Will Taylor and Strings Attached
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Will Taylor and Strings Attached

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The best kept secret in music

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"STIRING THE SOUL WITH STRINGS"

Ensemble weaves threads of folk, jazz, pop and classical with favorite Austin songwriters in a church setting

By Brad Buchholz

AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

Monday, January 27, 2003

Will Taylor has a musical proposition for you -- a playful, dignified, off-kilter idea that brings honor to Austin's identity as "The Live Music Capital of the World." It's a cool concept. But it's just a bit . . . different.

Imagine what might happen, suggests Taylor, if we took Austin's most popular singer-songwriters -- Abra Moore, or Jimmy LaFave, or Patrice Pike, or Ray Wylie Hubbard -- and let them perform, live, in a church? Then imagine if you paired those artists with acoustic "chamber" instruments -- cello, violin, viola, trumpet and hand drums -- and wrote new arrangements, adding dashes of jazz and classical music, that revealed new facets of their most beautiful or familiar songs?

Imagine what might happen if you dared to blur all these boundaries between pop music and jazz, between rock music and classical music, between the musical realm and the lyrical realm, between the honky-tonk and the church, and in the spirit of art and fun and experimentation, you reached out for something . . . transcendent?

Imagine. Will Taylor and his acoustic ensemble stage this dream at St. David's Episcopal Church once a month. This spring, the Strings Attached concert series features one-night-only collaborations with Hubbard, Tish Hinojosa, Eliza Gilkyson and Slaid Cleaves, Albert & Gage, Jon Dee Graham and Jimmie Dale Gilmore.

"The whole point of what we're trying to do is communicating song to soul -- and that seems to happen very well with these artists, and these pairings, in the church," says Taylor, a classically trained musician with strong jazz influences. He plays viola and violin, piano and guitar, and writes most of the arrangements for the Strings Attached series. "Sometimes, people are thrown off by the venue when they first hear about it. A church? But the point is that it's not a bar. It's not smoky. It's not loud. And though it's not a built-in concert hall, it's a beautiful space with beautiful sound."

Since their first experiment with jazz singer Beth Ullman two years ago, Taylor and his ensemble (which currently features Steve Zirkel on bass and trumpet, Jason McKenzie on tabla and drums and Charles Prewitt on cello) have collaborated with more than a dozen Austin vocalists. Each concert brings with it its own musical challenge to forge a union with the guest artist's specific musical vocabulary. Some pairings feel like weddings; others feel like lightning storms.

"I'll do almost anything for the challenge of it, to test my arranging ability," says Taylor. "I see it as an exercise: Can I connect with something that's further away from my style than anything I know -- and still make it work?"

Will Taylor's story begins, like so many Austin music stories, at the Armadillo World Headquarters -- the late great concert hall, beer garden and artists' haven that both nurtured and reflected the open-minded spirit of its patrons. Taylor was raised in Austin, and his parents loved music. So it only followed that young Will spent many nights at the Armadillo, listening to music, in the company of his parents.

The Armadillo was all about inclusiveness, for it was the home of rock and country, ballet and jazz, folk, blues and the spoken word. There were no boundaries. Form didn't matter as much as passion. As a boy, Taylor wandered about in this landscape without thinking about it.

As he came of age in the late 1980s, Taylor gravitated toward jazz and classical music -- a world void of lyrics -- even though his parents had always been aficionados of singer-songwriters such as Townes Van Zandt. He mastered the viola, toured with the Turtle Island String Quartet and eventually put together a string jazz ensemble in Austin. His compositions were adventurous, creative . . . and well outside the lines of the mainstream.

Once, in the midst of a cross-country tour in the mid-1990s, Taylor and buddies in the band began listening to Joni Mitchell's "Hejira," one of several Mitchell albums that weds a songwriter's lyrical soul with a jazz sensitivity. "The songs on that album -- like 'Black Crow' and 'Refuge of the Roads' -- about being an artist, being on the road, just blew my mind," says Taylor. "The lyrics in those songs cleansed my soul . . . and they opened up an entire avenue of creativity in me."

While remaining true to his jazz and classical roots, Taylor began to build a music library stocked with lyric-driven artists: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Neil Young. He began to recognize the parallel harmonies in music and the written word. In Austin, he'd seek out folk singers at the Saxon Pub and Cactus Cafe. He began writing arrangements for vocalists such as folksinger Sara Hickman and jazz singer Suzi Stern.

"Will has an innate sense of bringing a song to fruition in the most beautiful way he - By Brad Bucholtz of Austin American Statesman


"Will Taylor and Strings Attached with Ruthie Foster"

Will Taylor and Strings Attached
with Ruthie Foster and Cyd Cassone

I'd heard Will Taylor's name mentioned several times on KUT, but I never knew what he or his group, Strings Attached, were really all about. My first real musical exposure to Will was hearing some string arrangements on Tucker Livingston's CD. I then saw Will perform live with Tucker, and realized just how much it adds to have a viola, cello, etc. backing a singer. There is an added texture that makes the songs sound richer and more complete.

I learned that Strings Attached would be performing with Ruthie Foster. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to see the group in action. I've heard Ruthie's CD, Runaway Soul, and have seen her live on a number of occasions. Now was my chance to see what real differences arise when Strings Attached is part of the mix.

Even before the performance began, many factors made this experience different. I'm used to seeing Ruthie at festivals or clubs—typical venues for Austin artists. This performance was held at St. David's Episcopal Church, one block north of 6th Street. My wife and I sat about 15 pews back from the stage. We were given a program, and told that there would be a 30 minute intermission after the first set. This was shaping up to be more like an evening at the symphony rather than a typical club outing. There would be no fighting the crowds to get a bartender's attention or navigating through fans to find a better spot. I was pleased knowing that I would not be leaving smelling like I'd rolled around in an ashtray.

A little after 8:00, the house lights were dimmed, and the performers took their positions on stage. Strings Attached (Will Taylor: viola, violin, piano, and arrangements; Steve Zirkel: bass and trumpet; Brad Evilsizer: percussion; and Charles Prewitt: cello) began the evening with a classical piece that lead into Ocean of Tears, a song that showcases the strength of Ruthie's voice. The song is full of emotion, with Foster belting out a multi-syllabled "Mama". What could bring out more emotion but an echoing cello to supplement the singer? Ruthie continued with a few originals like Crossover with it engaging chorus, as well as covers like Billie Holiday's God Bless the Child.

Cyd rested on God Bless the Child, but Strings Attached provided an opportunity for Ruthie to sing a song that is not suited for her typical band setup. Steve opened the song with the unique tone of a muted trumpet. Brad lent a hand with the soothing rhythm of swishing brushes on the drums. Ruthie added her standard vocal perfection. And Will moved to piano to throw some more jazz elements into the mix. When I arrived home after the show, I dug up an old Billie Holiday CD to compare it while the performance was fresh in my mind. My assessment: I think Billie would have preferred having Strings Attached backing her.

The first set concluded with Joy. I've heard this many times, but never with someone periodically plucking the strings of their violin. The arrangement was well received by everyone.

The second set included the infectious Another Rain Song and an unlikely crowd pleaser, Oh Sussanna. As a kid, you learn "Oh Sussanna, oh don't you cry for me, cause I come from Alabama..." Ruthie has modified the traditional melody into a genuine piece of art, barely recognizable from the elementary school sing-alongs.

Ruthie and Cyd sat out briefly while Strings performed a new arrangement of an Irish traditional that Will estimated was 250 to 300 years old. Aside from it being a truly beautiful piece, it confirmed that each member of Strings is an accomplished and professional musician, and the group has plenty to offer even without bringing in guest musicians.

The set ended with Full Circle, which brought the house down. Ruthie ends the song with a single-breath, never-ending note. The crowd went crazy and showed their appreciated with a standing ovation. Will stated, "I've never heard it so loud in here."

The evening closed with an encore. Woke Up This Mornin' had the entire audience absorbed as they clapped along and sang, "I'm walkin' and talkin' with my mind stayed on freedom." Midway through, the song changed tempo to become a swing number. Ruthie had ended the evening by energizing the audience. All along, Will Taylor and Strings Attached had added their stamp to Ruthie's songs; improving on an already impressive collection of music.

Ruthie had commented at some point in the evening that she really enjoyed performing with such talented musicians and said, "We should do this again." If that becomes a reality, I strongly encourage anyone who appreciates true talent to go to the show. In the meantime, I suggest that you attend another performance with Will Taylor and Strings attached regardless of who the guest performer may be. I found the Strings Attached's performance to be one of the best Austin music experiences I've ever had; talented artists, uniquely arranged songs, - AustinExperience.com


"Austin's Best Music Series"

The congregation has filled the sanctuary to hear chamber music in a church nearly a century and a half old. The conductor-arranger also serves as his own ensemble's violist. The musicians wrap their carefully prepared musical enhancements and jazz-tinged textures around the voice of a visiting soloist. The gentleman tenor captures the emotion and beauty of this transcendent, perfectly crafted musical moment, as he sings the libretto of his own timeless composition:
"Wild thing,
you make my heart sing,
You make everything,
Groooovy."


Roll over, Beethoven, and tell Miles Davis the news that popular music has now come full circle, back to the intricate arrangements of both of your musical eras.

Tonight, the classically trained musicians of Will Taylor's Strings Attached are incorporating classical arrangements and jazz improvisation into the music of Chip Taylor, the man who wrote the greatest psychedelic song in rock history, "Wild Thing."

Three decades after Willie Nelson's musical diplomacy brought the country rednecks and the rock 'n' roll hippies together in the same town, another performer named Will is achieving a similar musical feat. Each month, Will Taylor's Strings Attached performance series brings a singing songwriter into a church setting for a unique and moving concert experience.

Austin audiences have grown up, and so has the music. This time around, the crowd consists of the lovers of Nelson's musical peers (like Chip Taylor, no relation to Will) and the more serious classical music fans. Certainly, at least some of these people were part of that harmonic convergence that Willie had engineered at the late, great Armadillo World Headquarters. This time, they meet in the pews of St. David's Episcopal Church in downtown Austin, having graduated from the beer-stained floor of that legendary concert hall of a bygone era.

Will Taylor is comfortable in both settings, which just might explain how he came up with such an original musical idea, even by Austin musical standards.

The theory is that the marriage of acoustic Americana music with the sophisticated arrangements of the classical music genre will work. And it does. It only made sense to Will Taylor, since he and his fellow members of Strings Attached were already equal parts jazz and classical. Now in its third season, Taylor's music series is hosting Kelly Willis, Slaid Cleaves and, in upcoming concerts, many other respected gypsy song men and women of the road. Guest artists come in the week of the show, and, as Taylor says, "(I) bring in my own jazz players and training, and we make our own signature sound that can be attached-no pun intended."


Performance night

Backstage, just minutes before the January 16 show featuring Chip Taylor and his musical partner Carrie Rodriguez, Will Taylor is going over his arrangements while also managing every other aspect of the whole affair. "I got up at eight o'clock and I've only had a ten-minute break. That's what my whole week preceding the show has been like," he says, with slight exasperation. "I have a life, too. I have kids, I play in the opera (orchestra) now; we had a concert last night. I dream of the day when I can do just this one thing."



When this night is over, he will begin work on a Ballet Austin project, providing musical accompaniment for Shawn Colvin and the ballet scheduled for Valentine's weekend. Will has already seen advertising for that event-and he has yet to write its arrangements. But those worries start tomorrow.

Backstage before the show, Chip Taylor is relaxed and ready for his performance. "I've played in church before, but this is real special, playing with Will and the guys with some extra strings thrown in, with his sensitivity." Chip's partner Carrie grew up in Austin and was a violin student of Will's, which was the connection that brought her back home for this show.

Tonight, Carrie is performing with her former teacher's accompaniment, singing a pure country song with an appropriate sentiment for the traveling musician. "I keep lookin' for it, I hope I never find it. / If I get close to it, just put me on a train. / And get me back to Austin, oh damn, I miss that town / I got them sweet tequila blues comin' down."

As Will's student, Carrie learned jazz improvisation for the violin, but now she makes her living as a country fiddler. Is there a difference? It's impossible to tell, especially when the two players kick into pure Bob Wills Western Swing on "Say Little Darling."

Later in the show, Carrie's fiddle and Will's viola come together again for a warm and delicate instrumental introduction, after which Chip and Carrie sing in beautiful harmony as their voices carry to the church's ceiling and back. "Him who saved me, save me again / Him who made me, won't you be my friend." The song is a hymn of another sort, and the moment is the kind that is likely felt on many a Sunday morning in the sanctuary.

Hymns, - Good Life Magazine


"Will Taylor and Strings Attached"

Will Taylor and Strings Attached
The last few years have seen local strings player/composer Will Taylor engaged in numerous musical collaborations, many jazz-based, some pop-oriented, a few highly curious, and all, in the end, responsible for the creation of some wonderful new music. His new release with Strings Attached brings together these collaborations, linking them into a unified vision of the wider role of classical strings in the scope of popular music. The album starts out on a somber note of warning and truth in the form of Barbara K's "My Name Is Truth" and moves from this droning ambience to the lighter-hearted, Sara Hickman-sung "Sister and Sam," a sentimental reminiscence about the passing of years and family. Ian Moore and Beth Ullman each contribute vocals, with Moore adding guitar to the near-mystic "Retablo de Teresa." Instrumental tracks have Taylor exploring traditional Irish tunes and a reel of his own, as well as a Sting cover and a ragga in two parts. It's a credit to Taylor that an album this eclectic holds so strong at the seams, as well as a reflection on the artists with whom he's chosen to work, that every song works as a piece all its own. Even, or especially, the cello solo on "See You Later." Taylor's core band Strings Attached, with John Fremgen on bass, Shawn Sanders on cello, and Javier Chaparro on violin are also key to the musical continuity. But it's Austin's Taylor who made this happen, and his inspired creativity and often amazing use of the violin make this album transcend the experimental to become art.


- Austin Chronicle


"Jazz Menagerie National Review"

"Austin's claim to being the live-music capital might be hyperbolic, but this finely nuanced, gorgeously recorded CD by violist Taylor speaks volumes for that city's scene. . . . there's still much to love, from the imaginatively reworked "Cherokee" to the pensive, original "Raga". " Entertainment Weekly - Entertainment Weekly


"Washington Post Quote"

". . . Taylor has managed to make [jazz viola] work through his deft touch and improvisatory skills. " The Washington Post - Washington Post


"Houston Post Quote"

". . . a jazz violist and composer who absolutely transcends his instrument's stereotypical European refinement and restraint. His work is dynamic, colorful and, yes, even edgy." Houston Post - Houston Post


Discography

Will Taylor with Strings Attached 1999
Guy Forsyth with Strings Attached 2002
Strings Attached Live Vol. One 2004
Ray Wylie Hubbard with Strings Attached - single cut on 107.1 KGSR's Broadcast Vol. 10
Listen to more music at http://StringsAttached.org/media.php

Photos

Feeling a bit camera shy

Bio

Will Taylor and Strings Attached have for the past three years presented innovative collaborations with the following guest artists: Shawn Colvin, Kelly Willis, Eliza Gilkyson, Slaid Cleaves, Darden Smith, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez, Jimmy La Fave, Ruthie Foster, Abra Moore, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Tish Hinojosa, Guy Forsyth, Patrice Pike, Barbara K (Timbuk 3), Kimmie Rhodes, and Tucker Livingston.

We have recorded over 15 of these shows to 16 track digital, produced and released locally 2 albums and one DVD featuring many of the above artists.
We are availalbe for a multitude of functions beyond our concert series, with or without any of the above guest artists.

Brad Bucholtz or the Austin American Statesman described our concept as such:

Imagine what might happen, suggests Taylor, if we took Austin's most popular singer-songwriters -- Abra Moore, or Jimmy LaFave, or Patrice Pike, or Ray Wylie Hubbard -- and let them perform, live, in a church? Then imagine if you paired those artists with acoustic "chamber" instruments -- cello, violin, viola, trumpet and hand drums -- and wrote new arrangements, adding dashes of jazz and classical music, that revealed new facets of their most beautiful or familiar songs?

Imagine what might happen if you dared to blur all these boundaries between pop music and jazz, between rock music and classical music, between the musical realm and the lyrical realm, between the honky-tonk and the church, and in the spirit of art and fun and experimentation, you reached out for something . . . transcendent?

Imagine. Will Taylor and his acoustic ensemble stage this dream at St. David's Episcopal Church once a month.