James Taylor constructs his songs by developing what he referred to as a series of interlocking melodic “wheels.” His first guitar was a nylon-string, classical guitar that his brother got hold of and painted blue. He really disliked his years at Milton, a boarding school outside Boston. His favorite guitars are made by James (Jim) Olson, which you can see here. He’s the smoothest of singers but, when speaking, has a hard time getting his words out.
I learned all this and more on Friday, May 6, at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall, where Taylor engaged in a Q&A with New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik before inviting musical demi-gods Jerry Douglas and Michael Landau out onstage to play a few songs.
Taylor proved to be a candid, generous and likable interview subject, though he rambled enough to force Gopnik to cut him off at times to keep the show on schedule. Even so, the Q&A portion of the evening went so long that the playing portion was truncated, which is really too bad, as the playing was astounding.
As a guitarist, Taylor is an interesting case. He’s not flashy, he’s not particularly quick, but his finger-picking and chord formations are quite intricate. As such, he tends to pull out of his guitar tones that a lot of other guitarists would not.
Landau, meanwhile, is a guitar savant. Taylor called him his favorite player of all, and it wasn’t hard to hear why. The guy is a highly sought-after session player, and he’s toured with Taylor often over the years. On Friday, playing Stratocaster and Telecaster guitars, he was both subtle and brilliant. He dazzled and lulled, all without drawing attention away from the song the trio were playing.
Douglas, the world’s most famous dobro player, was equally selfless and creative. But perhaps because he is, at heart, a bluegrass picker, his playing was a bit more frantic, a bit more reckless (though also quite precise). In case you don’t know, dobro is a term for a guitar played on the lap with a steel bar. It’s a proper noun that I probably ought to capitalize, but it’s used generically, so I’m sticking with dobro. You probably know Douglas from his role as a member of Alison Krauss’s band, Union Station, though the guy’s played with just about everyone. His bio in the Playbill said he’s appeared on more than 1,500 recordings, which is a hard-to-fathom number. Taylor called Douglas the Greg Louganis of the dobro.
The three of them played four songs at the end of the night (Taylor, alone, had played quite a few of his songs throughout), with Landau and Douglas weaving around and through Taylor’s chords. I recognize Taylor’s skill, but I don’t like his sound much. Still, when the three of them started to play, I wanted them to keep going through the night. Absolutely amazing stuff.
(Photo, decidedly not amazing stuff, taken by Ned P. Rauch. Douglas is on the left, Landau on the right, Taylor in the center.)