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Chad Taylor: Myths and Music Education

Chad Taylor: Myths and Music Education

Courtesy Peter Gannushkin


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We need to keep building the audience for this amazing art form. More money and resources need to be put in music education. I’m not talking about music school for jazz musicians, I’m talking about music appreciation for the masses.
—Chad Taylor
Few drummers know how to use rhythms like Chad Taylor. He makes the drum set sing melodies and paints different hues and shades on the cymbals and skins. He can play inside and outside and has performed with musicians like saxophonists Fred Anderson, Pharoah Sanders and James Brandon Lewis, pianists Cooper-Moore and Angelica Sanchez, guitarists Jeff Parker and Marc Ribot, bassist Joshua Abrams and trumpeter Rob Mazurek, just to name a few.

Back in 2009, Taylor released Circle Down as a leader. That recording showcased a piano trio and received wide acclaim. While the role as a leader is not new to Taylor, this is the first time that he has recorded a solo record. Myths and Morals is an adventurous and yet accessible take on the difficult art of the solo drum record, but it is much more than just that. It is a journey in melody, rhythms and sound. In the following interview, Taylor, who is also a composer, scholar and educator, speaks about his solo record, the paths he has taken as a musician, his philosophy of playing music and not least the importance of educating an audience in the appreciation of music.

All About Jazz: Did you grow up in a family surrounded by music? Did anyone in your family play an instrument or take a special interest in music?

Chad Taylor: I was born in Tempe, Arizona. My father played the piano. It was his dream to be a concert pianist. When he was in the army, he was able to study at a conservatory in Frankfurt. Unfortunately he got transferred to Alaska, so he eventually stopped playing and focused his energy on electrical engineering. Growing up, there was always great music being played in the house: Chopin, Bach, Mozart, Handel, Brahms, Liszt and Oscar Peterson. My dad is a huge Oscar Peterson fan. My older sister played piano and took an interest to playing ragtime music. My mom mostly listened to country and gospel music.

AAJ: What led to your own discovery and interest in music? What kind of music did you listen to early on and how did you develop your taste in music?

CT: My dad started giving my sister piano lessons. My parents decided that she was going to be the next musician in the family. I got extremely jealous and told my parents I wanted to play music too. They didn't take me that seriously. I remember one day when I was five or six my parents threw a party and had my sister perform a few pieces. Everybody clapped and cheered afterwards. I yelled out that I wanted to play something too. I had a toy guitar and strummed it as hard and fast as I could. Everybody chuckled and laughed at me. I decided then and there that I was going to prove to everybody that I could be a musician too. I convinced my parents to let me take some lessons. I didn't have that much talent but I had a lot of ambition. Eventually I got pretty good. I became fascinated with classical guitar. I listened to Barrios, Tarrega, Sor, and Giuliani. By the time I was thirteen my teacher told my mom I needed to get a new teacher because she didn't have anything else she could teach me. What started off as a need for attention eventually turned into a real love and obsession. Every penny I earned went to buying classical and jazz records. I only listened to classical music and jazz until I moved to New York when I was nineteen.

AAJ: So you started out as a guitarist. What made you shift to the drums?

CT: My parents split up when I was ten and me, my mom and sister moved to inner city Chicago. Wow, talk about a culture shock! I wanted to play music in school so I joined the concert band. I started off playing clarinet but I couldn't really get a sound out of the instrument so my band instructor suggested that I play percussion. When I went to high school I joined both the Orchestra and Concert band which were both outstanding. I took weekly lessons studying classical percussion. Then I met Matthew Lux. Matt Lux turned my life upside down. He played bass in the orchestra and asked me what sort of music I liked. Other than a ton of classical recordings I think I had a New Edition record and a Kenny G Live record. Matt was not impressed. He began to school me big time. At fourteen, Matt was already a jazz aficionado. He told me about Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Art Blakey and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. He convinced me to start playing the drum set and got me to enroll in the Bloom school of Jazz. After high school was done around four in the afternoon, we would go down to the Bloom school and take classes in improvisation. David Bloom's method was really conceptual. He talked about how to shape a solo, how to get the music to swing. I learned a lot from him. Around the same time I met a bassist named Dennis Carroll who performed with Bobby Broom. He was my first real mentor. He helped get me on gigs and played all the classic recordings for me. During this time though I thought of jazz as just a hobby. My real passion was still classical music so when I got offered a scholarship to study classical guitar at Milikin University, I took it. I was miserable there. I had to do a recital every other month and I couldn't take the pressure. I would get serious stage fright. One day I just gave up. I stopped going to class and would just hang out in the library listening to records. I found this Henry Threadgill record with Steve McCall and after listening to that I decided that I wanted to focus all my energy on playing the drums. The next year I enrolled in the New School of Jazz in New York. I haven't really played the guitar ever since.

AAJ: Sometimes you hear a musician say that he or she plays a certain instrument because it corresponds to the sounds that he or she wants to express. Is it possible to say that playing drums involves another mindset than playing guitar? I'm also thinking of rhythmical versus melodic thinking, if there is such a thing. The reason I'm asking is because I think of your playing as being very rhythmical, but also very melodic and you also use melodic instruments to supplement the drums. So, basically, do you think of yourself primarily as a drummer or more like a musician who just so happens to play the drums?

CT: When I was sixteen I went down to the Jazz showcase to hear Elvin Jones and the Jazz Machine. It completely blew my mind. I was extremely shy at the time, but I really wanted to meet Elvin so I just sort of hid in the corner until the room was empty. He walked up to me and asked "Are you a musician?" I said "No. I'm a drummer." He put his arm around me and said "If you are a drummer then you are a musician! Never forget that!." Ha! I've always approached the drum set as a melodic instrument because that's the only approach I knew. I didn't grow up listing to popular music. My first experiences of the drums was listening to melodic drummers like Elvin Jones, Frankie Dunlop and Billy Higgins. Ironically they all played guitar too.

AAJ: How do you feel about the jazz tradition? What does jazz music and the jazz tradition mean to you and do you think of yourself as a jazz musician?

CT: I do think of myself as a jazz musician. For me what defines jazz is not the tradition of the music but the process of the music. I've always have been fascinated with jazz history. I did my masters in Jazz History and Research under the direction of Lewis Porter at Rutgers. It's a great program. Not only do you study historiography but you study the history of music theory, the history of songwriting and the history of peoples' musical perceptions. In my opinion, what are considered jazz traditions in jazz music have slowly changed over time. They have evolved. What has remained constant though is the process of creating jazz music. That process is taking musical elements that are known and putting them together in a different way to create something that is new and unknown. African-americans who were slaves had to embrace this process of creating something new out of what's available for survival. For me this process of creation in essence is jazz. It's creative music. For me the greatest jazz musicians are the ones who have created their own systems for improvising; musicians like Charlie Parker, Henry Threadgill and Fred Anderson to name a few.

AAJ: Could you tell about some of your formative experiences as a musician? What are some of the most import steps in your development as a musician in terms of people you played with, education and recording projects?

CT: I enrolled at the New School in 1992. I was a terrible student at that time but I learned a lot from playing sessions. I played all day almost every day in all sorts of situations. I played with great musicians and people who were absolute beginners. I hardly ever turned down a session because I knew there was something to be learned in every playing situation, I felt lucky to hook up with folks like Kurt Rosenwinkel, JD Allen, and Chris Lightcap.

I moved back to Chicago in 1997 and was honored to have Fred Anderson ask me to join his trio. I met Fred through Josh Abrams. Playing with Fred was a school all unto itself. Fred taught me a lot about phrasing and form in a free context and also about musical integrity.

During this time in Chicago there were also lot of interesting collaborations happening. Nothing seemed forced or contrived. I met producers and engineers who were amazing musicians. Their knowledge of jazz was massive. I knew several indie rock musicians who had double and triple the jazz recordings I had. It really blew my mind. I moved into the loft that the band Tortoise had. I started working with Sam Prekop from the band The Sea and Cake and Doug McCombs and Jeff Parker from Tortoise.

One of the big breaks me and Rob Mazurek had is that the band Stereolab sampled my drumming on one of their records. Instead of compensation they asked if we wanted to open up for them on a six week tour. Wow! The Underground Duo went from playing in front of twenty people to playing in front of five-hundred people overnight. It still baffles my mind the amount of records we sold playing unfamiliar experimental music.

I moved back to NYC in 2001 and hooked up with Cooper-Moore. I met Cooper-Moore through Tom Abbs. Cooper-Moore was another great mentor. One of the first things he said to me was "I've been asking about you. I heard you're a great listener." I said "Ah thanks Cooper Moore." He said "That's not a compliment." Ha!! I was completely dumbfounded. It took me a few years working with him to understand what he meant.

To be a great improviser you can't just be reacting to what you hear, you also have to simultaneously be giving people things to react to. I have also learned a lot about improvising from playing with Marc Ribot and Henry Grimes for many years.

I think one of my proudest moments was getting the opportunity to work with Pharoah Sanders. The first time I heard the mbira was when I heard Steve Neil play it in one of Pharoah's bands, so in a way things have come around full circle.

For me the learning process never stops. I'm always studying and learning from whoever I can.

AAJ: I would like to ask you about your new solo recording, Myths and Morals, which is out on ears&eyes Records. First of all, how did you get in touch with Matthew Golombisky (founder of ears&eyes Records)?

CT: Ken Vandermark and Tim Daisy invited me to perform in Chicago at their Option series at the E.S.S. Matthew approached me about wanting to listen to the live recording for a possible release. I had a couple of people interested in the recording, but Matthew was the only one who was really psyched about it. Matthew has been really amazing to work with. We have a great relationship.

AAJ: The title of the record is very alluring. What does it mean to you?

CT: I've always been a huge fan of Joseph Campbell. One of my favorite quotes of his is " A myth is what we call someone else's religion" All of the major religions share the same morals but yet we need to believe only our 'myth' is the one that's real and the morals that we think are associated with that myth are the only morals that are important. Instead of focusing on what unites us, we focus on what is different. We take everybody else's myths and morals for granted, yet it is this collective of myths and morals that define who and what we are as a whole. The fact that we are all here on this planet together at this particular time is not insignificant. For me true religion is able to see the unity and beauty of the whole.

AAJ: When I think of the record, it both seems ancient and completely modern. Percussive sounds mix with electronic treatments that create soundscapes or stories that reach across time. Was it your intention all along to create a solo recording that would not just be the classic solo sounds of the drum set?

CT: I knew that I wanted to incorporate the mbira, but I didn't want to do it in the traditional way. I also knew that I wanted to incorporate the bow and the delay pedal. I tried to put those three elements together in a way that was organic.

AAJ: As you said, the mbira is a significant instrument on the album. What is it that fascinates you about this instrument and how long have you played it?

CT: The mbira is a spiritual instrument. That pretty much sums it up. I don't know any other instrument like it. It's pulled me through some of my toughest times. It has a deep and rich legacy. I've been studying the mbira for about thirteen years. The mbira is the most complex type of kalimba. It has two rows of keys. The left and right thumb plays the bass tones and the right index finger plays the high tones.

AAJ: When did you get the idea of making a solo record? Has it been something you have been thinking about for a long time, including the concept of how you wanted to approach it, or was it more an idea that occurred spontaneously? Did you think about the tradition of solo drum records like Max Roach's Drums Unlimited and Art Blakey's Orgy in Rhythm or did you approach it from another angle?

CT: Some of my favorite jazz recordings are solo drum records. My two favorites are probably The Predictability of Unpredictability by Jerome Cooper band and Grand Unification by Milford Graves. I've always been scared to do a solo recording. I think working with (visual artist) Rosa Barba changed all of that. Working with Rosa gave me the confidence I needed to dive in head first.

AAJ: As you mentioned, you have worked with Rosa Barba, who also contributes the cover to the album. How are you inspired by other art forms and how do you translate one art form to another? In other words, how do you convey the ambience of an image into sound? Do you try to translate it directly or is it a more abstract interpretation?

CT: Music is life and life is music. Whatever experiences you have naturally come out in whatever art you practice.

AAJ: To me, the track "Phoenix" is an excellent example of storytelling in music. There is a clear narrative arc in the music and a tension between poetic textures and the development of infectious rhythmic motifs that correspond to the thrill of hearing a good melody. Could you tell about some of the musical techniques you use to convey this kind of storytelling? Also, how much of it is through-composed and how much of it is improvisation?

CT: It's a little bit of both. That piece was completely improvised. I think it's Ralph Petersen who said: "the more music you know, the more musicianship you have." Or something like that. That's always been my credo.

AAJ: Another thing I've noticed is that you sometimes seem to have several things going on at the same time. Instead of just one storyline, you seem to work with several storylines. Could you speak about the significance of polyphony in your music?

CT: I think a strong argument could be made that polyrhythms and polyphony are part of the jazz tradition. If you listen to rag time and stride pianist like Scott Joplin, Willie "The Lion" Smith, Fats Waller and James P Johnson, you can often hear that there are cross rhythms being played with their left hands. In a lot of New Orleans music there isn't just one person taking a solo over everyone else, but rather a collective improvisation.

AAJ: The album includes a wealth of musical colors. I especially find the sounds of the cymbals fascinating. Could you tell about the cymbals you use and the techniques you use to provide all these different shades and textures?

CT: I could but I'm not going to. I've never really been that into musical equipment.

AAJ: Moving away from equipment then, but staying in the realm of instruments, I'm also curious to know whether you have given up playing the vibraphone? I recall how it played a significant role on some of the early Chicago Underground Duo albums, but lately it seems to have disappeared from your playing.

CT: I never considered myself a vibraphonist. I studied mallets in high school, but my reading has always been mediocre. With the early Chicago Underground Duo recordings, I approached the vibraphone as an extension of the drum set so I would play them both simultaneously keeping the damper down so that all the notes could ring out over the drums. I kept the vibraphone on my right side right above my floor tom. I did this live at performances as well as on our first three recordings. I was really into the concept of playing them together. Then one day we played a show in Paris and John Betch came to the gig. He pulled me aside and said "Chad, what you are doing is amazing and sounds incredible, but you need to stop immediately. if you keep doing that you are going to throw out your back." I was young and didn't listen to him. Sure enough, a few years later, I was having serious issues with my spine. I got a good chiropractor and worked it out, but I haven't really played the vibraphone or marimba since then.

AAJ: Perhaps you could also tell about some of your other current projects, for instance your duo with saxophonist James Brandon Lewis.

CT: Me and James have been playing together for about three years. I'm drawn to James because he's searching for his own thing, his own sound and concept. I have always been attracted to musicians who have an independence about them and aren't afraid to go against the status quo. Musicians like Matana Roberts, Cooper-Moore, Marc Ribot, Darius Jones, Nicole Mitchell, Rob Mazurek, John McEntire, Jim O'Rourke, Jaimie Branch, Ken Vandermark, Josh Abrams, Jeff Parker, Eric Revis, Angelica Sanchez, Jameel Moondoc, Steve Swell and Bobby Zankel.

AAJ: Your record with James Brandon Lewis, Radiant Imprints, reminded me of the collaboration between John Coltrane and Rashied Ali. What is it about the duo as a form that attracts you and how is it different from playing in a group with several musicians? Is there a different focus? What is the strength of the duo format?

CT: I've always been intrigued by one on one communication. That's my favorite type of dialogue. In music and in life. I've had some incredible experiences playing duets over the years, but my favorite by far was getting to play a duo for almost two hours with Jackie Byard.

AAJ: Speaking of the duos, I cannot avoid bringing up the Chicago Underground. How and when did you meet Rob Mazurek and how would you characterize the communication between you?

CT: I played my first gig with Rob when I was fourteen at a place called Sheffields. The great bassist Dennis Carrol took me under his wing at that time and got me on the gig. We played mostly standards. At this point our communication sometimes feels telepathic. I'm not sure that's necessarily a good thing or not. I think we are always looking for ways to surprise each other and keep the music fresh.

AAJ: Do you have any new projects planned in the future?

CT: Rob and I will be touring Europe in May with our new project Chicago/London Underground

AAJ: Speaking of your first gig with Rob Mazurek, I would also like to know about the first record you did and what you remember about it?

CT: The first recording I did was in 1997. The project was called Hoffman Estates. It featured the guitarists Alan Licht and Loren Mazzacane-Connors with a large ensemble. It was produced by Jim O'Rourke. I have no idea how I even got on that session. I remember asking myself "why am I here?" I think it turned out pretty well though. There were a lot of great musicians on that date, including Rob Mazurek and Ken Vandermark. Alan and Loren were great to work with.

AAJ: To me your trio record with Angelica Sanchez and Chris Lightcap, Circle Down, is a special record. What are your thoughts about this record? What do you remember about the sessions and is there any chance there will be another record with this trio?

CT: I really enjoyed doing Circle down. Angelica and Chris are exceptional musicians. Originally it was a collective band, but I volunteered to be the leader with the intention of keeping it going. I attempted to release another recording but I wasn't happy with my playing on it so it never got released. I'd love to one day try a second attempt. Perhaps one day it will happen.

AAJ: You are also a teacher. What are some of the most important things you try to teach your students and what do you think it takes to survive as a musician today?

CT: I learned early on that regardless of what genera of music you play, it's important to have a good feel. If the feeling is right, you're going to work. The musicians who are going to hire you don't care about your drum solos and drum fills. They don't care about how much technique you have. They don't care about what type of cymbals you play. They care about how the music feels.

Also to be a great improvisor learn to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

AAJ: What are your thoughts about the current musical climate?

CT: We need to keep building the audience for this amazing art form. More money and resources need to be put in music education. I'm not talking about music school for jazz musicians, I'm talking about music appreciation for the masses. Everybody today says they love music but the value of musicians has plummeted significantly in the last twenty years. This is not an accident but a deliberate move from corporate America and those influenced by it.

One of the things that the corporate world is banking on is the complete ignorance, disinterest, and indifference of the general public. At the beginning of the twentieth century a majority of the middle class could both read and write music. Music wasn't just something you consumed, performing music was part of people's everyday life. That is not the case today. So the question becomes how do we change this? For me the answer is education. I've been teaching music appreciation, general music history, and rudimental music theory classes for the last six or seven years. These are usually the classes that no one wants to teach at institutions but these are the classes that will be the most beneficial by growing a more educated audience. It's important for musicians to do workshops in public schools, outreach programs and help educate the public. Collaborating with artists in other fields and presenting the results to different audiences is also beneficial. Instead of teaching that jazz is just a genre of music, I like to teach that it is a process that is alive and well and used in all sorts of music that is popular today. This helps create a curiosity and respect for jazz as an art form.

Music streaming is not going away. It's here to stay. If working musicians refuse to put their music on steaming platforms, eventually the only thing that will be left on Spotify is really awful music. If the general public is able to realize this then the value of musicians will rise considerably.

AAJ: What inspires you most right now?

CT: My family inspires me the most. I have an amazing wife and three incredible daughters.

AAJ: Finally, could you tell when and where it will be possible to catch you live. Will you be touring in support of the new solo album?

CT: Most of my gigs I post on my website https://www.chadtaylordrums.net. I will be doing a record release at the club Constellation in Chicago on May 9th. I also plan on doing solo performances in New York, Marfa, Texas and Philly later this year.

Selected discography

Chad Taylor, Myths and Morals (ears&eyes Records, 2018)
James Brandon Lewis & Chad Taylor, Radiant Imprints (Off, 2018)
Aruán Ortiz Trio with Brad Jones and Chad Taylor, Live in Zürich (Intakt, 2018)
Eric Revis, Sing Me Some Cry (Clean Feed, 2017)
Marc Ribot Trio, Live at the Village Vanguard (Pi Recordings, 2014)
Nicole Mitchell's Sonic Projections, The Secret Escapades of Velvet Anderson (Rogue Art, 2014)
Pharoah & the Underground, Spiral Mercury (Clean Feed, 2014)
Grass Roots with Darius Jones, Alex Harding and Sean Conly, Grass Roots (AUM Fidelity, 2012)
Jeff Parker, Bright Light in Winter (Delmark, 2012)
Side A, A New Margin (Cleen Feed, 2011)
Chad Taylor, Circle Down (482 Music, 2009)
Digital Primitives with Assif Tashar: Hum Crackle & Pop (Hopscotch Records, 2009)
Cooper-Moore/Tom Abbs/Chad Taylor, Triptych Myth (Hopscotch Records, 2004)
Sticks and Stones, Shed Grace (Thrill Jockey, 2004)
Fred Anderson, Back at the Velvet Lounge (Delmark, 2003)
Chicago Underground Duo, Synesthesia (Thrill jockey, 2000)

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