Tom Taylor: The Crossing
by George Graham
(Summit Records 244 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/5/2000)
Back in the 1960s, when many artists were attempting to broaden the boundaries of rock, the so-called Art Rock scene arose. It was inspired by the classically-influenced arrangements and the elaborate production of the Beatles' Sgt. Peppers period. The style had its heyday in the the 1970s with huge commercial success by Yes, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and later Genesis. But as a popular form, art rock quickly faded when punk rock and then so-called alternative rock arose at the end of that decade, exactly as a reaction to the sophistication, and in many cases, pretense of big, elaborate rock productions, be they art rock or slickly-produced pop singers.
Since then, art rock has remained at the fringes and become one of many venerable styles, such as English folk and rockabilly, that attracts small numbers of avid fans, and continues to be perpetuated by a combination of some of the original artists and new generations of players coming along.
Art Rock by definition was very much an electric music, using the instruments of rock to perform arrangements supposedly inspired by a classical symphonic approach. This week, we have what I can best describe as mostly acoustic art rock, which more than 30 years after art rock got its start, turns out to be quite a novelty, and an appealing one at that. It's by guitarist and composer Tom Taylor, and his CD is called The Crossing.
Perhaps one's immediate reaction to the term "acoustic art rock" would be, isn't that just classical music -- take away the amplification and you have essentially orchestral instruments. But Tom Taylor uses an interesting combination of instrumentation, including prominent vibes, a rock-style rhythm section with a fretless electric bass that sounds like the late Jaco Pastorius, and adds other non-classical instruments like mandolin and various varieties of steel-string guitars and amplified violins. He writes compositions that are reminiscent of a cross between Gentle Giant and Frank Zappa with some Dixie Dregs and J.S. Bach thrown in, and the result is a fascinating and very fresh sound. To give it some classical credibility the Kronos String Quartet is heard on two pieces, and bluegrass/new-acoustic mandolin virtuoso David Grisman is also a guest.
Forty-eight-year-old Tom Taylor grew up in San Francisco in the 1960s and absorbed the output of that city's musical cauldron and also found himself gravitating toward jazz working with such Bay Area guitarists as Robben Ford and Grant Geissman. Pursuing music academically, he turned his attention to composing and began to attract attention, winning a composition prize at San Jose State University in 1979, and also winning an award for best jazz composition at the Berkeley Jazz Festival. Since then, he had been performing with his own band, and also collaborating with groups ranging from blues bands to symphony orchestras. He has also been commissioned to write original works for regional orchestras, including composing the "Colorado Suite" for the Colorado Springs Symphony.
The Crossing, Taylor's first recording of his distinctive works, contains some of the pieces he composed for orchestras, including a work called Big Basin Breakdown which had its premier with a German orchestra.
Taylor's ensemble on the CD includes Joe Caploe who plays vibes, marimba and does percussion. The vibes are perhaps the most prominent instrument on the CD. Also appearing are Rick Steffens on bass and Curt Moore on drums. In addition to the Kronos Quartet and David Grisman, the guests include Erik Golub on fiddle and electric violin, and Joe Weed on mandolin where Grisman does not appear. Interestingly, though the group is led by a guitarist, the guitar is not very prominent. Taylor plays acoustic guitar more than electric, though he does do one or two tasteful electric guitar solos. It's also interesting that in a group playing harmonically complex music, there is no keyboard. The closest thing to that would be the vibes, and Caploe sometimes plays them with a rapid tremolo reminiscent of Frank Zappa's more elaborate works.
Perhaps the one drawback about this album is that Taylor's compositions are not particularly strong on melodic lines. These are not tunes you can hum, with the exception of the short arrangement of Greensleeves that Taylor includes. The compositions are constantly shifting in mood and have lots of unexpected harmonic and rhythmic changes, in the art rock tradition, and sometimes they seem intentionally designed to make unlikely stylistic jumps. But the overall result is quite satisfying and very engaging. It's one of those albums into which you can't help but be drawn with its instantly distinctive and intriguing sound.
The CD begins with a piece called Aubade, which is a term in music referring to a composition about dawn. The piece is a good example of this CD's eclecticism. David Grisman's vaguely bluegrassy mandolin is worked into an intricate arrangement that conjures up baroque as well as 70s art rock, while the rhythm section can get a little jazzy. <<>>
With a more distinctly classical sound is Pasque March which, of course, uses the baroque influence as merely a jumping off point for another musical potpourri. <<>>
The Kronos Quartet makes an appearance on the opening fugue section of perhaps the album's most eclectic piece, Big Basin Breakdown, which was inspired, according to Taylor, by a camping trip where everything went wrong including his guitar getting broken and his car expiring. This is one of the pieces he created for a full orchestra. <<>> After the opening section, the breakdown part, as in bluegrass, starts with David Grisman also making an appearance. <<>>
The album's lengthiest piece is called D'Alien which takes on a more electric sound than much of the rest of the CD, with Erik Golub's amplified violin and Taylor himself on the electric guitar. The track allows opportunities for solos by the various players, but unfortunately, it never seems to take off musically.<<>>
When Golub's electric violin becomes a prominent part of the arrangement, the result can sometimes be reminiscent of the Dixie Dregs or Kansas. Swamp Fox is a good example, and it's one of the album's better overall compositions. Taylor allows himself to get quite electric with his guitars. <<>>
Also with a similarly electric sound is Freerun with an interesting blend of driving rock and hints of baroque, played by Taylor on 12-string acoustic guitars that can sound like a harpsichord. <<>>
Taylor overdubs at least three different acoustic guitars for the short arrangement of Greensleeves, which proves to be a great little musical gem. <<>>
The album ends with its title track, The Crossing, which again sums up the sound of this CD with its amalgam of baroque, art rock, and jazz-rock fusion. <<>> Golub and Taylor get into a musical duel, giving Taylor one of his few chances on the CD to wail away on electric guitar. <<>> Before the piece exits in a very cinematic coda with the Kronos Quartet. <<>>
Guitarist-composer Tom Taylor's new CD The Crossing is a really fascinating stylistic blend, a kind of largely acoustic art-rock sound that draws on a broad range of ingredients from legit classical to bluegrass. While Taylor's strength is not really in the creation of great melodic lines, which others have been able to use to raise art rock and fusion to a higher level, he nevertheless is a gifted composer and arranger who skillfully brings together disparate genres to create music that is highly original in sound, and thoroughly absorbing.
Sonically the album is quite good. For the most part the acoustic instruments are well recorded, though the mixing approach seems torn between a spacious concert hall sound and an up-front rock approach. But this CD is to be highly commended for its wonderfully wide dynamic range. Very little compression was used, so the movements between soft and loud in the music really have an impact. It's a refreshing change from usual industry practice of making everything the same volume -- loud.
While the art rock scene has disappeared from the commercial mass media, there are still lots of fans of the music out there, and a few talented young artists and bands who make new music in the genre. Tom Taylor, though not exactly young, is a fresh face on the recording scene, revitalizing the concept of elaborate rock arrangements with his own very original approach. For fans of art rock, it's an album that's not to be missed.
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