Billy Taylor has lurked behind the scenes for years, never quite achieving the fame he deserved, and his legacy will probably rest largely on his efforts as an educator to bring jazz to a wider audience. That is a shame, because Taylor was quite a accessible pianist and his extensive catalog remains largely out of print. Fortunately, Fantasy has released this two-fer CD, featuring two sessions from 1954 and 1955 that amply demonstrate what a great pianist he truly is.
Taylor is often compared to Teddy Wilson because of his elegant, understated approach and easygoing stroll through material. However, he has a gift for finding unique harmonic approaches in standards, turning even the most familiar material into something unexpected. From the ballroom flourishes of “A Foggy Day” to the bouncy arpeggios that introduce “Sweet Georgia Brown” to the minor vamps in the head of “I’ll Remember April,” Taylor gives every tune his own personal stamp, one which is reminiscent of the work of Hampton Hawes and other cool-toned pianists.
However, there are also a number of Taylor originals featured that fit in quite well with the old chestnuts, including some real treasures. “Blue Clouds” is the kind of gently swinging original that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Vince Guaraldi album, and “A Bientot” has the impressionistic feel of a Bill Evans outing. Both are wistful ballads that are wonderfully composed. “Long Tom” and “It’s A Grand Night For Swinging” show Taylor’s more playful side and make ample use of a propulsive left hand and Brice’s conga-like drumming.
Most of the these tracks are short - with the exception of a thirteen-minute plus “How High the Moon,” all the tracks are single length – but that serves the trio well as they briskly move from one song to the next, creating finely crafted gems instead of examining the options from every available angle. At over 70 minutes and 17 tracks, there’s enough piano jazz here to satisfy all but the most rabid fan, and enough variety to encourage repeated listens. This could be the best classic piano jazz album by a pianist you’ve never heard of.
Personnel: Billy Taylor-piano; Earl May-bass; Percy Brice-drums.