John Taylor, who has died aged 72, who has died aged 72, was one of the finest, though often underrated, British jazz pianists and composers of his generation.
Taylor’s playing was virtuosic but never overwrought, combining a melodic lyricism with rhythmic originality and drawing influences from classical music. He was regarded by connoisseurs as one of the most creative and technically brilliant pianists in jazz.
Taylor first came to the attention of jazz audiences in 1969 when he partnered the saxophonists Alan Skidmore and John Surman. In the early 1970s he was accompanist to Cleo Laine and began composing for his own sextet. He worked with many visiting artists at Ronnie Scott’s Club, eventually becoming a member of Scott’s quintet. In 1977 he formed the trio Azimuth with the singer (and his first wife) Norma Winstone and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, performing with them intermittently until the early 1990s and also establishing his credentials as a composer.
But even though he recorded more than 80 albums , the fact that for much of his career he provided the self-deprecating harmonic foil for others meant that Taylor did not become a household name. He was probably less well known in his native Britain than he was in mainland Europe, where he taught at the Music Academy in Cologne and recorded (with Azimuth) for the Munich-based ECM label. His compositions were performed by Hanover’s radio symphony orchestra and he appeared with many of the Continent’s leading jazz musicians, from the bassists Arild Andersen and Miroslav Vitous to the trumpeter Enrico Rava and saxophonist Jan Garbarek.
In later life, however, Taylor’s reputation in Britain saw something of a revival after the Contemporary Music Network decided to mark his 60th birthday in 2002 with a UK tour. Leading a new trio (including virtuoso bassist and band leader Marc Johnson and drummer Joey Baron), and teaming up with the Creative Jazz Orchestra, he won a BBC Jazz award for for “Best New Work” for his Green Man Suite, inspired by the romantic and archaeological landscape of Britain.
Taylor was born in Manchester on September 25 1942 and taught himself to play the piano, beginning his career with Manchester dance bands before moving to London in 1964. Over his career he worked with, among others, groups led by Gil Evans, Lee Konitz and Charlie Mariano and performed in duos with Tony Coe and Steve Arguelles .
From 2006, Taylor was a member of Kenny Wheeler’s quartet, and larger ensemble, and throughout his career he continued to work with the saxophonist John Surman, playing the organ on his choral work Proverbs and Songs from Salisbury Cathedral (1996).
In 2003 his solo piano album Insight was hailed by critics as one of his best recordings. The following year Taylor formed a new trio with Palle Danielsson and Martin France, performing at the Vancouver Jazz Festival and realeasing their recording Angel of the Presence in 2006 to coincide with a UK tour.
Taylor became a professor of jazz piano at the Cologne Music Academy in 1993 and taught jazz at York University from 2005.
In 2012 he marked his 70th birthday with a commission for BBC Radio 3 that included a suite inspired by Kurt Vonnegut. A new album, Duets – featuring Taylor and Richard Fairhurst, one of his former students, is due to be released in August.
Taylor was performing at the Saveurs Jazz Festival in Segré, France, on July 17 when he suffered a heart attack. He died later in hospital.
Taylor’s first marriage to Norma Winstone was dissolved. He is survived by his second wife, Carol, and by two sons of his first marriage.
John Taylor, born September 25 1942, died July 17 2015