Monday, July 10, 2017

Billy Taylor and Quincy Jones's Jazzy Take on My Fair Lady, 1957

Though perhaps he isn't as well remembered today as his achievements deserve, the career of North Carolina piano man Billy Taylor was full of milestones: in the 1950s he worked as house pianist at New York's Birdland; in the 1960s he became the first black musical director of a major network television program, on the popular David Frost Show; and in the 1970s, he earned a doctorate in music from the University of Massachusetts. Taylor was also very involved in spreading the good news about jazz on the radio and on television, but he always found time to play live and enter the studio regularly for over fifty years, recording a respectable amount of albums for labels such as Prestige, Savoy, Impulse, and Capitol, among others. Born in Greenville in 1921, Taylor moved to NYC in the early 1940s playing and sometimes recording alongside great jazzmen like Slam Stewart, Ben Webster, and violinists Stuff Smith and Eddie South. While working at Birdland, he formed his first trio, the setting in which he felt most comfortable throughout his career, and cut his first of many records as a leader. Taylor passed away in New York in 2010 at age 89, leaving behind a solid musical legacy that's in need of rediscovery.

Those who have criticized Taylor for not being innovative enough should listen closely to what I consider to be his best album—My Fair Lady Loves Jazz, recorded for Impulse in NYC over the course of three separate sessions in January and February 1957. This was at a time when the successful show by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe had been running on Broadway for about a year, and in fact, there was even a release party for the LP that was attended by most of the theatrical cast. Taylor's trio features bassist Earl May and drummer Ed Thigpen, but it's augmented for this project by several excellent horn players like trumpeter Ernie Royal, baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, altoist Tony Ortega, and trombonist Jimmy Cleveland, to mention just four. The horns, arranged by none other than Quincy Jones, are a perfect complement for the elegant sound of Taylor's trio, which they enrich greatly. This is evident from the very first bars of the opening track, "Show Me," which also features Royal on trumpet prominently, and the rest of selections always leave room for solos by Taylor and his guests—Ortega shines on the ballad "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" and Cleveland contributes a fine solo to the bouncy "Get Me to the Church on Time," for instance. Jones's charts underscore the jazz elements of great tunes like "I Could Have Danced All Night" and "On the Street Where You Live" without straying too far away from the melodies, and Taylor obviously feels extremely comfortable in the company of May and Thigpen, for whom he only has words of praise in the liner notes. The result is classic, boppish Taylor, a thoroughly satisfying album that serves as the perfect introduction to his music. Other jazz treatments of My Fair Lady, like those by Shelly Manne (for Contemporary, 1956, with André Prévin and Leroy Vinnegar) and Chet Baker (his 1959 Lerner & Loewe songbook for Riverside), may be better known, but Taylor's approach to that memorable musical is one of the most interesting ever recorded.