Funny old game. Despite being a hugely talented guitarist and much admired by musicians and discerning audiences the world over, it takes a cheesy car advert to make Martin Taylor known to the wider public. Casual observers of Nicole!, Papa! and their bleedin' Renault Clio will have unknowingly encountered his bejazzed take of Robert Palmer's `Johnny And Mary' from Martin's 1994 album, `Spirit Of Django'... `And it nearly didn't make it on to the album!' guffaws Taylor. `I didn't think it was as strong as the rest of the material.' We'll have to wait and see whether or not any tracks from Martin's new album are purloined for future campaigns...

Unlike `Spirit Of Django', which featured Martin amid a six piece band, `Portraits' sees him sticking mainly with solo guitar, though the album actually grew out of a collaboration with Chet Atkins, the fruits of which also appear.

`I wanted to record with Chet but didn't like to ask him so my producer did instead,' recounts Taylor. `For the songs with Chet, I recorded my parts as they were and then we found a really old, cheap, nylon-string Japanese guitar in the studio. I could hear Chet playing nylon strings - which he didn't in the end - so I put down the nylon string guide part for Chet using it `cause it sounded good. As it turned out, Chet only played on two of the four tracks we'd recorded for him so we just kept my guide track as it was on the other two tracks.

`While we were in the studio I brought out my Yamaha AEX1500 [part designed by Taylor and profiled in `The Guitar Magazine' Vol 6 No 3, February 1996]. We put two mikes on the guitar and put it through a rack of EQs and compressors and also used a room mike. It was such a beautiful sound that I thought I might as well sit there and record some more. I played the results to my record company and told them I might have an album - they loved it. I was a little short of material but after doing a German radio show where I was allowed to keep the tapes and a session in Fish's Funny Farm studio I had enough songs so the whole thing just fell into place.

`The album is roughly 60% improvising. Because I have the three lines going at once it comes out sounding a bit like an arrangement, but I couldn't play a song the same way every time. Obviously I have mechanisms that I can call upon if I'm going in a certain direction - a musical vocabulary, if you like. But `In A Mellow Tone' on the album is completely improvised off the top of my head and something like `Shiny Stocking' is 90% improvised whereas `I Got Rhythm' is an arrangement.'

Ah yes, that song... Guitarists in particular will be, well, staggered by Martin's reading of `I Got Rhythm', perhaps the most technically complex arrangement of this song you're ever likely to hear...

`Funnily enough, it's not! I don't actually play as much as you think - and a lot of it is suggestion. Because there are three things happening, it's the coordination that's the difficult thing. Then once you've got the coordination the next thing you need is the feel - creating the feel of having a jazz rhythm section behind you.

`I often explain what's behind "I Got Rhythm" when I'm doing a gig. I take the melody, the chords and the bass line and I play them all separately then I put them together. I play two parts as an arrangement and I improvise on the third then I change it around. People often go, "Oh, I see what he's doing now." Then I can take a lot of liberties. It might be a bit showbiz but there's a very good musical reason for doing it and the audience are far more with me if I do it four or five songs into the set. Also, it develops a bit of rapport with the audience which I like.'

Most guitarists can improvise single-note solos - hey, even Noel Gallagher seems to have got the hang of it - but it seems a huge leap from noodling around on the pentatonic minor to improvising bass, chords and melody at the same time. Any tips on how to bridge this technical chasm?

`To start off you have to work out some basic tricks that work on the II-V-I sequence, for instance; have a few clichˇs, then you can change them around. It's almost like thinking vertically - you don't think of three lines all going along horizontally. When I first started doing it I just started playing really simple things. I don't think in three parts. It's like when you read; you read each letter at first but then you read whole words then whole sentences. So when you're playing you start to think in whole phrases. But it's very hard to describe - I couldn't really say what I'm thinking about when I'm doing it! In my case, I started playing when I was really young - four years old - so I've never been afraid of the guitar and that's played an important part in my development.'

Given Martin's gobsmacking command of the instrument and his ability to communicate (the two do not always go together, but let's not mention any names!) does he ever hanker after a wider audience? After all, Wes Montgomery and George Benson both `escaped' the jazz world for mainstream success and John Williams became a household name when he took classical guitar to `the people'?

`If the opportunity arises, it's not something I would say no to!' Taylor admits. Sometimes people think that if you have mainstream success then you're free to do what you want. Barney Kessel gave me a lecture on this once about how it often means you can't play what you want anymore because you've made certain artistic decisions. I have actually made a "pop" album for the Asian market but I wouldn't want to do that all the time.

`There's been this myth perpetuated among musicians over the years of "making it" - I have no concept of "making it". In your career as a professional musician you have highs and lows and in my case I'm getting better work and opportunities than I did ten years ago. The idea of being on the crest of that wave and always being there - it doesn't really work like that. As long as it's going in a gradual incline then that's OK and for me that's the way it's always been.'

This interview was originally published in `The Guitar Magazine' Vol 6 No 5, April 1996.

© Douglas J Noble 1996