Mick Taylor: Soul Survivor

October 30, 2007

Rolling Stones

So why would a jazz magazine prominently profile a blues guitarist most well known for his work with the most commercially successful rock band of all time? Well, the reasons are many let me share them with you, because ever since attending my post-hippy, free-to-be-you-and-me nursery school, I’ve had a fierce and lifelong appreciation of sharing.

Firstly, when considering jazz education (which, after all, is kind of the point of JAZZed) it’s worth noting that most comprehensive jazz programs at both the high school and college levels include coverage of the blues form. The two genres are both distinctly American art forms and share some fundamental structural building blocks, as well as history it’s not accidental that many (if not most) jazz festivals are officially billed as “Jazz Blues” festivals. As Mick Taylor states: “Blues is, of course, part of jazz and vice versa.”

Secondly, one of the key points of any music education agenda is to perpetuate the culture. To whatever extent Mick Taylor’s work with the Rolling Stones, John Mayall, Bob Dylan, and others has exposed that considerable fanbase to “jazzy” music, he’s done his part to enhance jazz’ place in popular consciousness. What’s that you say? The Stones are the furthest thing from jazz out there and any musician associated with such brutes doesn’t deserve mention in a “serious” jazz mag? Fair enough, but please first consider the Latin-tinged coda to “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’,” the achingly beautiful outro solo on “Sway,” or the soaring vibrato and impeccable note-choice within the final 3:16 of “Time Waits for No One” and then get back to me. Moreover, while serving as lead guitarist for John Mayall the Bluesbreakers, Taylor played a key role in inking the early blueprint for what would become fusion. So there.

Thirdly (and significantly), Mick Taylor is unquestionably my favorite guitarist on the planet, bar none. As far as I’m concerned, no electric guitarist has ever demonstrated as fluid a tone or as compelling a mastery of pentatonic blues as Mick Taylor. He’s a rock/blues guitarist, to be sure, but Mick consistently demonstrates a jazzer’s flair for melodic invention and improv. Speaking with Mick was a true honor and I’m happy to report that I think I managed to remain on the right side of that fine line between well-informed scholar/fan and stalker (Mick: “I’m amazed; I didn’t realize I was going to be speaking to such an authority on my own career. This has been a real pleasure.” Me: “Thanks for doing the interview. Next time you’re in Boston, will you sign my arm? Can we be MySpace friends?”).

“I’ve had no formal training, really,” explains Mick while discussing his own musical education. “I’ve always had quite an acute sense of hearing and I’d be able to hear things on the radio and just play them. I started playing at around age 10. I suppose my uncle was the catalyst because he had a guitar and he had heard lots of American music while in the armed forces in Germany. That music later served as the beginning of my own introduction to pop songs.”

Mick’s keen ear soon sought out tunes that spoke more directly to his own inner muse. “Albert King, Freddie King, B.B. King, and Otis Rush were hugely influential,” he explains. “Early on I even managed to find some T. Bone Walker records. I just developed a feel for that kind of music, but I also liked things with harmony and works that were lyrical and had a strong melody. I spent at least two years playing rhythm guitar with friends in school before I gravitated towards more hardcore blues and by the time I was 15 or 16 I was with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers.”

Breaking the Blues Wide Open
Taylor’s recruitment by Mayall for the Bluesbreakers the breeding ground for some of the most noteworthy names in British #149;60s blues guitar and bass: Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Peter Green, John McVie is the stuff of legend.

“I’d seen the band many times in London and the suburbs and once I caught a show in Wayne Garden City, which is near my hometown of Hatfield, and Eric Clapton couldn’t show up for the concert,” Mick recalls. “So I listened to the first 45-minute set and during the interval I went backstage and asked John if I could sit in with them. Amazingly he said, #149;Yeah, sure, if you think you can handle it.’ He was quite willing to give me a go and I figured, as I was quite familiar with his work with Eric Clapton, that I’d be able to do it. Eric Clapton’s guitar was there, but he wasn’t, so I just picked it up and that was the first time I played with John Mayall the Bluesbreakers. I think I was 15. A couple years later, just before I was 17, John Mayall actually asked me to officially join the band, after Peter Green left.”

When discussing his own role in the 1960s blues guitar explosion in Britain, Mick says, “Around that time in England, for some reason there was a huge amount of interest in blues and there were a lot of great guitarists who developed from that era: Jeff Beck, Peter Green, myself, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page. We were all playing blues music influenced by American blues imports. After I joined John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and toured America, I actually got to play in blues and jazz clubs in places like Harlem and the South Side of Chicago. For somebody so young it was just a great experience because music wasn’t readily available the way it is now via the Internet or with iPods or CDs even. There was, as there is today, a really vibrant live performance scene for jazz and blues music and I think John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers were one of the first English blues acts to go to America and actually participate in all that.

“Of course the Rolling Stones had been to America before that and, before them, the Beatles and while they weren’t purely blues acts both evolved from American music. If you look into early Beatles stuff a lot of their influence was Motown and with the Stones their influences mostly came from Chicago Howlin’ Wolf and so on. It was interesting how in those days different American cities had their own styles and identities: Philadelphia, Detroit, Boston, Chicago all were distinct. Being with John Mayall was kind of like being at a university, really, because I wouldn’t have had that kind of first-hand exposure to all sorts of music otherwise.”

Rock Stones
Taylor’s next career move after playing with the Bluesbreakers would prove to be the one that would expose his talents to the widest audience. “John Mayall grew restless,” Mick explains. “He decided to relocate to California and he was always looking to try and do different types of blues, so at that point he wanted to form a band without a conventional rhythm section. He was going to have acoustic guitar and saxophone with perhaps a little bit of percussion and that didn’t really suit me, so he disbanded the previous version of the Bluesbreakers. It was actually John Mayall, because of his long association with the Stones, who recommended me to them. I got a call from them asking me if I would go down to the recording studio where they were making Let it Bleed and do some recording with them.”

Mick’s work on those sessions proved pivotal for the Stones, who were, themselves, in a transitional phase after having recorded their highly Beatles-influenced, psychedelic LP, Their Satanic Majesties Request (an album which had taken the group far from their own blues roots). “Honky Tonk Women,” “Live With Me,” and “Country Honk” are now considered Rolling Stones classics and each bear Taylor’s distinct imprint.

“It was coincidence in a way,” says Taylor of his time with the #149;World’s Greatest Rock-n-Roll Band’: “Looking back on it now, I suppose they were entering the second phase of their career and with the new lineup they were able to go on the road and play past an hour and 20 minutes, perform some new songs, and actually become a really good live performing band. But it’s more than that, really, in the sense that we made five albums during the six years I was with the Stones and those albums are all really very different from the albums that had come before.”

To be sure, those releases Let it Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street, Goat’s Head Soup, and, It’s Only Rock n Roll demonstrate a far, far greater degree of musical sophistication and experimentation than previously (or since) exhibited on Stones’ recordings, with nods to jazz, Latin, and world music forms informing the underlying foundation of blues-influenced rock.

“Other people have commented on [that change], as well, which is kind of nice because I was a big part of that,” says Taylor. “Mick and Keith had always had a knack of writing really catchy songs, but I can see that, while they didn’t change their songwriting style, they did#149; loosen it up a bit which enabled me to do some solos and interesting playing on some of the material. I think I became really aware of it when we were in the studio, recording Sticky Fingers and we went into the instrumental section at the end of #149;Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.’ That was completely spontaneous. What you hear on the album is exactly what happened we just kept playing. Another thing I’ve thought about is: I don’t think there had ever been any major 7th chords in Stones’ songs, but if you listen to songs after I joined, there were.”

Another magical element of the “Taylor years” is the interplay between Mick’s highly articulate and erudite style with the visceral, brute-force approach of Keith Richards.“The differences and tension between our playing created a special dynamic,” Mick states. “Onstage it was almost seamless, the transitions from lead to rhythm sometimes Keith and I would switch roles during the course of a single song. As for recording, a lot of the stuff was actually written in, and evolved in, the studio, but I can’t remember too many songs that were completely finished before we started the recording process, so there was a lot of input from myself and the rest of the guys Charlie [Watts drums] and Bill [Wyman bass].”

Time Waits for No One
One facet of Taylor’s playing which has attracted attention throughout his career is his distinctive slide playing almost all of which is performed in standard tuning. “I really don’t know how I did it, technically,” admits Taylor, regarding his unique approach. “I think sometimes in recent times I’ve probably played too much slide instead of the other solos I used to do,” Mick offers. “I wanted to see how far I could take the slide in standard tuning because when I’m playing a solo with slide, I don’t only play slide, I switch from regular playing to slide. It’s hard work for an hour and half every night [laughs].”

Selected Discography

Solo: Mick Taylor

Solo: Mick Taylor (Columbia), Stranger in This Town (Maze/Kraze), A Stone’s Throw (Cannonball), Shadow Man, 14 Below (Pilot)

The Rolling Stones: Let it Bleed (ABKCO), Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! [live] (ABKCO), Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main St., Goats Head Soup, It’s Only Rock #149;n Roll (Virgin)

John Mayall the Bluesbreakers: Diary of a Band (Decca), Crusade (London), Bare Wires (Deram), Blues from Laurel Canyon (London)

Other Collaborations: Infidels Bob Dylan (Columbia), “I Hate Myself for Loving You” Joan Jett the Blackhearts (CBS), London Underground Herbie Mann (Atlantic), Dixie Chicken Little Feat (Warner Bros.), Agriculture Wentus Blues Band (Bluelight)

After departing the Stones to play with the Jack Bruce Band in the mid-#149;70s, Mick has embarked on solo projects, collaborated with former bandmates Keith Richards and John Mayall, and played alongside a host of disparate artists such as Bob Dylan, Billy Preston, Carla Olson, and even Joan Jett. “Yeah, it’s a very minimalist type of solo, almost, but I’ve spoken with a few people who really like what I did,” says Taylor of his lead on Jett’s top-10, “I Hate Myself for Loving You.” “I had been friendly with her guitarist, Ricky Byrd, who was a big fan of mine and I’d jammed with Joan Jett the Blackhearts at a gig in New York prior to doing that session. I had no idea the song would be such a big hit record over there, though, but there you go. I like working with different types of musicians.”

“I occasionally do guitar clinics at different places in England and Scandinavia and I really, really do like doing that it’s so enjoyable and rewarding,” says Mick. “It’s great to meet people who’ve been influenced a little bit by my playing or the music I’ve played on. I don’t teach in a textbook fashion; I sit down with a guitar and show them how I do a certain bit on a certain song. It’s a very hands-on approach. The most challenging thing is to get people to come up and join me play guitar with me I don’t know why! I did something like this in Sweden a few years ago and the only one who had enough guts to come up was this young 16-year-old girl she was actually quite good, really.”

And as for playing with other musicians, Mick has mixed feelings as to whether he prefers filling the role of sideman or that of bandleader. “That’s a hard one, honestly,” he says. “I think I’ll be doing both for the rest of my life playing with other people and doing my own stuff from time to time and writing songs. I do feel it’s getting to be time for another album and some more Mick Taylor music.”

Hear, hear the sooner the better!

Mick Taylor is currently on tour as part of the Experience Hendrix group (www.experiencehendrixtour.com) with Mitch Mitchell, Billy Cox, Buddy Guy, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Robert Randolph, and others.

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