I got to know Dr. Billy Taylor a bit towards the end of the ’90s, after Bret Primack asked to write the liner notes for a live recording by his trio—unfortunately, it was never released. (I posted it on this website three years ago to the day.) Five years later, he consented to have me come to his Bronx apartment to sit for a DownBeat Blindfold Test, of which I post the uncut version below. His responses show how open-minded he was, how oriented to the here-and-now. A great artist and ambassador for the music, much missed.
Billy Taylor BT (Raw):
1. Geri Allen, “Dance of the Infidels” (from THE LIFE OF A SONG, Telarc, 2004) (Allen, piano; Dave Holland, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums, Bud Powell, composer)
I have no idea who that is. I haven’t been listening to other people for a long time now, since I had my stroke. So I’ve been listening mostly to things that I did. So now I’m not as aware as I used to be. Because I had to listen to a lot of people to present them in the different things that I was doing.
This is very interesting. It’s someone who’s harmonically oriented, and really is handling the piano like a horn in some respects, because he’s playing that kind of horn-like improvisations. I find that very interesting, because it goes off into some very different spaces that I wouldn’t think to do. I liked it. [Do you recall the tune?] No, I don’t. [Someone you knew pretty well composed it.] Really? I’m embarrassed. [The original version was at a much hotter tempo.] This was very relaxed. I liked where it was going. It helped me… I’m listening. Oh yeah? Really? That kind of stuff! I also liked the rhythm section very much. It seems like a group that’s played together a lot, and they know each other. Everybody seemed comfortable. 4 stars. A very fine performance. [AFTER] I’ll be darned! Geri is one of my favorite people, and one of the people’s whose work… I’m embarrassed now. Because she is so special to me. She’s one of the few people I’ve asked to play my work. I was ill, and she substituted for me on a thing that I was doing for David Parsons Dance Company, and did a brilliant job. Oh, she’s wonderful. Oh, it’s really embarrassing. Because I have this. But I didn’t… Man, I like this picture, too.
2. Bebo & Chucho Valdes, “Peanut Vendor” (from PAQUITO D’RIVERA PRESENTS CUBA JAZZ, RMM, 1996) (Bebo Valdes & Chucho Valdes, piano; Moises Simon, composer)
That’s two players that really are comfortable playing in Latin Jazz. I really love that. I have no idea who they are. But they are so comfortable with that style, man. My first job playing Latin music was with Machito, and I remember the first time Mario Bauzá threw something like that at me. I didn’t know what to do with those two chords, man! So the best I could do was to play some jazz over it, and in that band it worked, until he could get back to the piano and show me what to do with the montuno. That whole idea of giving you all the information you need harmonically, melodically and rhythmically, it just amazes me how they can do that in that context. You’re talking basically a very simple harmony. I fell out when I heard the pianist playing some Art Tatum, that thing that he does. It was pretty exciting. It sounds like Chucho, who I’ve played with. 4 stars for sure.
3. Ron Carter, “The Golden Striker” (from THE GOLDEN STRIKER, Blue Note, 2003) (Carter, bass; Mulgrew Miller, piano; Russell Malone, bass)
It sure sounds like Percy Heath and John Lewis doing some interesting things. The tune is by John Lewis, but I don’t recall the name, although I’ve played it. I certainly like the kind of interplay that people who know one another have in a combination like this. It’s not just the fact that you’re playing a familiar jazz work, but they are so comfortable with it. I hear something that I haven’ t heard. They are adding something very personal to it. Everything you’ve played for me, I’m giving at least four stars. Because what you’ve played for me so far, these are masters. They’re people who are playing something that is part of the repertoire, and it’s not something I’ve heard someone else play and come close to this kind of feeling and projecting the kind of thing that John Lewis meant when he wrote the song. [AFTER] I love it! Like I said, it’s jazz masters.
4. John Stetch, “Bright Mississippi” (from EXPONENTIALLY MONK, Justin Time, 2004) (Stetch, piano; Thelonious Monk, composer)
I think Monk would have enjoyed that. It was different! There are a lot of things you can do with the changes of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” but that sure was different than anything I’ve heard done. He carried the whole idea of keeping everything within almost an octave. He barely got out of the octave that he was doing the bass line in. To maintain that and to sustain it, that really held my interest. I expected it to lose me. But he stuck right in there, and it made it right from beginning to end. Very nice. It’s odd when someone decides to go out on a limb and say, “Well, I’m going to do all of these awkward intervals, then I’m going to make a bass line and put something on it.” It’s very inventive. 4 stars. This got 4 stars because of the fact that the pianist heard it, said, “Now, here’s something I can do with these kinds of intervals; I’m going to do these on well-known changes, but I’m going to take somebody’s melody that’s off the wall, and I’m going off the wall with that.” It was very inventive, I thought.
5. David Hazeltine, “Sweet and Lovely” (from ALICE IN WONDERLAND, Venus, 2004) (Hazeltine, piano; George Mraz, bass; Billy Drummond, drums)
“Sweet and Lovely.” I love the way the pianist sets something up harmonically, and follows it through both with the voicing of the chord that he’s improvising on, and the manner in which he structures the improvisation. It shows a continuity that I really like. You don’t hear enough of that. You hear it in Hank Jones and some of the guys of my generation, but this sounded like a younger pianist who was doing that. [Why does it sound like a younger pianist?] I don’t know. There were things that were very much older in terms of what he was playing. But if this is an older guy, he’s young in spirit, because I get the same rhythmic thing. There’s a difference in rhythm that not all of us retain when we get older. I loved the rhythm section. It was perfect. It laid it right down. It enhanced the piano sound, because he’s got a good touch, a lovely touch, and the bass was right under it, laying with him. I’ve played that tune many times, and they were doing some slightly different changes… That’s why I was thinking this was someone younger, or he was listening to younger guys. This is a whole tune, it’s been done a zillion ways, and he put some stuff in there that was really beautiful. 4 stars.
6. Jean-Michel Pilc, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (from FOLLOW ME, Dreyfus, 2004) (Pilc, piano; Fats Waller, composer)
This is the first one that didn’t hold my interest as much as I would like. That’s one of my favorite Fats Waller tunes, and you can take it outside and do a lot of things with it. It’s interesting, but this didn’t interest me that much. It didn’t swing enough or long enough, it didn’t hold me harmonically enough. It was cute. I mean, it was different, it had nice things. But for me, if I were playing, it would be an experiment that was interesting, but I’d have to go back and try to find something else. It didn’t make it as an experiment. Something was missing. 2-1/2 stars [AFTER] I know Jean-Michel’s work, and I didn’t recognize him. I enjoy his work very much. But this didn’t work for me. He’s a very fine pianist. I have several things he’s done, and I like them. Because he’s adventurous, as you can hear. In more cases than not, it works.
7. Marcus Roberts, “Rickitick Tick” (from IN HONOR OF DUKE, Columbia, 1999) (Roberts, piano, comp.; Roland Guerin, bass; Jason Marsalis, drums)
Another experiment that’s interesting, but doesn’t hold my interest very long. It’s nice, and many of the things that the drummer was doing remind me of Winard Harper, who plays drums with me. Winard does some things that are so rhythmic; they have a form that I like. So it’s kind of hard for me to hear someone else do that concept which I associate with him, and do it a little different. It’s not appealing to me in that regard. I’d give it 2 stars. [AFTER] When I’m accustomed to a specific thing in a style, it’s hard for me to accept something that doesn’t please me as much. I like Jason’s work. He’s a very imaginative drummer. I’ve watched him grow over the years from a young guy… He’s very mature in what he’s doing now. Generally speaking, I like what he does.
8. Randy Weston, “Portrait of Dizzy” (from MARRAKECH: IN THE COOL OF THE EVENING, Verve, 1994) (Weston, piano)
Those were three of Dizzy’s most interesting melodies to me, and an abstraction of those melodies is less interesting to me than to play the melodies themselves. Because they are some of the best melodies, to me, that came out of the bebop context. I was playing something for Tatum one time, and he said, “If you can’t make it better, don’t change it.” 1 star. [AFTER] He’s a good friend of mine, but that’s what I think. I’m surprised, though, because I love Randy’s work when he’s playing most things like that. What threw me is that I’m so used to hearing him play rhythm, and he’s so rhythmic and he plays so beautifully with rhythms. I guess that’s what I missed there. I’m embarrassed.
9. Hiromi, “Desert On the Moon” (from BRAIN, Telarc, 2004) (Hiromi, piano; Anthony Jackson, bass; Martin Valihora, drums)
Chick Corea? No? It sounded very much like him. Boy! The touch and some of the harmonies, I thought. That fooled me. Very nice, whoever it was. The kinds of things that he was doing there… I liked the touch, and I liked the way he balanced his playing. It was organized beautifully, arranged very nicely, I thought. Chick was the first one who comes to mind playing rhythmically like that and harmonically like that. Or maybe Keith Jarrett or someone like that. I liked the harmonic flow. I liked the general musicality of it. This style I think is one of the styles that seems to stick around, and there are many guys who can do something like that. But as I said, the thing that appeals to me is the combination of harmony, melody and rhythm, how that’s put together in an organizational way… It’s arranged beautifully, even though it’s not an arrangement per se. It has a nice flow. 4 stars. [AFTER] I don’t know her work. As a matter of fact, I used her at the Kennedy Center. I should have remembered. I used her for the Women’s Jazz Festival. She’s one of the people I’ve been thinking about in that context. We haven’t done as much as I hope I will do with her. Because she really comes across. She’s very interesting to watch when she plays—as well as she sounds. She’s a very interesting player. It’s nice to run into young players that have a personality when they play.
10. Michel Camilo, “The Frim-Fram Sauce” (from SOLO, Telarc, 2005) (Camilo, piano)
“Save the bones for Henry Jones.” It’s very interesting that someone would take Nat Cole’s vocal and make that kind of an instrumental out of it. It’s very well done. He captured the spirit of it. It’s fascinating, though, because everybody I’ve heard so far, I haven’t heard the kind of left hand that I grew up with. I am interested in what many of these other younger players are doing to compensate for that. They’re not playing stride piano or any style of it, but they are doing something that’s a combination of walking and other things like that. Which is very good. It’s very up-to-date and makes it… I’m spoiled, because I came up with Fats Waller and Nat Cole and people who did that. But a lot of pianists who can stretch a tenth don’t choose to do that. They’ll do other things. 4 stars. It was very well done. [AFTER] I’ll be damned! I was just reading something about him. That’s funny. We’ve played together a lot, and I know he can stretch a tenth. But for some reason, he didn’t. But he didn’t have to. He did what he did, and it was very personal.
11. Onaje Allan Gumbs, “Dreamsville” (from RETURN TO FORM, Half Note, 2003) (Gumbs, piano; Marcus McLaurine, bass; Payton Crossley, drums; Henry Mancini, comp.)
That was beautiful. A nice way of starting a ballad and building it up into a nice flowing feeling there. I liked that. The tune is by Henry Mancini, and that’s one of his lovely melodies. I really like it. 4 stars. The guy has a nice touch, and used it in a lot of… I like it when it’s musical. One thing that I generally find missing in younger pianists is the rhythmic feeling. I’m not hearing as much of the rhythm as I’m accustomed to. I want melody, harmony, and rhythm, all three of them, in a different way. Sometimes I just lose the feeling of the rhythm. It’s melodic, it’s beautiful, it’s rhapsodic, or whatever the player intends for it to be. But for me, it doesn’t satisfy something I like to hear. That’s a personal bias, I suppose, but I like all three of the elements. I don’t mean that as an overall critique. I’m just saying that many of the things I hear younger players do doesn’t swing enough for me. And by their terms. I don’t mean swing like I would swing, but swing whatever their style, and really swing, make that rhythm happen. [AFTER] Onaje! Wonderful.
12. Dave McKenna, “C-Jam Blues” (from LIVE AT MAYBECK RECITAL HALL, VOL. 2, Concord, 1990) (McKenna, piano; Duke Ellington, composer)
I know who it is, but I can’t remember his name. He used to live in the Poconos, and did a lot of stuff for Concord Records… Dave McKenna. I love his playing. He does this better than anybody I know. Those are some interesting lines he’s playing, man. They’re fascinating. Now, that’s a left hand! One of the things I pride myself in is what I do with the left hand, because it’s what I grew up with and I like to use it. But I love the way he used it, because that’s very personal. I remember years ago, when I first met Dave, I did a radio piece on him, and I was pointing out the fact that this was the most unique left hand I’d heard since Fats Waller. It was so personal and the way he did it was so effective as a contemporary way of doing basslines. 5 stars.