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Martin Taylor/Andreas Varady: Belfast, Ireland, November 4, 2011

Ian Patterson By

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Martin Taylor/Andreas Varady
Black Box
Belfast, Ireland
November 4, 2011

It was a mouth-watering prospect and no mistake; Martin Taylor, the guitarist's guitarist, paired with 14-year-old, six-string sensation Andreas Varady, the youngest ever headliner at London's Ronnie Scott's. Taylor—of whom Jeff Beck said: "he out-shreds us all"—came to prominence when he began an 11-year stint with violinist Stephane Grappelli in 1979. His collaborations over the years have revealed an open-minded approach to music, with many ventures into non-jazz territory. One of his most popular projects, however, has been Spirit of Django, his tribute band to Belgian gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, reconvened for Last Train to Hauteville (The Guitar Label, 2010) after a long hiatus. This is the link to Varady, a Slovakian gypsy guitarist who has made a huge impression in his adopted country of Ireland. Surprisingly then, the two-hour concert at the Black Box, in the buzzing Cathedral Quarter of a renascent Belfast, contained nary a Reinhardt composition.

Taylor opened the show with a solo set which kept the audience in enthralled silence. Technically brilliant though never flashy, old chestnuts like "I'm Old Fashioned" and the Gershwins' "They Can't Take That Away from Me" were as much soul tunes as jazz in Taylor's hands. "Hymne a L'amour"—whose lyrics were written by singer Edith Piaf—was a favorite tune of Grappelli's, and Taylor's delicate reading had more than a hint of heartfelt dedication to his former sparring partner. Jesse Harris' "I Don't Know Why," popularized by singer Norah Jones, featured jaw-dropping technique, with Taylor repeatedly leaping back and forth between chords separated by the length of the neck, something whose logic challenged the eyes while beguiling the ears.

In the early 1970s Taylor lived in the West Indies, and slipping a piece of cardboard under his strings he recreated a Caribbean vibe more in keeping with the steel drums, on the lilting calypso "Down at Cocomos." Taylor was then joined by Varady and the duo launched into "Softly As in a Morning Sunrise," alternating between lead and comping roles. Taylor's opening solo set the bar high, but Varady responded in a dazzling and disarmingly relaxed manner. Probably not since French guitarist Bireli Lagrene has there been such a buzz surrounding a teenage guitarist, and his debut recording with Irish drummer David Lyttle, Questions (Lyte Records, 2010) revealed a musician of remarkable maturity.

Varady not only has the technique, but more importantly, he quietly exudes a feel for the music which belies his tender years. The contrasting moods of singer/songwriter Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely" and bandleader Ray Noble's jazz standard "Cherokee" illustrated Varady's emotional range on his instrument, and on the latter his zestful, biting solo—at bebop velocity— matched Taylor's own ingenuity. A sizzling segment of unison playing brought the tune —and the first set—to a climactic conclusion.

The second set began with Taylor solo once again. "Sweet Lorraine" had a lovely country/jazz gait which paid elegant tribute to guitarist Chet Atkins, with whom Taylor recorded in duet in the late 1980s. A swinging "I've Got Rhythm" highlighted his rare ability to juggle driving rhythm with dancing melodic lines, and was followed by a very delicate ballad, "One Day," written by singer/guitarist Martin Simpson. Billy Taylor/Dick Dallas' much-loved "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free" signaled the end of Taylor's second solo set.

Varady took the lead on harmonica legend Toots Thielemans's jazz standard "Bluesette," executing an incredibly fluid, bluesy solo before handing over the reins to Taylor. Taylor's highly nuanced vocabulary is the result of over four decades playing, so it speaks volumes for Varady that he was in no way overshadowed by the veteran Scottish guitarist. A swinging "Straight, No Chaser" and another slice of Caribbean heaven followed. The latter tune was unrehearsed by the two, and Taylor quipped that it would be a test for Varady. The young Slovakian felt his way relatively quickly into the beautiful calypso—tinged with an almost West African lilt—and carved out a lyrical solo colored by Wes Montgomery-style chords. The applause at the end reflected that Varady had not only passed the test, but passed it with distinction.

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