Taylor and Howe let their fingers do the walking and talking

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 March, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 March, 2004, 12:00am

A few years ago, in the middle of the typhoon season and having lost the latest in a long series of umbrellas, I struggled up D'Aguilar Street in torrential rain to arrive, drenched, at the old Jazz Club for a Sunday night set.

Sunday was always a quiet night, and this, not surprisingly, was quieter than most. I think about five people, including myself, had turned up to listen to a solo guitarist who, having assessed the situation, decided he might as well sit at a table in the audience section of the room rather than up on the stage.

He introduced us to each other, chatted for a few minutes, and then played as we sat in a semi-circle around him. By the middle of the first number I was hardly even conscious of feeling damp. The performance was spellbinding. The guitarist was Martin Taylor.

His star has risen quite spectacularly since then, of course. Nowadays, it would take a lot more than a rainstorm to have him playing to a less than packed house. I was reminded of that evening by his latest album, Masterpiece Guitars, recorded in the seemingly unlikely company of Yes guitarist Steve Howe.

The two have rather more in common than the ponytails they sport. Each has a passion for the guitar and everything to do with it. And Howe's range extends well beyond the portentous pomp-rock for which the group that have made him famous is so

well known.

He has a formidable technique that stretches to jazz, Chet Atkins-style country, ragtime picking and straight classical guitar, all of which he appears to enjoy equally. He has also successfully toured unaccompanied, playing long, varied solo sets.

Taylor takes a similarly ecumenical view of music. His roots lie in an absolute mastery of jazz guitar a la Django Reinhardt, but he has absorbed a range of other jazz influences and has also recorded duets with Atkins and English folk-rock guitarist Gordon Giltrap. He's an on again, off again member of Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings, in which he performs alongside Albert Lee (who he calls admiringly 'the Charlie Parker of country guitar').

Masterpiece Guitars started out as a Howe solo album, but ended up being dominated by Taylor. Both men perform solo and in duet, but the greater part of the album consists of multi-tracked or solo Taylor, and it's mostly straight-ahead jazz.

The genesis of the collaboration took an unusual form. The intention behind the project was to showcase not so much a player but a collection of instruments.

Howe was approached by multimillionaire guitar enthusiast, the late Scott Chinnery, who had amassed a vast collection of valuable vintage fretted instruments, and wanted to hear about 60 of them recorded. The original idea of drafting in 60 different guitarists for this purpose - it must be nice to have that sort of money - was eventually whittled down to a solo multi-track exercise by Howe, who called Taylor to add a different instrumental voice. He then found himself doing more producing than playing.

Self-indulgent though all this sounds, the sheer discipline involved in coming up with arrangements that would properly feature all those different instruments - sometimes for as little as a few bars of music - has produced a CD that marks a high point in Taylor's career.

He essays a number of jazz standards, which are probably all familiar turf - including All the Things You Are, The Sunshine of Your Smile, Moon River and Somewhere - and contributes four originals and two co-compositions with Howe. He also revisits his Celtic roots, with arrangements of the traditional pieces Ae Fond Kiss and Farewell to Erin.

Howe also makes his mark with the Hawaiian licks on his own Tailpiece and some fine picking on Goofus, but the highpoint for me is a wonderful one-man guitar orchestra, consisting of Taylor playing 19 instruments, on a perfectly arranged and executed interpretation of Kenny Dorham's Blue Bossa.

Guitar-loving trainspotters - presumably the original intended audience - will enjoy the carefully annotated record of exactly which of these rare, and in some cases priceless, instruments is being played at precisely which moment on each track.

Somebody at Sony, however, was smart enough to realise the album would have a broader appeal, and deserved more than the limited-edition release originally planned. Sadly, Chinnery didn't live to hear it completed. But in the end it belongs not to the guitars but to the players.

However wonderful an instrument may be, in the end it's the musician that matters. If I'd listened to this blindfolded, I couldn't have accurately identified a single one of the guitars played here, but I could definitely have told you that the players were Taylor and Howe, and, on the solos at least, which was which.

They obviously had great fun with some lovely old guitars, but once you can play at this level, so long as the instrument is decently made and in tune, nothing else is really important. The heart, mind and hands do the rest.

That isn't the point the album set out to make, but it's still worth remembering. And the exuberance and leaping imagination of the playing is a delight. Taylor, by the way, is well overdue for another visit to Hong Kong.