James Taylor’s Tanglewood ties
by Seth Rogovoy
(LENOX, Mass., July 17, 2002) – On a recent, picture-perfect Saturday afternoon, unbenownst to the thousands of concertgoers spreading out picnics on the lawn at Tanglewood in preparation for a live performance of Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” public radio variety show, another pop star and Tanglewood habitue was quietly rehearsing with a few musicians in the old Theater Concert Hall.
“Let’s do ‘Fire and Rain’ and call it a day,” said James Taylor to drummer Greg Bissonette, bassist Jimmy Johnson and pianist Larry Goldings, before launching into his signature tune at a deliciously languorous pace. While the musicians were arranged in a circle on the stage in the darkened hall -- otherwise empty save for a few family members, friends and technicians – they could well have been sitting around playing on Taylor’s back porch, so easygoing, comfortable, and familiar did it all seem, with Taylor finding new spaces within which to improvise vocally in a song he has undoubtedly sung thousands of times before.
But even at their most relaxed, these back-porch players sounded like the top Los Angeles music industry professionals that Taylor, 54, typically gathers around himself for a concert, such as the one he performs on Wednesday night at Tanglewood at 8:30, when he will join conductor John Williams and the Boston Pops Orchestra to play several of his classic hits as well as selections from his upcoming album, “October Road.”
In addition, Taylor will be featured as narrator for Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait.” Williams will also lead the orchestra in some of his own music, including his “Liberty Fanfare” and “Summon the Heroes.” Taylor’s band at Tanglewood will also include famed jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli.
Taylor has always enjoyed a close relationship to Tanglewood, where he has performed countless times, and the Berkshires, which he enshrined in the song “Sweet Baby James.” His local ties were strengthened, however, a few years ago, when he married a BSO staffer, the former Caroline “Kim” Smedvig. The couple now have a home a few miles from Tanglewood, where they live with their 16-month-old twin boys.
Being around Tanglewood and the BSO, said Taylor, has enhanced his appreciation for the work of classical conductors and musicians.
“I remember hearing Copland, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Mozart and Beethoven as a child, the popular classics, typical stuff,” said a thoughtful and considerate Taylor, dressed informally in a plain white T-shirt, faded blue jeans and cowboy boots, relaxing in the hall after his recent rehearsal.
But I’ve recently begun to hear Mahler, Richard Strauss, Brahms, Elgar, Delius. It’s been a slow, new exposure to deeper levels of classical music, through meeting Seiji Ozawa, John Williams, Andre Previn, and to watch them conduct in concert and hear it in rehearsal. It’s all around me now.”
It has been nearly a decade since Taylor first performed with John Williams and the Boston Pops, back in 1993. Since then he has toured enough with orchestras to have a sense of how to deal with it, how it differs from performing with his well-seasoned road band.
“It’s more locked in,” he said. “There’s not as much room for variation. These are elaborate orchestrations that you have to stick with. But what you lose in spontaneity and agility you more than make up for in a richness of harmonic context and an enhanced atmospheric range and dynamic,” he said.
“At times I feel it’s a double-edged sword. I feel as though I’m in the context of these really accomplished, serious musicians, especially at Boston, where they have as a community been very tolerant and accepting of me in spite of the fact that I’m basically a folk musician.
“In ways it’s a little bit intimidating, but the result is making you want to do your best. It’s a challenge to be in the company of so many good and committed and dedicated players. It’s not like being with kids in a garage band, and I’m basically an extension of that.”
Over the course of his career, Taylor has earned 40 gold, platinum, and multi-platinum awards for albums running from 1970’s “Sweet Baby James” to 1997’s “Hourglass” and 1998’s platinum-selling “Live At The Beacon Theatre” DVD/VHS release. Taylor’s first “Greatest Hits” album sold over 10 million copies in the U.S. Taylor was honored with the 1998 Century Award, Billboard magazine’s highest accolade, bestowed for distinguished creative achievement. In the year 2000, Taylor was inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the prestigious Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.
The audience at Tanglewood will hear several songs off “October Road” -- his first new album since 1997’s Grammy Award-winning “Hourglass” -- scheduled for release on August 13. The album reunites Taylor with producer Russ Titelman, who worked with Taylor on “Gorilla” (1975) and “In the Pocket” (1976), albums that spawned some of his greatest hits, including “Shower the People” and his remake of Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).”
Appearing on the album’s title track are guitar legend Ry Cooder and saxophonist Michael Brecker. Taylor’s daughter, Sally Taylor – who performs at Club Helsinki on August 4 -- sings backing vocals on two tracks, “My Traveling Star” and “Baby Buffalo.”
“October Road” will also be available in a special limited edition package
containing a bonus disk featuring three previously released tracks that have never appeared on a James Taylor album: “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” in the Grammy-winning version from Michael Brecker’s ballad album, “Nearness of You” (2001); the Taylor-arranged “Benjamin” from the Mark O’Connor/Edgar Meyer/Yo-Yo Ma Best Classical Crossover Grammy-winning “Appalachian Journey” (2000); and “Sailing To Philadelphia,” performed by Taylor and Mark Knopfler, the title track from Knopfler’s second solo album (2000).
Likely candidates for Wednesday night’s concert are the album’s first single, “On the 4th of July.” The song, like most of the others on “October Road,” is vintage Taylor, emphasizing his smooth vocals, fleet guitar-picking, and harmony vocals.
Another new song, “Caroline I See You,” a love song written for the new Mrs. Taylor, will also undoubtedly be a staple of James Taylor concerts for years to come.
By music industry standards, “October Road” was a long time in coming. Taylor attributes his slow pace in releasing albums to a combination of circumstances – many things competing for his time, such as marriage, childbirth and several long concert tours – and a generally relaxed approach to making records.
“I’m in no hurry to get out albums,” he said. “I have a lot out there, and I only want to put them out there when they’re ready.”
“All of these songs come from my life,” said Taylor. “It’s amazing how full my life is. I’m grateful and loving it. It’s full of a lot of different stuff -- family and friends -- and it feels about right.
“The reason I can talk about these songs as though they’re someone else’s is that I don’t feel as though I wrote them. I feel as though I heard them. I waited and waited and then I heard them first. I feel great about this batch of songs and that it was worth waiting for.”
His album was also delayed by a burglary. A few years ago, the notebook containing the lyrics to most of his new songs was stolen from a hotel room, leaving him to reconstruct or rewrite from scratch most of his new batch of songs.
Taylor is philosophical about his enduring appeal and the loyalty of his core fan base, which insures moderately successful record sales by industry standards and sold-out concerts whenever he tours.
“Maybe because I’ve had to work for a living as a musician in order to make a living wage, I’ve had to work on the road, which keeps a real audience, and not one inflated by marekting or fluke hits,” he said. “I had a few big ones in the beginning, but otherwise it’s been about keeping it real.”
Keeping it real is very much what Taylor is about, on stage and in song. “I think people have got me pretty much right,” he said. “I’ve been myself for a living. I write autobiographical-type songs, and I try to be as much who I am in performance as I can. As a result, I think they’ve probably got me pegged.”
Taylor said if there is any lingering misconception about him, it’s that he is “more saccharine, cuddly and touchy-feely” than he really is, “given that a lot of my stuff has a lullaby quality.”
Taylor also credits his career longevity to good health, “where there is no reason to assume there should have been,” and to “making the kind of music you can make without destroying your chops.”
There is also a level of modesty about Taylor, in person or in the public eye, which perhaps accounts for his good, long run. “I always felt if you claimed more attention than was appropriate, that you couldn’t sustain it,” he said, before disappearing back into the anonymity of the Tanglewood grounds.
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 17, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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