Saturday, September 12, 2015

Sam "The Man" Taylor: Jazz Meets R&B

About an hour southeast of Martin, Tennessee, where my wife, our two-year-old daughter, and I live, lies the small town of Lexington, right by Interstate 40, halfway between Nashville and Memphis. It was there that the great saxophonist Sam Taylor, later nicknamed "The Man," was born in July 1916. Taylor developed a powerful honking sax sound that graced countless jazz and rhythm and blues recordings in the 1930s and 1940s, and in the 1950s he was in great demand as a session musician, playing on many memorable rock'n'roll records. Taylor was a very versatile saxophonist who always sounded like he was having fun on the bandstand and in the studio, and his energy was infectious. It is impossible to listen to any of his classic tunes, like "Cloudburst" or "The Big Beat," and not feel that energy. As notable as his work as a sideman is, Taylor cut comparatively few records as a leader, and among his most popular solo outings are the mood albums he made while touring Japan in the 1960s and 1970s, which may seem like a contradiction but is actually a testament to his versatility.

Sam "The Man" Taylor with Alan Freed
Taylor's professional career began in the late 1930s, as a member of the band led by Scatman Crothers, and throughout the '40s he would work with Lucky Millinder, Cootie Williams, and most importantly, Cab Calloway, with whom he toured extensively. As we can see, his r&b credentials are top notch, which perhaps explains why his wild honking sax style was so appreciated in the 1950s, particularly after the arrival of rock'n'roll. Around this time, Taylor began doing regular studio work with the likes of Louis Jordan, Ray Charles, The Drifters, Lavern Baker, Chuck Willis, and Big Joe Turner; as a matter of fact, he plays on Turner's classic recording of "Shake, Rattle and Roll." Toward the latter part of the '50s he made a series of excellent albums for MGM, including a 1957 collaboration with Dick Hyman that has yet to be reissued on CD. Taylor also worked on and off with a studio-only group called The Blues Chasers—other great jazzmen like Milt Hinton, Panama Francis, and Taft Jordan were also part of the band—and in the 1960s and '70s, he played frequently in Japan, where he had built up quite a following over the years, and where he cut a number of instrumental mood albums. With their soft string arrangements and ethereal choirs, these records are a far cry from the r&b sessions of the '40s and '50s, and if we are still interested in listening to them today, it is primarily for Taylor's elegant, soulful solos.

Unfortunately, CD reissues of his work have not been extensive. The most readily available compilation is Swingsation: Sam "The Man" Taylor (Verve, 1999), which includes only fourteen slices of his r&b and rock-inflected recordings of the mid-1950s. Here we find The Man at his honking best, on classics such as "Oo Wee," "Ride, Sammy Ride," "Fish Roll," "Real Gone," and "Road Runner." He is credited as the writer of some of these exciting rocking ditties, like "Taylor Made" and the sultry "Sam's Blues," and he is accompanied mostly by Haywood Henry on baritone sax, Freddie Washington on piano, Lloyd Trotman on bass, and Panama Francis on drums. On "Let's Ball," also written by Taylor, Alan Freed provides some shouting. This compilation is undoubtedly a good place to start for those who may want to get introduced to Taylor's music. The more serious fan should also look for two other European releases that are still fairly easy to track down at the time of this writing.

One of them, Jazz for Commuters & Salute to the Saxes (Fresh Sound Records, 2008), features sessions from 1956 and 1958 that find Taylor in the stellar company of Charlie Shavers, Georgie Auld, Thad Jones, Milt Hinton, Budd Johnson, and Hank Jones, among many others. These recordings present The Man at his swinging best, showcasing his always attractive mixture of jazz and r&b. Finally, Mist of the Orient (Sepia Records, 2014) is a fine example of Taylor's atmospheric recordings that were popular in Japan in the 1960s and '70s, and is also a worthwhile addition to the collection if only because of the beautiful sax solos and because the market is definitely not flooded with releases by Taylor. Anyone who appreciates the boisterous sound of a good honking saxophone played with elegance and ease should check out Sam "The Man" Taylor. As for me, every time I drive through Lexington, where Taylor passed away quietly in October 1990, I cannot help thinking of him.

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