An Emic and Etic Analysis Of The Impact Of Creative Listening When Recording And Performing With The James Taylor Quartet

It is a long long time since I posted my last blog, so will try and make up for this in the next few days. I am off to Ireland in two weeks to present a paper on ecological listening, using my time as a member of The James Taylor Quartet as a case study.

An Emic and Etic Analysis Of The Impact Of Creative Listening When Recording And Performing With The James Taylor Quartet

Dr Paul Carr

University of Glamorgan

This paper proposes to explore the creative listening roles employed by myself when working with the ‘Acid Jazz’ ensemble The James Taylor Quartet (JTQ) during the years 1989 – 1990. During this time the band recorded their 2nd album Get Organized (Polydor Records 1989) in addition to undertaking several European tours, releasing two mini albums, a promotional video and a single. It is proposed that my dual role today as both an ex band member and academic enables a unique opportunity to analyse factors such as the impact of creative listening on the progressive development of songs, arrangements, productions and performance paradigms. Gioia’s (1988) comment that ‘jazz musicians cannot look ahead at what [they are] going to play, but can look behind at what [they] have just done’[1] is pertinent, and this paper will apply this philosophy by including my own and others reflections on the creative listening process. As noted by Keith Sawyer (2007), ‘all innovations result from a collaborate web’, and the epistemological paradigms through which listening is an essential aspect in the group creative process will be discussed, drawing on personal reflection, interviews with James Taylor himself and academic insights from the likes of Aaron Copeland,[2] William Cahn,[3] Keith Sawyer [4] and Eric Clarke.[5] After contextualising my role in JTQ, the paper will be constructed to progressively examine research questions that have particular relevance for performing musicians and composers as follows:

  • What are the means through which musicians employ listening to recreate ‘pastiche’ sounds of the past?
  • How and why do musicians incorporate listening skills to integrate authenticity into their work by ensuring specific sounds, styles, production techniques and performance conventions comply with the canon?
  • How does creative listening impact group composition, live performance, rehearsals and improvisation?
  • How do environmental factors impact creative listening?

As JTQ have a wide range of commercial recordings from this period, both live and studio based, the paper will also include textual and phenomenological analysis of selected compositions and arrangements.

The James Taylor Quartet (JTQ) are a British based ensemble formed by Hammond Organ player James Taylor (b.1964) in 1986.  Their debut single several months later was a cover of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Blow Up’, and was released independently through Re Elect The President, a forerunner of the successful Acid Jazz label. This was followed by the band’s debut album Mission Impossible (1987) the following year, a recording that continued what was to be a long association with film music covers themes, with pieces such as ‘Goldfinger’, ‘Mrs Robinson’ and ‘Alfie’ being amongst the works included. My personal involvement with the group started around October 1988, soon after the band had secured a record deal with their first major label – Polydor Records. Having just recorded a third studio album Wait A Minute (1987), it was apparent that the band at this point was in a stage of transition, attempting to forge a more original, highly produced funk based style that involved more original composition and less pastiche than earlier efforts

James Taylor verified the transitory nature of the album when stating

The various pressures on me at that time were enormous, record company deadlines and personnel, money, musical output, performance, also I had just split with my old band, including my brother, so it was a painful time for me, therefore very rich artistically! There were also some big egos present, including mine. So it was an interesting time with a kind of ferrel nature dominating the atmosphere.[6]

After a short rehearsal period learning existing material and auditioning new members, JTQ spent the end of 1988 doing a number of one-off performances in the UK and Europe. These live performances facilitated a testing ground to refine what was to be the new version of the group, which undertook a number of further changes during this period. This included using four bass players, in addition to reducing a three piece brass section to a single saxophone. As JTQ’s Wait A Minute album contained numerous arrangements for full brass section, the ideal solution was to tour with a similar line up. However, financial and logistical constraints compromised this decision, and the impact this reduced and ever changing band personnel had on band members’ creative listening will be discussed later.  Once the line up was reasonably established, a period of intense rehearsal, touring and recording commenced, which in the initial stages occurred simultaneously, before touring commitments began to dominate. The dialogic pairing of touring and recording is a tried and tested methodology in popular music performance, in the case of JTQ being used as a means of ensuring that the permanent recorded versions of specific songs were not only performed well,[7] but in an agreed and acceptable stage of compositional development. As indicated by Sawyer, creativity occurs over time, with each member of an organisation contributing small but important ideas toward the ‘big picture’.[8] Sawyer continues to discuss how these collaborations remain invisible without scientific analysis, and how successful innovation occurs when ‘organisations combine just the right ideas in just the right structure’.[9] By the time I had joined the band there were no founding members left aside from James Taylor himself, so it appeared to be an ideal opportunity to develop material with new colleagues. Retrospectively, much of the early rehearsal activity involved either recreating sounds from the previous album – Wait A Minute, preparing for touring commitments, or developing new material for the next album, which was to eventually be entitled Get Organized (1989). This dual role of appreciating and understanding past musical events while simultaneously creating new musical relationships and compositions was probably the most significant task that the new ensemble had to achieve, and it is noticeably similar to what Sawyer[10] describes as ‘deep listening’.[11] The author considers this as being the ability to focus not only on one’s own performative actions, but also that of others, and this is possibly one of the main listening skills that inexperienced or egocentric musicians do not consider. As outlined by academics, historians and musicians such as Lucy Green,[12] Paul Berliner[13] and John Stephens,[14]music is a social discourse, and it is proposed that the ways in which listening was precipitated in JTQ was greatly impacted by the social space the band were working in.

The Intentional/Extensional Listening Process

As I had been earning my living up to this point as a freelance guitarist I felt comfortable with reproducing musical parts, although I was more experienced in simply playing what was on the notated page. As originally outlined by Chester, this ‘intentional[15] /extensional’[16] dialogic is important regarding the expected autonomy a musician has when performing, and has a profound impact on the ways that musicians listen to music. Whist the latter is usually associated with notated classical music that often has little room for creative interpretation, the complexity of intentional music is seen to be achieved by ‘modulation of the basic notes, and by inflection of the basic beat’.[17] Allan Moore [18]continues this debate when discussing the potential creative attributes of parameters such as tempo, dynamic level and rhythm and pitch, regarding them as being ‘precisely the devices a performer of intentional music will utilise’.[19] However, it is proposed that when copying these parameters from a recording for a pastiche performance, they become extensional in nature (to the musician) – the equivalent of replicating the notes and dynamic markings from a musical score. During JTQ rehearsals it was originally considered important to not only learn the notes and recreate the sound of  Wait A Minute, but also for each musician to musically interrelate with new colleagues to formulate a fresh unified voice for the new album, the latter being an intentional process. Both of course require very different listening competencies from the musician. As no members of the original band were available, precisely replicating previous sounds and style parameters from the earlier album proved a difficult task, and although the current line up comprised of numerous seasoned session players, it was problematic to exactly recreate the raw style of the earlier band. It is hypothesised that this is the reason why an unwritten code naturally developed that enabled new band members to indoctrinate their own performance idiolects (and listening competencies) into the music. In retrospect, this was an important decision regarding the progressive movement of JTQ from a mod sounding ensemble to what is now considered a sophisticated funk band. The All Music Guide seems to confirm this point, describing Get Organized as ‘the unexpected missing link between the James Taylor Quartet’s early mod-cum spy theme sound and the later polished acid jazz feel without sounding like either of them’.[20] Regarding my own creative listening role when learning these pieces, my first impression was it sounded like music I had been aware of for a number of years, despite its new Acid Jazz labelling.[21] For example, many of the pieces featured on ‘Wait A Minute’ employed a James Brown funk style guitar,[22] which was often played through a wah wah pedal.[23] Additionally other tracks featured Bossa Nova rhythms,[24] blues based progressions,[25] and funk based grooves not unlike those performed by Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff[26] and Maceo Parker. Although mine and my colleagues’ performance styles were not the same as our predecessors, the pieces provided a stylistic framework that we were comfortable with, enabling us to straddle the divide between intentional innovation and extensional replication. As stated by Sawyer, ‘innovation emerges from the bottom up, [often] unpredictably and improvisationally, and it’s often only after the innovation has occurred that everyone realises what has happened’.[27] In JTQ, it is proposed that innovation occurred because the correct balance of extensional prescription and intentional freedom was facilitated within our social space, which was largely precipitated by James Taylor himself. Upon reflection, it is apparent that when re arranging the earlier album’s material the adaptation of musical events is often small, with the extensional elements dominating. Examination of freshly arranged songs such as ‘Wait A Minute’ and ‘Starsky and Hutch’ taken from an ITV broadcast reveal the basic grooves to be identical to the recordings, however there is enough autonomy for band members to input into factors such as form, tempo and instrumental timbre. In the case of the guitar theme of ‘Wait A Minute’ for example, small variations in melody and rhythm enable the melody to comply with the busier groove of the new version. Many of these changes were of course not conducted purely because of band personnel reasons, but were logistical due to the smaller ensemble line up. However, all of the changes enabled the ensemble to engage with the intentional – extensional divide, with both requiring specific listening skills and competencies. It is important to emphasise that all of the members of the new ensemble were employed as session musicians, so were effectively being paid to perform to the requirements of James Taylor and the record company. Regarding the latter, James Taylor confirmed that the Polydor threatened to drop JTQ unless he ‘split the old band and put together a new one’, in addition to allowing specific record company personnel to be involved in the record’s production.[28] As discussed later, these factors precipitate a specific social space with associated listening styles and habits. However, core members such as myself were also in a position to assist with the song writing process. Having grown up listening to many of JTQ’s principal influences in addition to a range of other musical styles, this proved to be a relatively natural process, and in my case resulted in a co written piece with James Taylor entitled ‘Touchdown’, which I will now discuss to illustrate how intentional and extensional listening combines with social factors to foster creativity.

The Potential Impacts Of Social Parameters on Music Making

‘Touchdown’ entered the rehearsal studio as a series of fragmented ideas that were based on a harmonic pattern similar to Van Morrison’s ‘Moondance’. When listening to the up tempo swing sequence, it is apparent that this groove would not be possible if all participants were either not familiar, or able to be quickly taught the stylistic conventions of the Hard Bop tradition. After jamming through the sequence several times, James Taylor was quickly inspired to document the melody of the verse, a modal theme taught by rote, and originally played on Hammond organ in unison with myself on guitar. After further experimentation, it became apparent that part of the theme could be played as a fugue, a factor that would not have been apparent without the creativity that Jamming precipitates.[29] After playing the theme and soloing over the harmonic progression a few times, Taylor struggled to find a complementary section for the chorus, so I suggested a 7/8 melodic theme which was originally intended to be part of another piece. Although this is not stylistically similar, it was decided collectively that the section provided important contrast and worked musically. These decision making processes were rapid, and to quote Simon Frith, were facilitated ‘not only through knowledge and interpretation of musical forms, but also the social conventions in which they occur’.[30] Frith’s notion that the meaning of music for listeners can change as it enters new social situations is also true for the performing musician, who listen according to the environmental factors they find themselves encountering. In the case above, social factors such as record company pressures, the informal rehearsal environment, current life experiences and the personality/egos of the musicians, in addition to the fact that I was working principally as a session musician, combine with the intentional and extensional listening abilities of improvisation, awareness of style, pastiche development and musical memory. Eric Clarke discusses the importance of what he describes as an ‘ecological’ approach to determining musical meaning. Like Frith, his philosophy is suited to establishing the means through which musicians’ interact with their evolving musical environments by reorientating  and ‘tuning’ themselves to new situations, and how the ‘goodness of fit between and organism and its environment is not a matter of chance, [but a] product of mutual adaptation brought about by an evolutionary process.[31] This Darwinian approach is pertinent to the situation all members of JTQ found themselves in when undertaking rehearsals, performing past material, composing new music and negotiating changing band members. Although it may have been possible to reproduce earlier sounds and textures more precisely, this adaptive approach is more ‘naturally selective’, enabling members to build upon their skills and experience in order to develop something new, albeit based on the JTQ tradition. It is proposed that the means through which this is achieved is principally through creative listening, where the experienced performing musician develops non only sensitivity to various conventions of musical style and the playing idiosyncrasies of other performers, but also an awareness of

where and when to use these factors, depending on their social setting. As Clarke states – ‘perception and action are inextricably bound together‘(23) and this is often passive, with the results often only being apparent retrospectively.

In conclusion, it is proposed that the ‘intentional mode’ of participation requires the musician to quite simply listen more creatively, while the extensional in its more contemporary perspective requires the ability to ‘recreate’ not only notes on a page, but also textures, timbres, style indicators, etc. It is apparent that all songs on Get Organised were either composed by James Taylor, or James Taylor and another band member, although this was usually after extensive development of the composition in the rehearsal studio where everyone was involved in the act of creative listening. This process required the ensemble to rapidly reference specific grooves[32], learn harmonic and melodic components quickly by ear and be sensitive to sounds that referenced the JTQ tradition, in addition to being aware of the social environment in which all of this was occurring. Although many of these factors are intentional in nature when analyzing the recordings, they are extensional to the musician at the time, as they have to be reproduced exactly. Regarding James Taylors own perceptions of the listening experience, he commented

I think for any artist in this sort of situation it is important to have some kind of understanding as to what one’s value system is, ie, what is [the] music and why am I playing it? For me, music has always been a means to an end. That end being a kind of merger and extreme level of emotional engagement and connection with the listener/audience.[33]

This external ‘connection’ with the listener is of course only possible if the participating musicians are communicating internally, and Cahn’s observation that ‘in a cultural environment where physically active “doing” is valued highly, it is sometimes necessary to draw attention to mentally active doing’[34] is important. This paper has hopefully provided an insight into this process.

[1] Ken N. Kamoche, Miguel Pina e Cunha, and João Vieira da Cunha, Organizational improvisation (Routledge, 2002), p.55.

[2] Aaron Copland, Music and imagination (Harvard University Press, 1980).

[3] William L. Cahn, Creative music making (Routledge, 2005).

[4] Robert Keith Sawyer, Group genius: the creative power of collaboration (Westview Press, 2007).

[5] Eric F. Clarke, Ways of listening (Oxford University Press US, 2005).

[6] Interview with the author. January 25th, 2010.

[7] This was particularly important, as JTQ have a respected reputation as a ‘live act’.

[8] Robert Keith Sawyer, Group genius (Westview Press, 2007), p14.

[9] Ibid.

[10] At a later stage it is important to discuss how numerous other writers have used this phrase – although it does not always mean the same thing.

[11] Sawyer, Group genius.

[12] Lucy Green, Music, informal learning and the school (Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2008).

[13] Paul Berliner, Thinking in jazz (University of Chicago Press, 1994).

[14] John Stevens et al., Search and reflect (Community Music, 1985).

[15] Where meaning is considered to be ‘inside’ the music. For example a recording.

[16] Where meaning is considered to be outside the music. For example in a musical score.

[17] Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin, On record (Routledge, 1990), p315.

[18] Allan F. Moore, Rock, the primary text (Open University Press, 1993), p23.

[19] Although he does cite the flat 5 substitutions of Howling Wolf’s ‘Little Red Rooster’ as an example of an intentional piece with ‘some extensional development’


[21] A term which James Taylor regards as ‘meaning different things to different people’/

[22] For example ‘Wait A Minute’, ‘The Natural Thing’ and ’Kooks Corner’.

[23] Indeed as a gesture of authenticity the album featured Pee Wee Ellis and Fred Wesley, both of whom were members of James Brown’s band during the 1960’s 1970’s.

[24] ‘Indian Summer’.

[25] For example ‘Jungle Strut’ and ‘Fat Boy Stomp’.

[26] For example note the rhythmic similarities of ‘McDuff’s Wade In The Water’ to ‘Jungle Strut’.

[27] Sawyer, Group genius, p25.

[28] Interview with the author. January 25th, 2010.

[29] John Kao has written extensively on how business ideas benifit from ‘jamming’. Refer to John Kao, Jamming: The Art and Discipline of Business Creativity (Harper Paperbacks, 1997).

[30] Simon Frith, Performing rites (Harvard University Press, 1998), p.250.

[31] Eric F. Clarke, Ways of listening (Oxford University Press US, 2005), p.20.

[32] Some pieces used existing music as a starting point.

[33] Interview with the author. January 25th, 2010.

[34] William L. Cahn, Creative music making (Routledge, 2005), p.49.

About Paul Carr

Academic working at the University of Glamorgan
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