating but it may be that regular JTQ fans would disagree.
The title track grooves along nicely and is another feature for talented young trumpeter Smart with flautist Lockrane also making a strong contribution. Taylor divides himself between Hammond and Rhodes on another winning composition.
"Inner Mystic Love" is the first showcase for Taylor's acoustic piano. His flowing runs on this upbeat tune are captivating and executed with a good deal of technical skill. Taylor cites McCoy Tyner as one of the influences on his piano playing and his bravura performance here certainly references that. For those of us not used to Taylor in this mode the whole thing is highly impressive and fades out far too soon.
"Stonemason" is a companion to "Blacksmith", full of good old fashioned Hammond crunch with the initial melody tipping it's hat just slightly at "The Age Of Aquarius". Taylor rips up the keys on this old fashioned bruiser of a number.
In contrast the following "Blue Lady" is a second feature for Taylor at the piano. This is a beautiful ballad performance that this time recalls another acknowledged influence, namely Ramsey Lewis.
"Hotwire", as the title suggests, is a return to funk mode with a wicked backbeat and great interplay between the horns as Smart and Lockrane trade licks. That old cop show feel is definitely there again and extends into the following "Jazz Cafe Theme". This is also high on the funkometer with choppy guitars,horns with a dash of echo plus a grooving solo from the Hammond guru himself.
Finally "Milk And Honey" sees Taylor return to the piano for a gospel influenced work out that Jools Holland would be proud of. Early Herbie Hancock is perhaps another reference point.
With it's strong compositions, tasty horn charts and all round strong performances "New World" is suitably titled. This is the best James Taylor album for quite some time.
- Ian Mann
All Music Guide