Piano man Tanner Taylor finds the keys to the scene

Tanner Taylor looks forward to traveling and collaborating.
Photo by Andrea Canter
Tanner Taylor looks forward to traveling and collaborating.

I don’t recall where I first saw Tanner Taylor play. It might have been at the Hot Summer Jazz Festival in 2004 or the Artists’ Quarter in 2005. I do recall wondering, “Who is that amazing young pianist?”

Since then I’ve seen him several times, most recently at the Dakota for Gordon Johnson’s CD release. (Taylor is the featured pianist on three tracks including “Evanesque,” his own composition.) Imaginative, versatile and lightning-quick on the keys, Taylor commands attention without stealing the spotlight, an essential skill for a musician who’s often a sideman.

Taylor has accompanied many of the Twin Cities’ top singers on stage and on recordings. He plays for Dave Karr’s Gerry Mulligan tribute band, Mulligan Stew. He has backed national touring artists like Barbara Morrison and David “Fathead” Newman.

In June 2007, when the United Trombone Summit came to the Dakota, he played for Steve Turre, Wycliffe Gordon, Fred Wesley and Delfeayo Marsalis — an intimidating group — without breaking a sweat.

Taylor also fronts his own trio, which performs at the Artists’ Quarter on June 6-7. The show will be an Oscar Peterson tribute. See him play an earlier AQ date below.

“Oscar Peterson is responsible for me playing traditional jazz,” he says. “Originally I was more interested in big band music and swing. Then I heard Oscar Peterson’s ‘Affinity’ [a 1962 trio album with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Ed Thigpen] and wanted to be a jazz piano player.”

A fan of Glenn Miller by age 12
Just 27 years old, Taylor isn’t quite ready to write his autobiography, so here’s a quick sketch: He grew up in Jefferson, Iowa; started classical piano at age 6; began composing soon after; saw “The Glenn Miller Story” at 12 and decided to try jazz (“I’m a huge Glenn Miller fan”); continued piano and added trombone; played both through high school, where his teacher was Jack Oatts, one of Iowa’s first jazz educators.

Performed his first professional gig with Oatts at age 14; took a correspondence course (“with cassettes, by mail”) with jazz pianist Gary Dial at the Manhattan School of Music; attended the University of Northern Iowa to study composition; moved to Minneapolis in 2001 and hit the ground running.

His first Twin Cities gig? “I’m pretty sure it was with Sue Tucker at the Luxford [now the Doubletree] in Minneapolis.” Today he plays all over both towns, and he plays often; recently his MySpace page (which he keeps current) listed 20 shows for May.

What’s his secret to staying busy? “Taking the bull by the horns. You can’t just sit by the phone and wait for people to call.

“Number one, I do this full time, and I practice a lot, and I think people recognize and appreciate that. Number two, I try to be out at clubs as much as possible, staying in contact with musicians. Going out to other people’s gigs is a big part of it. If people see you out there, later on down the road they might think of you.”

The people he plays with hold him in high esteem. “Tanner is certainly one of my favorite pianists in the world,” bassist Gordon Johnson says. “His straight-ahead, no-nonsense approach to jazz piano is at once disarming and inspiring. Obviously he grew up listening to the great pianists. … He has created his own natural voice and expression out of that tradition.”

Taylor also knows how to work with singers. “The singer is the boss,” he says. “You try to do everything in your power to make the singer comfortable.”

“Tanner is a 100 percent regular guy: funny, great company, and a pleasure to work with,” says vocalist Arne Fogel. “At the keyboard, he’s a whole ‘nuther thing: an astounding player who is idiomatically on the money in any kind of jazz.”

Christine Rosholt has worked with Taylor for five years. He’s a regular member of her trio and is heard on her most recent CD, “Detour Ahead” (2006), a Minnesota Music Award nominee for Jazz Recording of the Year. “There are lots of great musicians who don’t have the knack he has for supporting a vocalist,” she says. “It’s a special talent. He is very creative and inventive while keeping enough there that I can stay with him.”

Singer and music educator Vicky Mountain appreciates that “Tanner always brings something new and exciting to the same standards we’ve heard (and sung) so many times…. I love ‘making jazz’ with him in the band.”

When Taylor moved to Minnesota seven years ago, his goal was “to get into the scene.” Mission accomplished. So where would he like to be in five years?

“Definitely traveling a bit more, networking more outside the Twin Cities. Especially now, it’s pretty easy to have a home base just about anywhere, so I’m not considering moving at this time.

“I would also like to collaborate with a lot of people here — Kelly Rossum, vocalists Sophia Shorai and Nancy Harms — and get some stuff going with them creatively.

“It’s refreshing that a place like the Twin Cities has this type of music scene. The only other places people work all the time are New York and L.A.”

What: Tanner Taylor Tribute to Oscar Peterson
Where: The Artists’ Quarter
When: Friday, June 6 and Saturday, June 7, 9 p.m. ($10)

Upcoming picks

Andrés Prado Quintet: Guitarist Prado moved to the Twin Cities from Lima, Peru, in 2005 and we hoped we could keep him. But these days “visa” is a four-letter word. He’s back for a visit so catch him while you can. The Artists’ Quarter, 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 30 and 31 ($12).

Charmin Michelle:
Take a break at the Edina Art Fair to hear the tasteful, graceful, elegant singer. She’ll be backed by pianist Rick Carlson, bassist Keith Boyles and drummer Dick Bortolussi. Lifestyle Stage (49 1/2 and Halifax Avenue), 4 p.m.-7 p.m. Saturday, May 31 (Free).

Paul Renz CD Release:
The CD is called “ReBop.” I’ve been listening to it for the past few weeks and I like it a lot. Warm, melodic guitar (Renz), flute (Anders Bostrom), Hammond organ and piano (Brian Zemniak), bass (Eric Graham), and drums (Nathan Fryett); mostly original tunes. You might not think flute and guitar go together but they do. The Dakota, 8 p.m. Saturday, May 31 ($10).

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