Rusty Taylor: Jazz + Country = Southern Comfort

Guy Zinger By

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When I sing, I can almost see where the space lies and when some of the other notes can go, and I can hear it in my inner ear.
Rusty Allen Taylor is an engaging example of a new a new country-jazz, male vocalist. With his touch of country zing, he creates a mix of sweetness and mellowness, on the one hand, and speckles it with dirt, on the other. This bittersweet mix is a parallel to his life and generates a truly unique sound.

After 16 years of what Rusty describes as "incarceration in the corporate world," he has made his hobbies into his full-time occupation: singing and writing. Rusty has a special gift: a unique ability to express himself through music and the written word. Rusty sees his life since the life-changing experience he had 25 years ago as an exciting journey, at times musical and at times poetical.

All About Jazz: Could you tell us a bit about where you come from? Are you self taught? How did you get into singing?

Rusty Taylor: I'll start from the beginning. I was born in Germany in 1964. My dad was in the U.S. Air Force, spending the Vietnam War time stationed in Europe. He had music from every kind of genre imaginable. So we used to hear music all the time. I guess from a young age, I was introduced to a lot of types of music, and dug music ever since. Then opportunities became available and led me down the road of recording in a studio a couple of years ago, finding my way around music in this way.

I sang all of my life. At a certain point, I became employed as a computer programmer, and through that I met a guy named Jeff Smith, who is a wonderful bassist. In fact, he plays bass on my album. He got me into jazz music even more; I've been listening to jazz all my life, but I didn't understand the structure. He [Jeff Smith] taught me.

AAJ: And that was in 1992, right?

RT: Yes sir. That's also when I joined the Columbus Jazz Society, promoting jazz music. I began taking part in their jam sessions, singing with them, beginning to develop my repertoire, singing when I can, working when I have to—until I left my job in 2008 and moved more quickly forward in my musical endeavors.

AAJ: So up until that time, it was more of a hobby to you? Did you have any kind of formal training?

RT: That's correct. When I worked, I waited to come home to have fun with music, and when I stopped programming, I had all the time in the world to do music. I never had any formal musical training, but I listened actively to music all of my life. Now I can say I understand music, but I don't know how I understand it, if that makes any sense.

AAJ: Some of the best vocalists just sang from their heart and didn't seem to apply any conscious cognitive function—it just flew out of them. Let's try to dig deeper; do you have a certain vision when you sing or certain singers that influence you or inspire you?

RT: I grew up listening to everything from Otis Redding to Petula Clark, The Four Seasons, Dean Martin—all that kind of stuff. I remember seeing a movie with Dean Martin and Bing Crosby, and he sang "Moonlight Becomes You," and I thought to myself, "Man, I'm going to do that." I'm a really big fan of Ella Fitzgerald, although my voice is a little bit deeper. She's the bomb, for me. The way she scats really turns me on. I like pop music too. I am a big fan of Neil Diamond.

AAJ: Let's narrow it down to the last five years, to your jazz influences: male vocalists that really inspire you.

RT: I really went back into the traditional classic jazz. I'm a big fan of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and those cats from the bebop era. I really dig that stuff. I'm trying to scat in that kind of manner at this point in my life. But I think my best genre is ballads. I'm trying to incorporate all that stuff in my singing. And I am having fun with it all, and the folks that hear it kind of dig it. I really love Johnny Hartman; I could listen to the ballads album by him and Coltrane [John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (Impulse!, 1963)] every day for the rest of my life.

AAJ: Do you have a certain kind of vision when you're singing? What are you trying to accomplish? Are you a stylist or an improviser?

RT: When I am singing, I'm just listening to what's going on around me. It's mostly listening, with me. I'd like to say that I am progressing towards being both a stylist and an improviser. I am working very hard on my scatting, and my examples for that are Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme and Al Jarreau. So, I begin [the head] with my own style, then when repeating, I'd try to make some of the crazy stuff while scatting, and then come back to my own voice at the end. I like both.

AAJ: You are self taught. It would be interesting to hear how you go about improvising and phrasing. Do you have a certain technique or do you just follow whatever comes to mind? Do you think about phrasing before you sing?

RT: Well, I'm thinking about the melody in my head, listening to what's going on around me, and I try to go to different places with it—depends on the musicians that I surround myself with. And they and the crowd seem to dig what I am doing and want more. Before I went pro, I used to imitate a lot of the singers I like. The same applies for guitar solos (scatting the guitar solos), stuff like "Hotel California." That laid the base, and through that I developed my scat skills.

In terms of phrasing, I heard other singers and what they were doing, but when I sing, I can almost see where the space lies and when some of the other notes can go, and I can hear it in my inner ear. I'm not sure how I do what I do, but I do love the lyrics and the melodies of the songs I sing, and they themselves sound well when I sing them. I love the words to be heard. So, I tell a story—probably has to do with my writing too. I like to write long syncopated sentences. Also, in my writing, the rhythm is more important than the meaning—for me, at least.

AAJ: Would you like to elaborate about your writing?

RT: I've got a weird style—it's pretty bombastic, a lot of big words. I write them for myself, and if anyone digs them, they are more than welcome to read it. I've just finished the latest revision of a novel I am working on. I've also got autobiographical manuscripts.

I'm not sure that your readers are aware of that, but I am a quadriplegic, and I broke my neck in 1986. As a matter of fact, this past month was my 25th anniversary. It has made me focus on things and do things I'd probably wouldn't do, had I not been paralyzed—singing and writing.

It's been a wonderful trip so far, from that point onward. I've got a great family-and-friends network that supports me. It made things easier for me in terms of my creativity. That had allowed me to do things not a lot of people in my position would have done. One of my manuscripts highlights the lighter side of paralysis. I've got another novel and some children's stories—a story about a bird that's afraid of heights, a butterfly that's colorblind, a centipede that's in a wheelchair.

I've recently begun writing lyrics for jazz songs. There's a beautiful tune called "James" by Pat Metheny, which was written for James Taylor. So, I'm thinking of lines and illusions I get from James Taylor's songs, and I'm putting them into words that go with the Metheny melody. That inspired me to write lyrics to other songs also.

AAJ: How did you choose the tunes for your CDs? What's the story behind it for you?

RT: Where I come from, jazz is not really the thing. The songs I chose are pretty much heavyweights. I wanted to go with the heavyweights for the initial recording. I just really dig those songs; they are so complex and beautiful, and we don't get to hear them that much down here where I am [located]. I have a big collection of music, and just picked the songs that I really like to sing. And there's the challenge bit. For example, "'Round Midnight"—there are certain parts of it that are really challenging for a singer. Three songs on the CD are really challenging, and I was proud that I could do them and have them for posterity, I guess.

Thelonious Monk's style is really intriguing to me, and I really don't know why it inspires me to sing, but it just does. Maybe living and playing/singing with dissonances—going in all kinds of musical directions and bringing it back together at the end. It's the story of his life. I think that's why I really relate to it.

AAJ: How is it to sing jazz in your neck of the woods? Do you sing with country-like embellishments? Is it country-jazz?

RT: I do really dig country music, especially the old country classics. It's big down here in the South—much bigger than the jazz scene. I've been influenced by people like Joe Allison. I have one of his tunes on my CD. We changed it from a waltz to a little swinging version. It's called "He'll Have to Go." Jazz is getting more and more common here, through societies like the Columbus Jazz Society. We have a monthly jazz jam, where I sing. People really seem to be digging what I'm doing. I am singing it for those folks. Never thought to call it country jazz, but I like the sound of it.

AAJ: How would you define yourself as a singer, your voice in particular? Would you say that it's a parallel to your life?

RT: A parallel to my life—yes. I would say I am peaceful until I cannot be peaceful anymore. A little bit of both. Peace through music. And I just sing this way, didn't do anything in particular to achieve this mix. It just happened.

AAJ: What was the urge or reason to produce the CD?

RT: I wanted to do it and to see if I could do it. After the accident ... I realized that life is short, and there'll be a time when I look back and say to myself, "I should have done that." I didn't want recording in a studio to be one of those things.

AAJ: Any new projects lined up music-wise, performances, or new fields you would like to roam?

RT: I am performing live in Columbus regularly, and my friends and I are assembling material for the next recording. We want to take some originals, and also take old standards from different genres and make them into jazz songs. One of them that I have in mind is The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood." I'd like to do it in 5/4 time. The new CD is going to be a continuation of the journey. We're going to call it Southern Standard Time 2. There will jazz standards in there also. I would also like to do another Johnny Hartman tune, "You Are Too Beautiful." I really dig that tune.

Selected Discography

Rusty Taylor and Friends, Southern Standard Time (Self Produced, 2010)

Photo Credit>
All Photos: Courtesy of Rusty Taylor

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