Performance Monday, May 9, 2011 | 8 PM

Quintessential James Taylor and his Band

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
James Taylor and his legendary band perform his greatest hits at Carnegie Hall.
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The Program

On May 9, James Taylor plays the last of his four Perspectives events, titled Quintessential James Taylor.

“It will be basically what I do these days, when I have all of my resources,” he said, taking a seat in a hotel lounge overlooking Central Park.

Does that mean a greatest-hits show?

A flicker of discomfort crossed Taylor’s face. He leaned forward to explain.

“No, it won’t be. There will be a lot of hits, but we’ll approach it as we usually do. My last real commercial hit was ‘Copperline’ and that was 20 years ago. But the fact is that in songs like ‘Frozen Man,’ ‘Mean Old Man,’ ‘Caroline I See You,’ and ‘Baby Buffalo,’ I think I’ve written my best stuff. I definitely wrote some songs that I’m proud of early on and I continue to go back and play them, but it’s just …”

Radio’s idea of a hit has changed?

Taylor nodded. “If I were to rely on current popular media to get the word out, I’d be playing on street corners. I’m lucky that I have this audience that follows me and listens to what I play regardless of what radio is playing. I’m lucky I’ve got people who follow me and who know my work. So it won’t be a ‘greatest hits.’ A number of those songs will be in there. I like to give the audience what they want to hear, and also I have real connections with ‘Carolina in My Mind’ and ‘Sweet Baby James’ and a lot of those early songs. You sort of have to do five greatest-hit songs. You can skip any one of them and not play ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ or ‘Fire and Rain,’ but we always do at least five of the greatest hits.”

Taylor has played with many musicians throughout his four decades in the spotlight. It is safe to say that the three most significant James Taylor bands in the eyes of most fans have been the group led by guitarist Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar in the ’70s, the band organized around the late pianist Don Grolnick in the ’80s and early ’90s, and the current ensemble—the Band of Legends—with music director Jimmy Johnson.

“In the early days, I relied on Kootch to help me assemble a band,” Taylor explained. “I’ve always collaborated with somebody. Later, Don took over that position. He produced three of my records and was in that responsible seat within the band. Now I rely on Jimmy to do that. He’s just got that frame of mind. He thinks about it a lot and has a great deal of personal integrity.”

In 2010, Taylor and his one-time pianist Carole King reunited for a tour with their ’70s band, including Kortchmar, bassist Leland Sklar, and drummer Russ Kunkel.

“Those guys were better than ever,” Taylor said. “Much better than when we first played together. Back then, we were dealing with bad PA systems, bad sound on stage. To avoid all that and check back with those guys at the height of their powers has been cool.”

Did coming back to the Band of Legends after a yearlong reunion with his old group make Taylor the musical equivalent of a husband who still dates his old girlfriend?

“This is the best band I have worked with and the best people I can think of to play with,” Taylor said emphatically. “To a certain extent, it’s because they know my stuff and are used to working with me. They are also a quiet band. I’ve played Carnegie Hall many times where you just shoot yourself in the foot by cranking it too hard, by making it so loud on stage. Usually the drummer or the guitar player will drive it so hard that everything has to come up in order for it to be balanced—way over the threshold of what Carnegie Hall can handle properly. You’ve got to keep it down, and this is a band that can play that way.”

As he continued, “I trust the members of the band to come up with their own interpretation of the song. They play by listening to each other and deciding, ‘I should sit out here.’ We discuss it. I direct some of it. Don used to direct a lot of it, too, as Jimmy does now. These are mature players who know how to listen. That’s an important part of it.”

As important as the players are in the Band of Legends, Taylor’s longest musical relationship is with the singers. “Arnold McCuller and David Lasley have been in this band longer than anyone,” Taylor said. “We go back to ’76. That’s a long time. Kate Markowitz came on in the late ’80s. We’ve been working together ever since.”

One of Taylor’s earliest musical influences was singing in the chapel choir when he was a boy—Church of England, Episcopal hymns. That music meant more to him than the religion, and the influence of choral singing has been apparent throughout his performance career.

“You can get very sophisticated with vocal harmonies without being able to write or read music,” Taylor said. “There’s a tradition of people putting together vocal music without sight-reading. As a singer, I’m really comfortable working that way. It is something that builds over a long period of time. I think one of the reasons my music expresses itself in that choral style is because that’s what has been available to me—it allows me to expand the limited tools that I’ve got. I couldn’t do that with a string section or a horn section unless I arranged it with vocals first, and then translated them into horn lines or string lines.”

The collapse of the record labels in the age of file-sharing and digital downloads has put an emphasis back on musicians who can play live. In recent years, performers of Taylor’s generation have continued to sell millions of concert tickets, while many stars of the video age—the 1980s and ’90s—have had trouble putting fannies in the seats.

Taylor said, “It’s good that the record company being the foundation of a musician’s career has gone away and people are again touring for a living. It really wasn’t good for music to always be filtered through the record company’s commercial lens. But I must say, we were really lucky to start out at a time when there were so many clubs around. The world was a younger place. Now kids come up seeing the American Idol format as a performance context. It needs to get back to clubs. Just to get 25 more clubs in the country, I think, would really make for much better music.”

Not that Taylor is against a little showmanship.

“I once started my show in a road case,” he said. “You know how you cut out the shape in the foam of whatever equipment is going to fit in the case? It closed in two halves like a clamshell. In one side was my guitar, and there was a cutout for me on the other side. It was rolled out on stage about 10 minutes before the show—which was a long time to spend in there. I had a little ventilator fan in the front. The show started with people setting up the stage. When one case remained, I stepped out.

“I’ve definitely used staging and done tricks, but always with a bit of tongue-in-cheek. We prepare a show and rehearse it, and eventually we play it nine or 10 times and get out all of the kinks. But the whole point of the evening is to create a platform on which something real actually happens. It has to be a unique experience. You hope to be making a real connection with the music and with the audience and share that common experience. That’s the only way I can do it.”

Taylor added in a conspiratorial tone, “Otherwise, it would be a movie.”

—Bill Flanagan

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

James Taylor's Perspectives series is made possible, in part, by The Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation.
This performance is part of The Originals.

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