Artist Feature

Chad Taylor
By Ken Waxman

Modestly drummer Chad Taylor declares: “Being a band leader is a lot of work and effort for me. Some people have a natural gift for leading a band, but I’m not one of them.” Still the Brooklyn-based percussionist works as often as most leaders. For a start the Windy City-raised Taylor, 43, is, with cornetist Rob Mazurek, one half of the Chicago Underground Duo (CUD) plus the CU’s other iterations. He’s also one-third of Digital Primitives with multi-instrumentalist Cooper-Moore and saxophonist Assif Tsahar, and locally can be found gigging with everyone from Marc Ribot to Steve Swell. Plus he still plays, usually overseas, with his Chicago hommies. “I really enjoy working with people with the goal of creating a language regardless of what style it is,” he affirms.

That’s not surprising, considering that until he was 19. Taylor planned to be a classical guitarist who played “hobby” drums. “My focus and energy were on classical guitar. Then playing a recital I had a meltdown. I couldn’t remember the music. I just froze on the stage. I stopped going to class and just listened to records.” During that hiatus he discovered AIR with Henry Threadgill, Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall. “That pretty much did it. I decided to move to New York and focus on the drums.” Although Taylor insists he wasn’t a good student at The New School from 1992-1997, he was anything but a novice. In Chicago bassist Matt Lux had introduced high school freshman Taylor to jazz and musicians such as Bobby Broom and Lin Holiday let him sit in. “I learned how to play on the bandstand and got my ass kicked constantly,” remembers the drummer. He also studied all types of percussion instruments. Taylor admits that during his first NYC sojourn he couldn’t see the advantages of music theory, composition and ear training. That changed a decade later when he re-established himself in NYC. Besides playing, he earned an MFA in jazz research and history from Rutgers University. “I wanted to prove that if I focused I could do well in school. What’s great about the Rutgers program is that not only do you learn about the history of jazz but you also learn about the history of music theory. I did my thesis on the form and process in Threadgill’s Zooid.”

Still his in-demand status also depends on the technical and improvisational skill the drummer perfected during his second Chicago interregnum from 1997 to 2001. Besides being in the house band at Fred Anderson’s legendary Velvet Lounge, he was in saxophonist Anderson's working trio with bassist Tatsu Aoki. “Every month we did a two-night run and you never knew who would stop by: Malachi Favor, Jeff Parker, Billy Brimfield. Fred Anderson taught me a lot about musical integrity and perseverance”, he explains. Taylor also associated with younger AACM members like flutist Nicole Mitchell and saxophonist David Boykins. “I remember once David wrote a chart and I said ‘this thing is not possible to play. You’re missing a beat here and you’re missing a beat there. There’s no way that this is going to line up with what Nicole is playing.’ He said ‘No, man, It’ll line up.’ Then he played the part as written and it lined up perfectly. That’s Chicago in a nutshell. Jazz music for me is a process. It’s a process of taking different known elements and creating something that’s unknown.”

The CU was another process for creativity, beginning as a musicians’ collective who met every Sunday afternoon at the Green Mill club to perform originals. It was guitarist Parker who pushed the others to open up their musical vocabulary. The Underground Duo came into existence because “one day our bass player didn’t show up for a rehearsal. We started playing duo and it was a revelation,” recalls Taylor. “Sometimes music isn’t about what you add but what you take away.” Although the CU has recorded in larger configurations, today only the duo is still active. “We’re recording in Italy later this month followed by a two-week European tour. We usually tour once a year.”

Taylor who has played with Mazurek for almost 30 years says the basic CU concept hasn’t changed. “Recording is only part of our process. We do a lot of sound manipulation and reconstruction in post-production. Our recordings never turn out the way we expect them to; they take on a life of their own. Rob and I now live in different cities but when we come together we’re always on the same page. We both work on new compositions and concepts throughout the year. Another thing I learned is that at a certain point you have to know when something is finished and when to move on.”

Moving on to NYC was something Taylor did permanently in 2001. “It’s funny”, he muses, “I’ve been in New York 15 years and I still don’t feel like I’m established. I still have people coming up to me who think I live in Chicago. I have a wife and three kids and I tour quite a bit, so when I’m in town I spend most of my time with my family. When I lived in Chicago I could do a gig for $30 and it wasn’t a big deal. I can’t afford to do that anymore. In Chicago in order to survive in you have to diversify. If you only play one type of music or play with only one group of peers you’re going to get bored pretty quick and have few opportunities. New York is the opposite. In order to be successful you need to just do just one thing and stick with it. The problem with New York is that you have to spend so much time and effort with your hustle in order to survive that sometimes the music takes a back seat. I have a love/hate relationship with both cities.”

Europe is another challenge. “Gigs in Europe tend to pay more and musicians are treated better but all the travelling is hard on my family,” he notes. Still he accepts those strictures as part of a professional musician’s life. Digital Primitives recently collaborated with musicians from Burkina Faso and Zimbabwe and have a two-week European tour in November.

Striving for originality is another reason why Taylor works steadily. “Something I’ve learned over the years is that while it’s important to be a good listener it’s also important to give others something to listen to. As a drummer I think it’s important not just to practice the rudiments but to create your own rudiments, to develop your own vocabulary.”

Recommended Listening:

• David Boykin Outet – Evidence of Life on Other Planets (Thrill Jockey 1999)

• Fred Anderson Trio – Birthday Live (Asian Improv Records 2000)

• Chicago Underground Duo – In Praise Of Shadows (Thrill Jockey 2006)

• Nicole Mitchell's Sonic Projection – Emerald Hills (RogueAer 2010)

• Digital Primitives – Lipsomuch/Soul Searchin’ (Hopscotch 2011)

• Steve Swell’s Kende Dreams – Homage à Bartok (Silkheart 2015)

—For The New York City Jazz Record April 2016