Despite its distinctive mellow tone--or perhaps because of it--the french horn has few practitioners in jazz. Those few like Julius Watkins or Vincent Chancey have become champions of the instrument as they have contributed to some of the more advanced recordings like those of Gil Evans, Lester Bowie or Henry Threadgill.
Mark Taylor has been as steadfast in his dedication to the instrument as well, to the extent that he has once again released a CD on which the french horn is the lead instrument. His quartet is one that expresses advanced concepts through their music as well, and Taylor’s compositions on Circle Squared
serve as the springboard for exciting improvisations that are as thoroughly unpredictable as they are mesmerizing.
Both Taylor and pianist Myra Melford have spent time with Threadgill’s groups, and their attitudes toward the music reflect the same sense of freedom within form. "Broken," for example, proceeds with Taylor’s outlining of the time and chord structure through the repetitive development of quarter-note fifths until a tango by Melford breaks out. With controlled dynamism, Taylor then takes the lead through an ever-rising improvisational drama as the vocal quality of the french horn successfully sings out the melody over a wide range.
On the other hand, "Oni" is shaped by Taylor’s and Melford’s intertwining contrapuntal lines over the unobtrusive push of bassist Brad Jones and drummer Matt Wilson. And yet the freedom remains within the meter as Melford splashes and Wilson crashes behind Taylor’s seemingly disconnected playing, descending to the bottom range of his instrument before assuming the original theme for a rousing conclusion. "Alexia’s Rescue" is at first quiet waltz that Taylor plays muted before the group develops the theme built upon beats of five and then seven. Melford is particularly effective in infusing the tune with excitement through the use of note clusters during her solo. "Circle Squared" starts out quietly as well, with just Melford’s spare notes in the upper register of the keyboard, as if in meditation, before she too outlines the tune with the barest of notes in 3/4. The subdued nature of the tune gives Taylor the opportunity to play in balladic form with glowing, evocative tones. And to provide even great variety to the 7 compositions included on Circle Squared,
Taylor ends the CD with a light, slightly altered rhumba-like piece, "Helix." Once again, the tune is built upon Melford’s repeated lines which govern its rhythm as well as its melody.
Not only is Taylor unconventional in his choice of instrument, but also he is unconventional in the intelligent and free nature of the music he plays on Circle Squared.
Backed by like-minded musicians who are invigorated by the challenge of his music, Mark Taylor’s quartet certainly is unlike any other performing in today’s jazz scene. The combination of elaborately written compositions, imaginative professionals and the rarely heard voice of the french horn works supremely well.