“When they talk about how many stars there are in the galaxy, it piques my interest, to say the least…”
Jeff Taylor, who can be heard with Dumpster Hunter, Trixie Whitley, Beat Music, and a slew of other artists and projects, is a musician whose unrestrained lyrics and raw vocal improvisations leave a profound impression. Yet this Thursday, The Jazz Gallery will stage Taylor’s “wordless” debut: MUSTERION will feature Jim Campilongo (guitar), Eliot Krimsky (keys), Zac Colwell (woodwinds), Mark Guiliana (drum kit), Ben Campbell (double bass), and Jeff Taylor on trumpet and guitar, plus an undisclosed special guest MC. We at Jazz Speaks recently connected with Taylor via phone, where he discussed his life’s musical endeavors that have culminated in MUSTERION.
I was having a snowball fight with some next-door neighbor girls in 1992. I was eleven. One of the girls in the snowball fight was summoned from a great distance by a voice, screaming down a snow-quiet street:
“Hey, what are you doing?”
“I’m having a snowball fight! What are you doing?”
“Getting ready to go practice guitar!”
“My friend Jeff is here and he plays guitar!”
“Have him call me!”
Later on, that girl gave me the voice’s number. The voice belonged to Gerry, a boy who lived in the next town over, on the other side of the tracks, so to speak. I was a little scared to walk towards the highway to jam with this kid. And I basically only played one song at the time. But I went. We ended up forming a band and jamming all through high school. By the end, I played backup guitar and bass, then picked up trumpet and began to sing.
Robin and Tom Rosenthal, were Gerry’s parents. One night, Robin asked me, “You’re playing trumpet in this band, and you’re kind of scatting. What are you doing for college?” I didn’t know. “You should go to William Patterson. I’m going to cook dinner—is chicken alright?—and Tom is going to play you some records that you need to hear.” That night, I sat on their futon in the living room and Tom got the vinyl out: Sinatra Live at the Sands, with Count Basie and Orchestra. Then Kind of Blue. Well, you hear that for the first time and… Wow, I didn’t know what to say.
Tom takes the record off and says “Listen, I’m going to call up a pianist friend of mine. You have a 4-track, right? Buy yourself a couple of tapes, let’s pick an Eddie Jefferson song where he sings the Charlie Parker solos with lyrics put to them, and make an audition tape.” So I did “Disappointed.” I spent every day learning how to nail it. Then I did “When Somebody Loves You” in Sinatra style, as well as “Fly Me To The Moon,” all with piano accompaniment in the Rosenthal’s living room.
So I sent in the tape. I was home, babysitting my three younger siblings, spring of 1999. The phone rang: It was Dr. David Dempsey, the program director at William Patterson. “Is Jeff Taylor there? I’m calling from the William Patterson jazz department.” When you realize that the director of a jazz program at a university, like an accredited university… This means that I’m going to end up with a degree from a university. He said “We’d love to have you here in the fall.” No feeling will ever take the place of that.
It was the first year that the late great James Williams, of The Jazz Messengers, was the co-director at William Patterson. James Williams, of all the faculty, was hands-on with singers in the best possible way. By all rights the guy really had some chops, he could have been hanging with all the other cats. But he would stay late and work with the vocalists. Sarah Versprille (of Pure Bathing Culture) and I were the vocalists at William Paterson—she had a deep knowledge of the American songbook, where I knew whatever Tom Rosenthal had shown me. I would lock the practice room door, cover the little square window with notebook paper, plug my Stratocaster into the Marshall amp, turn the lights off, turn the amp up and, out of anger and frustration and angst, I would play Pink Floyd and Radiohead and my own music at full blast.
At that time, drummer Mark Guiliana and I were freshman. It was hard to nail him down. This guitarist named Daniel Hindman and I were in music theory, in the back row: Daniel leans over to me and whispers “Hey Jeff. We should have a rock band.” To say that Daniel is a gnarly guitar player is like saying, “Wayne Krantz… Yeah, he can play.” Understatement to the point of non-sequitur. So with Dan, Mark, as well as Ned Ferm, we scheduled a session…
And that was the genesis of it all. Dan Hindman told me to bring a microphone and my delay pedal, someone turned on a minidisk recorder, and we just played free, for hours. It was insane. It was incredible. Everything changed. And at the age of eighteen. I hadn’t been exposed to much avant-garde, or even much jazz. But I knew at that moment that I could do anything. At that session, I started screaming into the microphone something about “Your grandma… getting sucked up… into the tornado… and blown halfway across the state… and when she came to… oh my god…” Even saying it now, I feel like I’m warming up with Mark’s Beat Music. I’ve been improvising with abandon like this for a really long time, but those guys made me believe that I could do anything as a singer.
Frustration in Time Travel and Organelle
In 2013 I put out a record called Frustration in Time Travel under the name Dumpster Hunter. We recorded that record upstate in Duchess County, with Mark Guiliana, Steve Wall, and a couple different bass players, including Nick Morrison, Cole Whittle, and Mike Steverson. That was like a rock record. It was the culmination of a lot of different origins and musical moments in my life. The Giants won two Super Bowls while that record was being made. Mark will tease me and say; “Doesn’t look like you’ll have a record out this year, ‘cause the Giant’s aren’t doing well!”
Then I put out Organelle in 2014. To me, that was the beginning of me making something in a more defined amount of time. When they talk about how many stars there are in the galaxy, it piques my interest, to say the least, but I can’t say that I can really comprehend those numbers. So, I learned a lot of lessons from that Frustration in Time Travel. Organelle was made much more quickly, with Thomas Bartlett, who goes under the name Doveman.
Organelle felt like my first ‘thing.’ I was recording the Daytrotter session out in Davenport Iowa a year and a half ago. They asked me to make a little ID for the session. You know, “This is Dumpster Hunter and you’re listening to Daytrotter.” But I said “You know what? I think I’m going to say Jeff Taylor instead.” It just felt like time to own this. If I called it my own name, I would have to be responsible for it every time I put my drivers’ license down, or collected my mail and saw my name in print. I want to own my craft.
Genesis of MUSTERION
One day, bassist Chris Morrissey asked me, “Would you like to be my date at The Jazz Gallery?” I said sure, what’s the occasion? He said he was going to speak and that they were going to recognize him as a commissioned artist for his project Standard Candle. So I went along: I put on a suit and we had a glass of wine. It was really great to be in the gallery. Jason Lindner was in the house, a dear friend and collaborator. Becca Stevens was there, another great friend and collaborator. I just thought “Man, these are my folks. These are the people that I feel more musically akin to than anyone, with the exception of a few amazing songwriters, like Elizabeth Zeman, of Elizabeth & the Catapult, and Trixie Whitley, a songwriter whom I’ve toured with and who’s been a huge influence on me.
So I’m at The Jazz Gallery and I see Rio [Sakairi]. While Chris wasn’t looking, I went over and I said “Hey,” half-jokingly, “how do I get a gig at The Jazz Gallery?” She said “You can play here any time you want,” which made me realize that I just hadn’t taken the initiative to say to this community: Hey, I don’t just like being asked to sit in, I love being asked to sit in. So I followed up with Rio, we set a date. She said “May I ask what it’s going to be?” I thought Wow, this could be anything. I could write some grooves and improvise like I do with Beat Music, with barking, improvised half-real Harry Truman speeches. Or I could improvise fake radio broadcasts from the Pacific Northwest in the 1930s. Or I could sing some things. Or we could do some of Mark’s music. Or we could do some of my own music. I thought “Well, this is a time where I needed to show myself that I could do something a little bit on a steeper curve.” Not that writing an album with lyrics isn’t a huge undertaking, but this is part of a larger meditation that I’ve only just begun.
And today, that’s what makes MUSTERION so terrifying. I’m deep in the final stages of preparation of MUSTERION for the Jazz Gallery show. I’ve never tried to compose for a wordless set like this before. It’s so easy to drown in words. A friend of mine sent me a recording of a sermon. Somewhere in there, I heard the word ‘musterion.’ It’s the English approximation of an old Greek word whose meaning has been approximated as “a secret known only to the initiated.” There’s something about not talking bringing you as close to God as you could ever get, which was mentioned in that sermon. I figured “well, whatever God is to the individual, if they’re using the word, it probably has to do with something divine. What’s divine to me? who’s divine to me? What feelings are divine to me? What do I consider sacred? What do I consider being worth aspiring to feeling?”
Silence, recently, has gotten me a lot closer to those feelings. I’ve lived in New York for a little less than ten years. Finding silence in the city is tough. I’ve been practicing martial arts for the last five years, in a very disciplined dojo. Bowing, and so on. There’s decorum and respect. The whole ceremony of it is important. Consistency within your quest. I started meditating only in the last year or two. Even if there’s noise, one can reach inner quietude and closeness to the divine by being able to simply face the noise, face one’s self, spend time alone, not speaking, being wordless.
Jeff Taylor’s MUSTERION plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, September 10th, 2015. The group features Mr. Taylor on guitar & trumpet, Jim Capilongo on guitar, Eliot Krimsky on piano, Zac Colwell on woodwinds, Ben Campbell on bass, and Mark Giuliana on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission ($10 for members) for the first set, $10 general admission ($8 for members) for the second. Purchase tickets here.