The James Taylor Quartet is still playing that funky music 30 years down the line

James Taylor Quartet
James Taylor Quartet
A previous Last Night of the Proms at Waterlooville Music Festival

Waterlooville Music Festival set to return this weekend

Formed from the ashes of cult garage-rock act, The Prisoners, The James Taylor Quartet have been motoring now for more than three decades.

Powered by the eponymous Taylor and his Hammond organ playing, the quartet has established itself as the finest purveyor of funk, jazz and pop in the land.

On their latest tour, they'll be heading to Portsmouth Guildhall, and as James tells The Guide, they have a long and happy association with the city.

'We’re looking forward to coming back to Portsmouth, we always have a good one there.

'We did the Guildhall once, maybe twice before, the first time in fact was with John Peel, come to think of it. We’ve played at The Wedgewood Rooms and the Pyramids too, we’ve got a long relationship with Portsmouth.'

The JTQ got their first boost from the legendary DJ after he got his hands on their debut single, Blow-Up, and played it repeatedly.

'Without him we would never have got off the ground, as it was for so many musicians,' says James. 'He just played us to death on his show and we immediately started having independent hits and we picked up an audience from scratch.

'We’d turn up in towns like Manchester and there’d be 4-500 people there to see us. That’s what Radio1 could do for you. He helped massively, for some reason, he decided he liked us and that was it.'

By the late 1980s the band had become associated with the acid jazz movement, an exciting time for the band.

'The music in the UK at the time started to change direction, it was a really interesting time. There was a refreshing new thing in the air, and we were in the middle of that, purely by chance.

'You don’t even kind of know it’s happening while it’s happening, it’s all very natural and you just follow what excites you.'

But like so many hugely hyped music scenes before it, when the wind went against acid jazz it took many of its acts with it.

'When acid jazz tanked that did hurt us, but we’d been going for a while before it so we already had an audience and it didn’t kill us off.

'I already worked out long before any of that, that the main thing I wanted out of music was to be able to carry on working, whatever. I kind of had a set of ideas about the sort of music I wanted to play that would enable me to be here at 55 years old talking about what I’m doing. That’s what I wanted rather than a massive pay-off, I wanted longevity.'

And that approach has certainly enabled James to follow his muse where it leads, and delights in doing the unexpected. His 2015 release was a choral work called Rochester Mass.

'It was a total detour,' James laughs. 'It was a shock for me. I’ve always sort of followed my heart. At the moment I want to do a piano album which I’m sure would upset a few people.

'If you follow the organ you end up in church basically, and if you follow that, you end up with choral, liturgical singing and then we found a way to do something with that.

'We played the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London twice with it, and various cathedrals, and we’re doing my hometown cathedral, Rochester, in May, playing the mass and a new choral work I’ve written called the Magnifica.

'I’ve got another record coming out this year that’s orchestral. It’s just flirting with different musical ideas and seeing if you can get someone to finance it!'

Expanding on the classical album, James explains: 'It’s funky, it still sounds like JTQ, but it’s very strings and horns and all that. It sounds amazing. To get it right we did it in Abbey Road. To do it with a full orchestra costs a fortune – I couldn’t afford it, but these guys [Audio Network] put their hands in their pockets for it.

'You can write all the music you like, whether it will see the light of day is another matter. I’ve written lots of material that hasn’t been recorded.

'It’s like making a film or anything else that you’re trying to get off the ground – can you convince someone else? But that’s part of being a musician these days, trying to convince someone else that it would be a very good idea to spend their money on you!

'It’s easy to lose money making records,' he adds with a note of resignation that speaks volumes.

'It’s like throwing mud at the wall and seeing what sticks. You look back at the end of the year and think, blimey I didn’t think that would work, and one thing you were dead sure would work, got nowhere.'

Keeping things fresh has never been hard for the JTQ  improvisation is key.

'The music we play is wide open to moving around and we have a large catalogue of tunes. When we’re onstage, we don’t really write a setlist, we just pull out what we think will work next and what we want to play and what we think the audience will like. It’s the travelling, that’s the hard part.

'You could call it jazz - we set up a melody and then we improvise on that, which is kind of what jazz is. We don’t really use swing rhythms or basslines, we use funk basslines, which got called jazz-funk, or in later days, they called it acid jazz. It’s jazz improvisation on a funky groove, that’s what we do, and people like that.'

While the quartet sometimes performs with additional musicians, it's playing as the four-piece that still excites James the most.

'That’s my favourite thing. That’s total liberation. The musicians know each other so well we can do what we want, we can turn on a sixpence, I don’t want to show off, I really don’t but we know each other so well, it’s,' he pauses and chuckles, 'it is showing off! We’re so pleased with where we are with it, and we’ve spent a long time getting to that point. But it’s still developing.

'What we do essentially is as the four-piece, everything else is some sort of deviation or an add-on, and that’s us in full-flight. It’s us doing what we do well.'

James Taylor QUARTET

Portsmouth Guildhall 

Saturday, February 3

portsmouthguildhall.org.uk