Billy Taylor's position as one of the most respected figures in jazz is hard to dispute. With a long list of musical and academic achievements, as well as his high visibility on CBS' "Sunday Morning" show, he may be one of the best-known jazz musicians in the country.
Taylor's opening night set at Catalina Bar & Grill, however, raised the question of whether the pianist's peripatetic schedule has begun to blur his musical focus. The words that kept coming to mind throughout a mixed bag of standards and blues were controlled , slick , smooth and mannered .
Taylor has never been a particularly passionate player, but the emotional energy of his solos was even more diminished than usual. It was not until he reached a closing set of variations on "All The Things You Are" that his precise, scale-based playing began to generate any real heat.
Earlier numbers aroused interest primarily for their often novel interpretations. " 'A' Train," for example, was driven through a long tunnel full of eerie harmonies before it emerged into a loose, pleasant swing. The first chorus of "Body and Soul" received a virtuosic, left-hand-only reading that would have been more effective had Taylor had fewer problems with his digital articulation.
Ballads like "More Than You Know" seemed to trigger the best playing, in part because of the smooth carpet of rhythm laid down by bassist Victor Gaskin and drummer Bobby Thomas. Gaskin's few solo moments were highlighted by some startling, double-stop pizzicato lines, and Thomas's feature on "Caravan" dramatically displayed the variety of textures that can be derived from a basic drum set by a gifted player.
Taylor's long history of contributions to jazz demands respect and support. It may be too much to expect his playing to probe a bit deeper, and risk a little more. Yet Taylor is good enough and creative enough to keep that wish alive. On this night, at least, it was unfulfilled.