After a summer full of traveling and other activities, it’s time to get back to writing more regularly. Here in northern Alabama, it’s a dreary, gray day with lots of rain, which made me want to put a record on that was a solid swinger but in a mellow groove. Enter the dependable Billy Taylor.
The Tune: “There’s A Small Hotel”
Recorded: 25 October and 16-17 December 1957 in New York City
- Billy Taylor- Piano
- Earl May- Bass
- Ed Thigpen- Drums
Billy Taylor led one of the tastiest, most consistently swinging piano trios around during his heyday, and this album is a solid example of that. With the album’s title making a big to-do about a new trio, you’d think that Taylor’s group was brand new. And you’d be wrong. Bassist Earl May had been with Taylor since the early 1950’s and Ed Thigpen came aboard in 1956, a year before this album was recorded. While they were both with Taylor prior to this album, this was the first time Thigpen played with Taylor in the context of just a trio, hence the specificity of the title. At any rate, the music on the album is top-rate and relaxed, with Thigpen sticking almost exclusively to brushes and the tempos breezy and loose. Taylor’s fluid piano technique is on full display, as well as his skill for using dense chords but still keeping things light and moving.
“There’s A Small Hotel” is an old Rogers and Hart song from the 1930’s that was briefly popular during the 50’s and 60’s but has since fallen out of fashion (although thanks to another jazz album with this song on it, I laughed when the tv show ‘Mad Men’ made not one but two references to this song). Normally played as an up-tempo romp, Taylor opts for a more understated rendition, trading a brisk walk for an easy strut. It’s a successful performance, and has some of those nice chords during a particularly strutting chorus. Perfect music for a rainy Sunday afternoon.
The rest of the music is in much of the same vein. The album opener, “There Will Never Be Another You”, gives Thigpen a chance to trade some fours with Taylor, while Thigpen gets the full spotlight for the last number, a Taylor original named “Titoro”. The latter tune is mostly an extended malleted drum solo, but the melody, chord changes, and bass line is catchy and head-bobbing, which kinda makes me wish Taylor had soloed on it a bit longer. “Sounds In The Night” is an interesting composition by Taylor that begins in an abstract, dark mood before moving into a blues. Bassist Earl May gets a few choruses to solo before Taylor’s piano returns for a few stomping choruses of blues and then takes the tune out. All in all, a solid album from one of the more underrated pianists of jazz’s Golden Age.
I’ve been hip to Billy Taylor for years, but this is the first album of his that I’ve added to my record collection (heck, to my entire music library). I’ll definitely be on the lookout for more of his music, though. I’ve been sleeping on him and his music for too long!
First of all, let me say that I actually really like this album’s cover art. A full-color shot in the 1950’s is always neat, and the composition of the picture is kinda cool. So why a C+? Well, it’s what’s going on between the gentlemen. Actually it’s rather funny. Ed Thigpen needed a light, so Earl May, being a good friend and band mate, obliges him and offers him a lit match. The thing is, he has to reach across the leader to accomplish this. Billy Taylor doesn’t look too enthused about the whole thing.
“Really, fellas? In the middle of the photo shoot?”
“Do you have to lean over me like that, Earl?”
“You’re an Earl, not the Duke. Chill, bro.”
“This is coming out of your next check, pal…”
The awkward-yet-amusing posing of the guys aside, the picture has a kind of staid hipness to it. The matching earl gray suits (ok, I’ll stop with the earl puns) with matching ties, socks, and shoes give off a square vibe, yet the parted haircuts, Taylor’s horn-rim glasses, and the cigarettes lend the picture a degree of cool kitsch. It’s like finding out your physics professor plays jazz in a nightclub after class. He’s still a physics professor, but, like, a cool one. Thus, we arrive at staid hipness. Billy Taylor always gave this vibe off, since he perpetually looked like a college professor, did a lot of teaching (both in the classroom and on television), yet was one swinging piano player, equally at home in a smokey club.
The composition of the cover art is fantastic. The photograph leaves plenty of room above the band members for the album title and info and the information is printed in an unobstructive and uncluttered manner, making for a clean design. Printing the names of the guys directly below them in white is a nice touch, too. Fantastic job, Fran Scott. Other than the poses, you did great!
Fellow jazz pianist Marian McPartland wrote some glowing liner notes for the album that are also refreshingly focused on the music on the album itself and not a scholarly essay on the polemics of jazz as art, blah blah blah. Mrs. McPartland provides insight into the music from the perspective of both a fan and a contemporary. The design on the back is rather aesthetically pleasing. A young Creed Taylor produced the album, years away from his fame in the record business.
It’s always funny to see all the different ways record companies back in the day described their high fidelity sound. Some had ‘Orthophonic’, others had ‘Stereo Odyssey’, but nobody had ABC-Paramount’s ‘Full-color Fidelity’. Which, when you think about it, isn’t a bad way to describe rich sound. This particular record is a first-pressing in mono, with a clear and severe deep-groove. The blackish labels are in great condition, but as I discovered when I removed an old sticker on one of the labels, the original color was a deeper black. The vinyl plays through without any skipping, but Full-color Fidelity it is not. This being a record put out by the almighty studios of ABC, I would’ve thought that the sound really would be full-color and 3-D. Nope. It’s not terrible, though. There’s a medium-light ‘snap-crackle-pop’ factor that doesn’t quite overpower the music, but is noticeable. I personally don’t mind, as the fidelity tends to be pretty good in spite of that. All in all, a pleasant listening experience for a quiet afternoon.
The Place of Acquisition
In between travels, I made a trip with a friend of mine to the local record store on a whim. She wasn’t a record fiend like myself, but with curious amusement, she followed me into the store. I didn’t expect to find much, but the record store had just been gifted with some new arrivals, and among the ‘new’ records was this album. My friend thought the cover was “lame, but in a cool way”, and I thought it was awesome finding a Billy Taylor album in the wild in decent condition, so I grabbed it. Like I mentioned earlier, Billy Taylor is undeservedly underrated, which is a shame. But every cloud has a silver lining, and in this case, Taylor’s underrated status means his records are low on the collectivity charts, which translates to extremely affordable records. Hopefully, it stays that way until I find more of his albums!