British jazz guitarist Martin Taylor, who’s just released one of the year’s best records with Double Standards (P3), dropped in for a free concert last night at the Inter-American Development Bank’s small auditorium on H Street NW. Although it was a fairly large crowd (probably around 300 people), it was an intimate atmosphere, with Taylor alone on the stage playing standards and originals and telling stories in his soft-voiced English accent.
Taylor claims Django Reinhardt as his first inspiration—-but it’s clear from listening that he’s learned a thing or two from British folk guitar. He plays open-string chords, a folk technique that simply doesn’t exist in the jazz vocabulary, even on standards like “Stella by Starlight” and “Georgia on My Mind.” “Stella” was full of harmonic somersaults and cunning quotes from other standards (“Confirmation,” “In a Mellow Tone”). He also played an Art Tatum favorite, “I Got Rhythm,” that was a pretty good six-string impersonation of the piano god.
Virtuosic technique is no substitute for beauty—-but Taylor had both in spades. His version of “Like Someone in Love” was breathtaking, although he transformed it so much that it was barely recognizable. He even pulled out a tearjerker with a haunting song (based on “Danny Boy”) written for his son, who, as Taylor explained, died three years ago at 21.
The highlight, though, was a happy tune called “Down at Cocomo’s,” named for Taylor’s favorite bar in Barbados. It was also one of the best examples of how technique and beauty can work in tandem, as Taylor demonstrated how he stuffed pieces of cardboard into his strings so they mimicked the steel drums of the Caribbean. An impressive stunt, and a pretty song.
Here it is, complete with an explanation of what Taylor’s doing with his axe, very much like last night’s performance of the song (down to the pause for the key change).