By taking his time and letting his music develop at its own pace, Mark Taylor has become one of the essential players on the Seattle jazz scene.
While steadily pursuing his own musical vision, the alto saxophonist has toiled fruitfully as a sideman, contributing to more than half a dozen excellent ensembles. From long-running institutions like the Jim Knapp Orchestra (which plays the first Monday of every month at the Seattle Drum School) to short-lived projects such as the Wayne Horvitz quartet (that just finished a two-month run at Café Paloma) Taylor provides a jolt of passionate lyricism to every situation in which he's involved.
Six years after the release of his impressive debut CD "After Hours" (Origin), Taylor once again steps into the foreground with a consistently compelling quartet session: "Spectre," which alternates between spontaneously generated quicksilver improvisations and sinuous compositions.
"I'm not a very prolific writer, but I spend a ton of time on the tunes," says Taylor, 36, who celebrates the release of "Spectre" on Thursday as part of Earshot's Art of Jazz Series at the Seattle Art Museum and then April 13 at the Triple Door. Both gigs feature the same cast as the CD, with the dynamic young drummer Byron Vannoy, veteran bassist Jeff Johnson and Los Angeles-based Gary Fukushima on piano and Fender Rhodes.
"I'm trying to find my identity as I write, find a melody and harmonize it," says Taylor, who was recognized in February by Earshot Jazz as Jazz Instrumentalist of the Year. "I don't know if there's a specific sound I'm looking for. I love thoughtful composition, but also complete freedom, stuff that has some depth and pushes you out of your comfort level."
In many ways, Taylor is a homegrown artist. Born and raised in Seattle, he picked up the alto sax in fifth grade and flourished in the music program at Washington Middle School. By the time he started studying with Scott Brown at Roosevelt High School, he was soaking up the sounds of alto sax icons Charlie Parker, Phil Woods and Cannonball Adderley.
He refined his approach with Seattle saxophone legend Don Lanphere and Michael Brockman at the University of Washington School of Music. A two-year stint at the Manhattan School of Music put him in the thick of the New York action, where he performed with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.
Through all his studies, Taylor has distilled his influences into a readily recognizable voice, light, limber and dry. His lines slip and dart in unexpected directions, and his pleasingly crisp sound occasionally brings to mind Lee Konitz, the altoist who offered an incisive, cool alternative to Charlie Parker's searing bebop in the late 1940s.
"I love Lee Konitz, and I spend a lot of time listening to him," Taylor says. "His lines are so difficult and yet he makes it sound so simple."
Outside of Seattle, Taylor is probably best known as a charter member of the capaciously inventive combo Matt Jorgensen + 451, where his centered saxophone provides a sense of unflappable serenity amid Jorgensen's effusive drum work and Ryan Burns' clanging keyboards. His unusual combination of emotional self-possession and improvisation derring-do is what attracted pianist/keyboardist Wayne Horvitz.
"I love his sound and ideas and lyricism, his open-mindedness and looking to break out of the musical bag he's usually associated with," says Horvitz, who also recruited Taylor for the Washington Composers Orchestra, or WACO. "As many alto players as there are, it's a hell of a horn to say something new on. He's got a lot of modern conceptual stuff, but doesn't use it like a guy running his licks. I find that really refreshing."