Martin Taylor: Embodying the Spirit of Django

Matthew Warnock By

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Guitarist Martin Taylor is about as multi-faceted as any player on the modern scene. Whereas many guitarists have reached similar heights within the jazz world, Taylor has developed simultaneous reputations for his solo jazz guitar playing, his Gypsy- inspired band, the Spirit of Django, his solo finger-style guitar work, as well as his small group jazz playing. Among guitarists, he is known as a player's player— someone who reaches across genres to integrate his many influences, while at the same time remaining true to the specific musical dimension he may find himself in during any given concert or recording session. It is this diversity and his incredible ability as a solo guitarist and improviser which has propelled Taylor to the top of the jazz guitar world and won him fans the world over.

In 2010, Taylor expanded his musical palette yet again by launching the Martin Taylor Guitar Academy, an online music school run by the British guitarist. Students from all over the world can now study with the master guitarist, all from the comfort of their own homes. Each lesson, which is part of a larger curriculum designed by Taylor, is presented as a video on the site, in a somewhat similar fashion to an instructional DVD. How the site differs from normal DVD lessons is that students can videotape themselves performing the exercises from each lesson, and post them on the site for Taylor to critique and for other students to view and learn from.

This added level of interactivity allows the site to offer students a personal touch from Taylor as he works with them through problems, offers encouragement and guides them through each concept and exercise. For the price of a one-off lesson with a local guitarist, students can have access to all of the site's material for three months at a time. With the site's initial success, and that of similar sites hosted by Andreas Oberg and Jimmy Bruno, it seems like this may be signaling a new frontier for guitar education worldwide.

In recognition of his lifetime of commitment to the guitar, jazz, and music in general, the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama announced in 2010 that they would bestow an honorary Doctorate degree on Taylor, the first such award given to a guitarist. Though Taylor will be the first to deflect attention away from himself for such an award, being more humble than his talent dictates, the Academy couldn't have picked a more deserving guitarist, educator and musical ambassador for this award.

All About Jazz: With your band, the Spirit of Django, being inspired by the music and life of Django Reinhardt, it seems to reason that he's had a big influence on your performing career. Django is one of those players that means different things to different people. What does Django's music mean to you on a personal and professional level?

Martin Taylor: It's the music that I grew up with, because that was the music my dad was playing around the house, and Django became the reason that I began playing guitar in the first place. For me, compared to the other guitar players that I heard at the time, there seemed to be an incredible connection between myself and his music. The best way I can describe it is that it felt like he was talking to me. Looking back at it now, I think it's because he was such a melodic player and improviser—that's the side of his playing that grabbed a hold of me.

Though he inspired me to play the guitar, to be honest, I never really played in that style. I was more into the American players like Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow, Johnny Smith, guys from that school of playing— that's really where my roots are. Even when I played with Stephane Grappelli, we never really played Hot Club music. We would play a couple of tunes that were in that realm, but we never played in that style.

AAJ: Did playing with Stéphane inspire you to form the Spirit of Django ensemble?

MT: It was slightly after I had played with Stéphane that I started the Spirit of Django group because I felt that I wanted to explore this music further. I was also fascinated with Django the person, not just Django the player. When you hear his family talk about him, they describe him as being a very modern man. I started to wonder if he was alive now, what type of music would he be playing. Even during his lifetime, you can hear him transitioning into a new direction with his music, away from his earlier style of playing. When I recorded the first Spirit of Django record we did a Pat Metheny tune, because I'm sure if he was alive today he'd be a fan of Pat's music.

AAJ: Since Django had such a strong influence on you while you were growing up, how much formal study of his music did you do? Were you transcribing his solos and chord work, or was it more a matter of just listening and absorbing his style aurally?

MT: I learned by listening and absorbing the music because I didn't really have any formal music training. I didn't take any lessons or have any formal music education. I would just listen to his records, and I found that when I was away from the music I could still recall it in my mind and sing those solos and melodies that he played. Even when I was a kid in school, his music would be going through my mind all day.

When I started to pick up the guitar, I found that I could work out some of his phrases just by ear. When I became more proficient on the guitar, I found that I was incorporating his ideas into my soloing sometimes without even thinking about it. I used a lot of what I heard Django doing to kind of unravel the mysteries of improvisation. I learned about music by working out some of the things that I heard Django do in his playing.


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