Q&A: James Taylor
James Taylor was ready to give audiences “the optimal presentation” of his life’s work when the opportunity to play 12 nights at the Colosseum in Caesars Palace came up. As he told Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen, he’s taking his Las Vegas live set in a new direction from the shows he’s played so far in 2019, visiting different eras of his 50-year career while taking a break from recording a new standards album.
Hey, Matt. Hi, how are you doing. Are you in Las Vegas?
I am in Las Vegas. Where are you?
I’m at home in Lennox, Massachusetts. That’s sort of the western end of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts where my wife Kim and I have made our home.
Is that your main home or do you have homes around the country?
No, this is pretty much it. I have sort of a family home on Martha’s Vineyard, which is at the opposite end of the state, the island out in the Atlantic, and most of my family still lives down there. So I have a sort of place there and my sister’s sort of staying in it, keeping an eye on it for me.
So when you come to Vegas to play 12 shows within a month, do you think you’ll be commuting back and forth, or will you probably stay on this coast?
I’ll stay out west. We also spend a fair amount of time in Montana, in Big Sky, because my wife has always been a big skier and our kids have followed suit, so we spend as much time as we can during the winter in the snow.
I’ve been reading Timothy White’s 2001 biography of you. I thought I knew my music history but I did not know “Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground” was a reference to the band (The Flying Machine) you were in with your longtime friend Danny Kortchmar before recording for Apple Records. There’s still a lot to learn.
(Laughs) Well, I suppose my lyrics are so personal that from time to time there are little sort of hidden references in there to things in my own past, but that’s what that was about.
I was reading it outside, and have just gotten into knife throwing, and as I ended a chapter and went to take a throwing break the first page of the next chapter described how you met Danny Kortchmar, and he was introducing you to knife throwing.
(Laughs) Kootch was 15, I was 13. Both of our families used to make the trip to Martha’s Vineyard in the summertime, which in those days was a cheap vacation. My mom was raised on the New England coast. Her father was a commercial fisherman and she would haul us up from North Carolina every summer to go back to her roots. There was a community there on Martha’s Vineyard that, as I got older, there was more and more music available. Danny was there. I had a lot of musical connections there on the Vineyard. There were lots of coffeehouses. There were about four of them, in fact, places where you could … and then other open-mic nights and things like that where you could play. It was an excellent way to get started. So yeah, Kootch and I were into whatever mischief we could scare up in such a pastoral setting.
Have you got a friend or two like him that may come to join you while you’re playing in Vegas?
I’m not saying it would be impossible, but as things stand now we’ve put a lot of thought into the evening and into staging it. There’s always the possibility that someone could come by, and that certainly has happened often enough, but I don’t have any plans for it as it stands. Right now Kootch—actually I was just in touch with him—he’s working on the musical side of a film we made of Carole King’s and my tour we did in 2012. We’re finally putting that together as a concert film, and Danny’s basically producing that musically. I know he’s in Los Angeles and working hard because I just spoke with him yesterday.
It’s good to see him working with a lot of your old bandmates (bassist Leland Sklar, drummer Russ Kunkel and guitarist Waddy Wachtel) in The Immediate Family. It’s good to see him thriving.
He’s sort of a walking crossroads where people come in contact with him and it changes their musical life. I was the first one that I know of, but Carole King also had that experience, and so did Jackson Browne. So did Billy Joel and so did Don Henley, so did John Mellencamp. Over and over again, Kootch has had a profound effect on so many people. I think he’s sort of one of the most unsung kind of heroes of our generation of music, really.
I agree. Speaking of unsung heroes, I am sorry to hear about the recent passing of your monitor engineer Andy Sottile. It’s unfortunate he will not be joining you in Las Vegas.
That’s right. He basically lost his battle just this past winter, and yeah, we’re going to miss him.
Your voice sounds great in footage from your recent tour with Bonnie Raitt. Do you have different ideas for setlists at the Colosseum than you’ve been doing so far on the 2019 tour?
Without Bonnie there, obviously the stuff we were doing together, I’ll find other places to go. And also, a show like this in Las Vegas that is sort of stable, it’s installed in one place and runs essentially for a month for 12 different shows, it lends itself to being a retrospective and sort of a summing up, if you will. We’re going to go back and visit different eras of my 50-year career and sort of present them in different ways so as to make the 90-minute show … have it go in some different places and also show all the different sides of things. It’s a very dynamic kind of musical experience that I’ve had as a solo artist and worked that way for many years. As I had the opportunity I added players, and have eventually ended up with a full-complement 12-piece orchestra, really, with a full chorus of four singers and fiddle. That’s my great joy in this life, is having this community of players that I can work with. And they’re so great, such wonderful masters in their own right, so I’m going to sort of show them off to the best advantage.
Several of your band members have been with you since the early ’90s, and at least one has been with you since 1977.
That’s right. Arnold McCuller (on vocals) and I have been together since then. He’s also worked with Bonnie, he’s worked with Ry Cooder, he’s worked with Phil Collins. He’s worked with so many … and Dorian Holley, who I’ve also worked with for years on and off. Dorian’s worked with Aretha and Whitney, and Michael Jackson. He’s the singer’s singer, and this is true of really all of these players. They all have careers of their own, particularly overseas and Europe and in Asia, or are well known as solo acts. Mike Landau on the guitar is world-renowned. Same thing with Larry Golding, our keyboard player. The Steve Gadd Band, they’re basically my rhythm section. When they go out, it’s a way to stay together when I’m not working. It’s all worked out pretty amazingly well.
You’re known for having wanderlust, whether that’s accurate or not. Do you think you will automatically feel the urge to get on a tour bus after the first Caesars concert? While researching I couldn’t find more than three nights at the Troubadour or Carnegie Hall.
(Laughs) It’s true. The last time I played five nights in one place was in Sydney, Australia. It must have been 15 years ago. One-night stands are the grist for our mill. They’re how we work. Having a crew and a sort of rogue community that can set this thing up and strike it at the end of the day and move onto the next place, that’s what defines our life. It will be very interesting to stay in the same town and stick around for a while. It’s one of the reasons this is such an intriguing gig, to come to Las Vegas and be installed in a theater for a month.
Sounds like it might be a good time to have a songwriter’s notebook around.
Yeah, exactly. Right now we’re in the middle of making a standards album, which is American-Songbook-type material, but the difference is they’re all songs that I’ve arranged on guitar, so they have that sort of James Taylor stamp on them in terms of vernacular, the musical vocabulary I use. It’s been a while since … I’m certainly applying my arrangement skills, and it’s also a guitar album. Basically, we recorded the thing with myself and another guitarist, a guy named John Pizzarelli, who’s a great, great jazz player, a chip off the old block. His father (jazz guitarist) Bucky Pizzarelli was part of an entire generation prior to ours. I’d say I’m a little bit out of my … my songwriter’s hat has been off for a while, so you’re right. It’s a good opportunity to stay in one place. For the three days off I get a week I want to check out Las Vegas. I only have a passing experience of the town, which isn’t unusual. It is a tourist location. It’s all about people visiting, but I really want to find out what’s there. I also want to find out what kind of audience is going to show up. I’m really interested to see who is attracted to this thing.
When the opportunity for this engagement came up, did you kind of know what you wanted to do? Were you inspired after attending Sting’s stage musical (The Last Ship) to stretch out and do a different kind of production?
Oh yeah. I was indeed, but of course that was like a traditional Broadway musical. It was really impressive to me that he could pull that off, and actually write for a plot like that, to move a story along like that. I’d say that this will essentially be sort of an optimized presentation of what I’ve been learning over the past 30 or 40 years in terms of presenting this kind of music and this band to an audience. You really do start to think of it as musical theater. It really does want to have a dynamic, and … you have to break the sort of action every once in a while and give it a kind of relief, or comic relief in order to … there’s a dynamic to it that you can perfect, and that you’re always sort of moving towards that perfection. It’s very different from the idea of a jazz interpretation where you never hear the same two songs in a row, and you never play the same song twice the same. This is an attempt to perfect that presentation of 20 songs, 22 songs, something like that, and basically making the best experience possible for the audience. It’s an art form in itself and one that we’ve been paying attention to for a long time. This is the perfect opportunity to present it, and I’m really looking forward to it.
We’re looking forward to it. … One more thing: Taylor Swift’s parents named her after you, and she made confessional songwriting cool, and critically acclaimed as well as popular. Do you feel a little ancestral musical pride?
Yeah, I definitely … there’s nothing new under the sun. We’re all reinterpreting what we’ve been fed on the way up. I do actually feel pretty gratified at the people like Garth Brooks, like Taylor Swift, who have cited me as a source or an inspiration, because I definitely borrowed heavily from the people that inspired me.