Friday, January 16, 2015

Listening to Prestige Records Part 71: Billy Taylor

I've been using Spotify as my source for these recordings, and as a place to refer anyone who's actually following me along on this Odyssey. And I've been putting up YouTube links to at least one song from each session, for the same reason. No luck with Spotify on this one, so you're on your own, but I have downloaded it, and can report on it.

We tend to think of Dr. Billy Taylor (he got his doctorate from UMass Amherst in 1975, and has more honorary degrees than most of us have college credits), jazz ambassador and educator, founder of Jazzmobile, contributor to CBS Sunday Morning. But before he was Dr. Billy, he was a young college graduate (Virginia State College) who headed straight for 52nd Street, got his first gig playing with Ben Webster, learned from Art Tatum, and was the house pianist at Birdland.

He started his recording career as leader right away, too, doing his first trio session for Savoy in 1945. By the time Weinstock brought him in, he was already a veteran, but the series of trio recordings he did for Prestige, starting with this one, were a major showcase.

Not actually his first Prestige date, though. He appeared on one of those odd Prestige vocal group sessions that never quite made it, but have become sought-after collector's items in the doowop world -- The Cabineers, with Mercer Ellington.

Earl May, who would be Taylor's bassist for 12 years, joins him for the first time on these sessions (replacing Charles Mingus). There's an immediate rapport between them. Charlie Smith is probably best known for sessions with Bird and Diz, and although he's not one of the big names in the bebop world, he's much admired by other drummers.

These are standards -- "Accent on Youth" only barely qualifies as a standard because Duke Ellington recorded it, but it was a hit record in the 30s, and the theme from a movie. It was written by Tot Seymour and Vee Lawnhurst, noted for being the first successful all-girl songwriting team, and noted for having a string of hits all of which are forgotten today, but were recorded by a dizzying variety of performers -- Louis Prima, Rudy Vallee, Fats Waller, Ozzie Nelson and Billie Holiday among them. But I digress. "Accent on Youth" was chosen by Taylor in part because

This was the very first song I heard heard the flatted fifth used. I never noticed that device in a melody before I heard this tune. I didn't know what it was, but sat down and figured it out, liked it. Many years later, it was used extensively in bebop
 Also from Taylor's website, his comment on "Lover," from the same session:

The version of Lover that we played here was one of the swingingest things we did with the Trio. A number of years later, I was talking to Earl May about this, asking he remembered how we played this song. And he said, 'I never played that fast in my life."
These are great for listening. Taylor is boisterous and introspective in turn. He plays like a man who knows what he's doing.

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