What would you do if an accident changed the course of your life? Waiting for Smith reveals how music saved him and who inspired his new album’s tracks
'WE REACHED THE STAGE WHERE WE COULD PARTY NO MORE...'
- 29 Jan
The legendary James Taylor Quartet (JTQ) are back, with new album People Get Ready (We’re Moving On) – which not only showcases the band’s Hammond-fuelled funk, but also features long-term fan favourite Noel McKoy (Love the Life) on guest vocals. Find out what James loved about being back in the studio with Noel, how the contents of JTQ’s rider for gigs has changed over the last 30 years (more Earl Grey than Grey Goose these days?) and what three things make for a brilliant live show.
The last JTQ album for Audio Network, Soundtrack from Electric Black, was a big orchestral production and was ‘the soundtrack to a made-up movie’ – talk us through the direction for People Get Ready (We’re Moving On) and what inspired the tracks this time
This album was a development from the Soundtrack from Electric Black album in that it incorporated the orchestral side of things, still keeping the JTQ Hammond groove, but adding two very fine UK soul voices in the form of Natalie Williams and Noel McKoy. The tunes were written in Spring 2019 over a six week period and the approach reflects much of the soul/funk/acid jazz UK music history, that is also my history, and so writing it re-connected me to certain moments and happy memories!
We were part of an exciting scene/movement in London, [in the 90s], and, touring the world, we saw how much of an impact it was having globally. From Tokyo to New York, everyone was getting into the London funk sound. It was an unbelievable time, so I guess this album in a way attempts to re-live my lost youth!
You’ve not worked with Noel for a long time – how did you get him involved with People Get Ready, and what was it like being back in the studio together?
Noel and I continued to write together every now and then over the last twenty or so years, plus he would occasionally be in the audience at a gig, and he’d jump up and sing Love the Life with us in an impromptu manner. It felt very natural to invite him to sing on this album and it feels so good to hear his voice again!
I was always a mad fan of his voice, how could you not be? I got to see him sing every night in the old days and he just always blew us all away - now he’s doing it again just as wonderful as ever. He’s the UK’s finest, really and truly.
And your other guest vocalist, Natalie Williams – how did you hear about her and what does she bring to her tracks on the album?
I’ve been working with Natalie for many many years, she was always opening for us at Ronnie's, she sang in the house band, and she’s built a large following from that base. I saw her rip it up at the Love Supreme jazz festival when we were both on the main stage last year; plus I performed with her at the Albert Hall recently.
To be honest, I knew she was talented and a great singer, but I was taken a bit by surprise when I heard her sing on the JTQ stuff! Her voice just lifted the whole thing onto a totally different level, she knew exactly what to do and she delivered it in true diva style.
I was transfixed by her singing style and her rhythmic approach, her musicality in general – WOW, what a collaboration! Natalie’s voice and JTQ, and an orchestra, now that is a world beating groove.
There’s been a lot of talk about a UK jazz revival, with festivals, residencies and clubs springing up, and a lot more people streaming jazz on Spotify. What do you love about the current scene and who do you think are the names to watch out for, and the places to catch live music?
There’s an incredible amount of new talent coming through, mostly from the colleges and conservatoires, this is a new phenomenon. In the old days you had to try to find players who had a similar record collection to yours, and to be frank, they were thin on the ground so you could end up with a musician who didn’t quite get the feel correctly. Nowadays this music is taught in colleges and the players turn up fully connected to the sound. So this is obviously good.
What I’d say is that the players tell me they learn a lot from touring with us about how to connect with an audience and deliver some energy in an honest and powerful way, so we can take the fully trained muso and then give him space to find his own unique voice. Overall it makes for a far stronger gig, the combination of experience and talent and a desire to reach further and really deliver. It’s an amazing time to be playing, never been better in just terms of sheer musicality.
How much has the scene changed since you started JTQ over 30 years ago and what d’you think are the biggest changes?
Wow, where do I begin?! It’s changed mostly for me because I started touring and playing funky Hammond when I was seventeen years old, and the crowd were teenagers too. Now I’m 55 years old and the punters are 55 too! You grow up with your audience to a large extent and that is an interesting and challenging process.
So the biggest changes are that when we first started playing the crowds were incredibly feisty and punky. We were part of an indie scene that John Peel had ignited by hammering our early tunes on his Radio One show. It was basically very rock and roll. Now, not quite yet in my dotage, things are slightly more orderly, but we still aim for chaos on stage and we still get the punters to connect in a feisty manner. I suppose gigs are more sorted out now and everything seems to operate smoothly; maybe it’s a touch too sanitised?!
I have great memories of touring up and down the UK and just experiencing again and again a kind of wildness that exists only in a British audience, in Manchester, London, Glasgow, Belfast - an outrageous sort of vitality and excitement. We’d stir it all up on stage and then kind of stand back and observe this phenomenon as a swirling mass of sweaty punters would collectively explode… utter madness. Then we’d drive home, stopping for a kebab. In this last respect nothing much has changed!
Your live shows are legendary – what are the three main elements you think you need for a great gig?
Energy, a desire and the knowledge of how to connect, plus good sounding gear. (Can I have four?! Talent helps but it’s definitely not an absolute necessity).
What’s on your rider for gigs?
In the old days, we did have a fairly over-the-top rider. Actually it was mostly different types of alcohol in un-necessarily large quantities - we did our best to drink it all as we thought it was our duty to do so. I’m now wondering if this may have affected the quality of some of our performances, but I don’t know…! We reached the stage where we could party no more and so the booze just came home with us on the bus.
Now we have tea and sandwiches, water, towels, a hot meal, and the occasional beer or wine. I tend to arrive at the gig, soundcheck, then sleep till performance time, then have some caffeine to wake me up and off we go! Getting older makes me recognise just how beautiful a thing live music is and what a privilege it is to get to play, particularly with fine musicians and singers. I never take it for granted and its feels that I have had astonishing good fortune to able to do this thing with my life.
What do you love about recording at Abbey Road Studios with Audio Network?
It’s really a totally unique and wonderful thing; Audio Network represent something completely new in my experience, the company has a very family type vibe, and a whole host of staff who all know about music, many of whom are highly trained and can play, sing and compose. They reveal a genuine passion, understanding and love for music and this passion flows through the company and is infectious.
I personally have found the whole thing very inspiring, because now the band and the record company are talking the same language - this is a first for me in 35 years of showbiz. Taking this whole set up into a studio like Abbey Road is utterly fantastic, because the place just drips history and you feel yourself to be on sacred territory; it’s a studio which really brings the best out in players and the whole creative process in general, but which then has the professionalism and skill to capture all that. You really couldn’t ask for any more.
Your last two albums are clearly very cinematic - whose film or TV scores have you loved recently and what do you think makes a great film score?
There are some very fine UK composers: I love George Fenton’s work, such history, but still as amazing as ever: he did the score for Red Joan, a recent Netflix film. His score assists the development of the narrative in a natural way, you almost absorb it unconsciously, as it highlights the tension and lets the images breathe. If you take time to focus on the music, you immediately recognise that it’s stunning, not too clever or fussy, slightly understated, subtle but genuinely brilliant and powerful.
Going back, John Barry was very important to me and on a more gritty level I loved Roy Budd’s work. The ultimate film score for me is his work on Get Carter from 1971. It juxtaposes intriguing sounds in a totally original and enigmatic way: tablas, marxophone, rhodes and double bass! Rather an unlikely match but boy does it work. It complements the greyness and bleakness of the story/images and for me represents a high point in UK film making and scoring that has not been reached since. I’m a longtime fan of Alan Parker and his early funky writing has developed into a wonderful orchestral thematic approach.
Amongst many other things, the soundtrack for the TV show Coast has a great epic feel to it, but delivers and gets to the point all in 30 seconds, which isn’t easy! I also like John Lunn’s work, he’s the Downton Abbey composer. My fave of his recently was the remake of the Hitchcock classic The Lady Vanishes. He has a very English harmonic identity and his choices and tastes as regards instrumentation and arrangements are very similar to my own; we both use the same sound engineer. Oh, and the fantastic Paul Golding - we have a very similar collection of keyboards and pianos, celestes etc. I sort of feel I know exactly where he’s coming from, I love it when I hear his stuff.
Experience one of JTQ’s legendary gigs this Spring and Summer - check out the JTQ site for their dates and listen to the brand new tracks on People Get Ready (We’re Moving On) now.
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