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JTQ, ACID JAZZ AND THE RETURN OF NOEL MCKOY
- 11 Feb 20
For over 30 years, British four-piece The James Taylor Quartet (aka JTQ) have set the standard for the coolest sounds in acid jazz. Across dozens of albums and through their legendary gigs in the UK and round the world, they’ve become a byword for British creativity.
The story of James Taylor Quartet
James formed the band in 1987 following the break-up of his former band The Prisoners. The Quartet’s first single was Blow-Up, a funked-up version of Herbie Hancock’s main theme from the seminal film of the same name from the 1960s. Released on the Re-Elect the President label (later the Acid Jazz label), the track was championed by the NME and John Peel, appearing in the latter’s Festive Fifty chart for 1987.
The band followed up with their debut 7-track mini album, Mission Impossible. The tracks were predominantly covers of 60s film themes such as Alfie, Mrs Robinson and Goldfinger in a roughed-up, almost punk style. The second album, The Money Spyder, however, was a soundtrack to an imaginary spy film.
As James remembers: ‘We had a bit of a hit with that first album, and then came a record deal and the question, “Do you write?” To which I thought, “Well, no”. I then started writing and some things stand up to these classics, but most of the time my set will include my compositions and other people’s too. You just want to maximise your punch on stage rather than be an out and out covers band. Also, if we’re doing a Booker T and the MG’s cover, if anything we’ll do it more like the Sex Pistols – really punky! You just put your own stamp on it.’
A case in point being the cover of Tom Scott’s Starsky and Hutch theme, originally titled Gotcha, for which James ‘made the groove more English’. He reveals that ‘the original had a very LA kind of drum groove – very technical and flash. We kind of straightened it out.’
And where did the Hammond sound come from? When he was young, James was into the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and having piano lessons. What changed his musical direction was discovering Booker T: ‘It was explained to me about the Hammond organ and the Leslie rotating cabinet, and I was hooked, man – I saw then that was my route through life!’
The rise of acid jazz
In the early 1990s the band changed direction and released a string of song-based albums to appeal to fans of soul and acid jazz. These featured vocalists such as Rose Windross of Soul II Soul, Alison Limerick and Noel McKoy. McKoy became a permanent member of the band for part of this period, after James met him at Polydor. James told Blues and Soul magazine that, ‘basically, while a lot of the artists and singers were sending in tapes, Noel just walked in and sang at an A&R meeting. And we went, “this is like the English Stevie Wonder!”’ Noel was everything that JTQ had been looking for – he had the voice, the look, and the stage presence. ‘We clicked in the studio, on the road, we did some great gigs and great albums.’
The single Love the Life reached the Top 40 and the accompanying album Supernatural Feeling (1993) reached the top 30 in the UK Album Chart. The next album In the Hand of the Inevitable (1995), featuring Alison Limerick as guest vocalist on three songs, saw a return to the Acid Jazz label, where it remains the label’s biggest selling album. Subsequent albums included 1999’s A Bigger Picture, 2002’s Room at the Top, and 2008’s Live at the Jazz Café.
JTQ have also performed and worked with choirs, for example on their 2015 album The Rochester Mass. Recorded in a day, with the 40-strong Rochester Choir, the project fused funk with a religious mass sung in Latin. Plus, James has worked with a variety of artists, from the Manic Street Preachers to The Pogues, Tom Jones and U2.
The current line-up of JTQ is James on keyboards and orchestration, Mark Cox on guitar, Andrew McKinney on bass and Pat Illingworth on drums, together with guest vocalists for live performances. The new album, People Get Ready, sees Noel McKoy back to provide vocals (together with rising star Natalie Williams) and the band are heading out on the road this spring and summer. There’s been plenty of chat about the rising popularity of jazz in the UK – whether it’s live gigs or streaming – and JTQ are at the forefront of it.
Check out the JTQ's live dates and listen to the brand new tracks on People Get Ready now.
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