Butch Taylor: The Creative Process in Music

Butch Taylor in his element.
Butch Taylor in his element.

Butch Taylor is the consummate musician. And an incredibly nice human being. He has graced the stage with many high caliber acts, he produces records and records soundtracks. He teaches music at the University of Virginia. He plays gracefully and intensely. He has a power and a vulnerability. When he is on stage with any band, that band is better. Because of him. And he is a good friend. He will share his wisdom at the next FOCUS/SCAN Arts Talk at Victory Hall Theater in Scottsville, VA on Wednesday, June 29, at 6 pm. Please come see him if you are in the area. You will sleep satisfied that night.

Butch, my man. What’s your story?

I grew up in a very musical family. My dad was my biggest influence. He played six or seven instruments and sang, and we listened to music constantly. Being a child of the 60s, a lot of my parents music was jazz and big band. There's actually a picture somewhere in my parents’ house of me sitting on my dad's lap and playing piano. That's where it all started for me. I think the seminal moment was hearing Oscar Peterson and having this weird perception that I knew what he was doing. It just resonated with me. And I guess I just had to have it! I asked him if we could get a piano, and he said, “Only if you practice every day.” That was the easy part. So I started lessons at seven or so, and never looked back.

I think it's just in my DNA. I can't imagine doing anything else, although I've had to at times. I have lots of other interests: science, art, mathematics, architecture...but music has always been foremost in my mind.

You have a wide range of experience--is there a particular style of music you enjoy playing most? And how did you discover it?

I think my family influence was the most potent. That included their complete support when I made the decision to try to become a good musician. My parents were very practical people, but I think they understood my passion. Jazz, and descendants of Jazz have always been a comfortable zone for me, but I love deconstructing all kinds of music to see what they're about and incorporate those different stylistic tendencies in the music I write or involve myself in. Rock, pop, country, grunge, ambient, electronic, world, classical, hip-hop…they've all resonated with me at some time or other, and I try to cherry-pick notions that I can wrap my head around and incorporate into tasks I'm given. I'm a huge film score fan too, and would love to do more writing for picture.

I see a lot of correlation between all of the arts--the creative process seems similar across disciplines, from cooking to art to poetry to music, even to mathematics and psychology. And athletics, for that matter...it’s incredibly inspiring to watch someone who does something so well. Like Steph Curry or Michael Jordan. Or Muhammad Ali.  From where do you draw inspiration? What inspires you to create?

I think you and I are very much alike in that regard. Magic happens in a million ways, and the easiest way for me to respond to it, at times, is to try to create a musical record of that magic. So in essence, I suppose, I'm kind of writing a film score in my head to document that event, whatever it might've been. Then again, I might have just heard another piece of music that had a particular sonority or rhythm that inspired me, and I want to incorporate that bit of genius into something I'm creating. Sounds a little like theft, but it's impossible not to repeat things that have already been created, try as we may. Everything has pretty much been done, so the best we can do is to re-organize what we've heard and cataloged in our heads and try to create something with which we tell a new story.

You know what Picasso said: "Great artists steal..." If you could create your own band, who would be in it? Let’s keep it wide open--dead or alive...I look forward to hearing this.

Carter Beauford, Leroi Moore, Jaco Pastorius, Herbie Hancock (I'd play second keyboards), Pat Metheny, Wayne Shorter, Ella would sing and scat, all my sons would play (they're better than I am!) and my parents would dance. It'd be a big band…

Whom would your dream gig be with? I would play in Van Morrison’s band without a thought if he called me up to play drums with him.

That's a tough one. Earth, Wind and Fire would be fun. Sting. DMB again. Love those guys. James Taylor is still one of my life’s loves, and his producer for years, Don Grolnick brought a really attractive sensibility to James’ work. I'd have loved to have been “keyboard two” in James’ band while he was still living. Don has a wonderful catalog of jazz CDs that I refer to often. He was, to me, one of the coolest writer/arrangers I've ever heard - understated, swinging, economical, and impossibly hip.

I'm with you on these picks--incredible, inspiring musicians. Who are some of your favorite musicians or bands to listen to? Genres?

Sting. Impossible career, consummate writer. And Dominic Miller crafts such perfect musical underpinning. I can't get enough. Elton John was always a formative influence. Jazz-wise, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea still thrill. Brad Meldhau, Don Grolnick, Jaco Pastorius/Weather Report. Steely Dan, John Williams and all his musical antecedents, Jellyfish. Lately, Snarky Puppy, Butcher Brown (RVA band), D’Angelo, Jacob Collier. Amazing artists that show up in my news feed every day. It's crazy how much great music we have at our fingertips.

What’s in your cd player (or should I say on your Spotify playlist?) Heh, we’re old...I remember when records and 45’s and cassettes were popular--making a mixtape for a girl was an important act of love...or something. I grew up with 8-tracks of KISS, John Denver, and Elton John in the house. I used to pretend I was Elton John--I would wear my red cowboy boots, my striped pants, my fringed cowboy vest, my sheriff’s cowboy hat, and these huge blue glasses that had battery-powered windshield wipers. I’d bang away at the piano with the windshield wipers dancing across my lenses. It was awesome. I wish I had continued to take piano lessons.

It's as random as you can imagine. I'm always tuning into something I've never heard of to mine for gold. Found the film score for the flick Nebraska that way, and fell in love. Composer Mark Orton. Remembered that my longtime friend and musical cohort Robert Jospé and I shared the stage with him and his band Tin Hat Trio at the Bethlehem Music Fair in the 80s. Awesome. So, yeah, I fish. A lot.

You touched on the idea of the creative process in music over some beers and incredible carbonara the other night. Can you remind me what that was…? What do you bring to the table when it’s time to write a song?     

You have to include these elements: Lyrics: the story. Of course, rhythm. Melody: range, steps (is it linear?), repetition, thematic material, and phrasing. Harmony. Tempo. Texture. Form. 

Who are you excited about these days, musically, or otherwise? I can tell you, I’m digging the dudes at El Taco Nako food truck in the laundromat parking lot on Hydraulic Road. They make six kinds of tacos, that’s it. But they are delicious tacos. And the guys are super cool. They are open every day from 5 pm to midnight, just knocking them out of the park.

Dang…those tacos sound good.

I'm psyched for David Tewksbury's and Michael Coleman’s cds. I hope I can get you in on some more sessions at the studio! I am excited about the music scene in central VA, and Charlottesville specifically. It seems to be holding its own in a lackluster economy, and lots of great talent is getting heard by wider audiences, so as long as there's a Taco Nako truck near the gig, I'll be there!

Do you play other instruments besides the piano and keyboards? Do you sing?

Keyboards, drums, trumpet. And, yes, I sing.

If you could offer just one piece of musical (or creative) advice to a young person, what would it be? I once got the chance to ask Clyde Stubblefield that question, and he sat and thought about it for a good while, and finally, in that way that he has, he said, “Be a chef. Sometimes you have to sizzle fry some things over here on this burner, sometimes you have to slow cook some things on the back burner.” I thought that was a brilliant answer. It has stayed with me over time.

Listen, listen, listen, and when you're done, listen some more, but always listen for a reason. Listen to understand the harmony, the form, the melody, the rhythm, and listen to how they work together. You actually have to figure out the recipe as you're tasting the food. Once you break it down into its components and study how they work in the whole, you can understand and even play everybody's part.

Sometimes I think people take music (and art, in general) too seriously. But there’s a fine line...I struggle with it sometimes. I think art serves many purposes. Sometimes I think it should just be art for art’s sake--creating something beautiful just because you can--and sometimes, I think art can (and should...?) make people think, and, at times, make people uncomfortable, like the recent performance of The Water Bearers, choreographed by Dinah Gray, leading up to the performance of Jennifer Hoyt Tidwell’s No Wake. Incredible dancing and character development set to the accompaniment of Ted Coffey’s music and soundscapes. Performed outside in the IX Art Park. Incredible stuff. I saw it twice, and I’m still unpacking what I experienced. There’s a lot to parse. What do you think? Art for art’s sake, or art as a statement? Or both? Or neither? Lay it on me.

I wish I'd have seen it with you. My view is it’s both, but for different reasons, and from different angles. I think many people naturally create art as a response to stimuli. It's just a knee-jerk reaction to life, and they react in the way that they feel comfortable reacting. People write love songs because they are in love, or want to be. Or they write songs that are reactions to a negative situation, and feel a need to put it out there. Commercial writers/artists operate differently because it's their job to make widgets, and then it becomes about sales. But somewhere in there, it has to be about humanity and shared experiences, or it's meaningless. So, yes, I have no idea…

Follow up to last question: again, there’s a fine line. Some of my favorite musicians can’t read music, but are incredible players with great sensibilities and musical acumen. Some of the best players are people who read the great composers, and who might compose themselves, but couldn’t improvise their way out of a paper bag. I think the most dangerous and compelling musicians are the ones who do both. What do you tell someone who wants to play music for a living, but who doesn’t put the time in? Music is fun, but it takes discipline to get really good, and that can be frustrating. What keeps you encouraged to continue when you hit a rough patch?

It's a little bit like the difference between being an architect and a construction worker. Once you know why things work the way they do, then you can do it all, and have the side benefit of air conditioning and a much better paycheck. I'm definitely in the group that needs parts two weeks before rehearsal, so I can memorize them and play in a more musically present way, and I've been stumped more than once on stage, so I really know how it feels to completely crash and burn for a few bars and feel like crawling home. So the message is: you can never have too much skill. One will not rob the other. Learn to read, but do it slowly and methodically. Four year-olds do it. Listen to the song while you're reading. The connections will happen. Then go jam on it for a while and pay attention to the notes that work, and use those. Or, learn to play the guitar solo, and then write it out. All of that adds to your confidence and musicality.

Thank you, Butch. Man...it is a pleasure to know you. I look forward to the 29th.


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