Joani Taylor gives voice to an idol
During his lifetime, Fraser MacPherson was universally hailed as Vancouver’s most accomplished saxophonist. A disciple of the Charlie Parker school of bop, he was a fleet stylist with an airy tone, yet when the moment called for it, he could also paint a ballad in the very deepest shades of blue. Even though he died in 1993, musicians still speak of him with awe and appreciation—and perhaps just the tiniest hint of trepidation. He was not known to suffer fools gladly.
Trepidation, too, is what singer Joani Taylor felt when asked to write lyrics for a handful of the late saxophonist’s unreleased compositions. Not because she’d ever been the butt of one of his jokes, but because turning MacPherson’s speedy lines into lyrics would be a task to challenge even the most adept poet.
The saxophonist might have had a singer’s sense of melody, Taylor contends, but not an alto’s. “I had to lower a lot of his stuff, and most of his stuff was so fast I also had to slow it way down,” she says, on the line from her Vancouver home. “It’s bebop; it’s way up. So it was an extremely difficult challenge to do, but I wanted to quote the way he played.”
Adding to the task was that Taylor was working from old tapes of the saxophonist, mostly made for the CBC during the 1960s, and few of the tunes had ever been transcribed. She did have the help of a knowledgeable source, however: MacPherson’s son Guy, who initiated the project after hearing Taylor sing some of her self-penned songs at the Cellar Jazz Club.
“We knew each other,” Taylor says of the younger MacPherson, this weekly’s regular comedy critic. “He’d written liner notes for an album that Ross Taggart and I had done. So he said, ”˜You know, I liked your work a lot. Would you be interested in looking at my dad’s work and placing lyrics to it?’ And I said, ”˜What an honour to even be asked!’
When Taylor premieres her new suite of 11 songs at the Cellar as part of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, she’ll front an all-star band of Taggart on tenor sax, Bill Coon on guitar, Sharon Minemoto on piano, Darren Radtke on bass, and Buff Allen on drums. She’ll also be able to draw on her own memories of MacPherson, whom she met as a slightly starstruck teenager, and aspiring jazz singer, during the 1970s.
“Of course I’d seen him play jazz around town,” she recalls. “But there was also a club—I think it was called the End, although it had many incarnations—and it was owned by musicians. It was just a little hole-in-the-wall, and everybody would go there after their gigs were over. They had a little kitchen at the back that only had a baron-of-beef sandwich to offer, and soft drinks, and they hired me to serve up these sandwiches and sing.
“Fraser had this way of making his eyebrow go up on one side, and he’d look at me and say ”˜No fat!’ And then he’d get this grin on his face that Guy has, the same grin. So that was our conversation just about every night, and then I’d go and hear him play his ass off.”
Taylor adds that the saxophonist was not known to be especially fond of jazz vocalists, but he seemingly made an exception for her.
“I don’t know how many girls he raised that eyebrow to,” she says with a laugh, “but he did it to me!”