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
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
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
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.”