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Music Review: Dennis Taylor – Steppin’ Up

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It’s not at all uncommon for a veteran sideman to dream of a solo release that showcases his or her own musical vision. Saxophonist Dennis Taylor didn’t live to see the realization of his dream–he passed away at age 56 while on tour with Delbert McClinton, leaving friend and bandmate Kevin McKendree to finish mixing his debut as a leader.

And what a collection Steppin’ Up proves to be. Taylor is–or was–a player’s player, having worked with the likes of Gatemouth Brown, Buckwheat Zydeco, and Duke Robillard. Taking as his model the classic organ trio recordings from the likes of Jimmy McGriff and Hank Crawford, Taylor finds a perfect foil in organist McKendree. Enthralled by the tonal properties of the organ/saxophone combination, they enlisted three different drummers (Kenneth Blevins, Chester Thompson, and Lynn Williams) for the project. McClinton himself guests on a smoky reading of Buddy Johnson’s immortal “Since I Fell For You,” the only vocal turn on an otherwise all-instrumental outing.

In addition to impeccable taste, Taylor had eclectic interests, so his musical excursions range a bit further afield than typical jazz outings, with lots of New Orleans-inspired rhythms and gospel-soaked excursions through the blues. He covers personal heroes Ray Charles (“Hallelujah I Love Her So”) and Percy Mayfield (“River’s Invitation”), delivers an exuberant “Josephine” (credited to the powerhouse team of Fats Domino and Dave Bartholemew), and surprises with a tender rendition of the Lennon-McCartney chestnut, “And I Love Her.”

Taylor contributed a handful of his own compositions as well, from the sprightly “Lee’s Lick” that kicks things off with its second-line rhythms, to the hardcore blues of “Back At The Teddy Bear Lounge” that closes the disc in fine fashion. Instrumentation is obviously sparse, but McKendree is a masterful accompanist, coaxing a full cushion of smoky sound from the mighty B3 that gives Taylor lots of room to embellish melodies with understated work that’s invariably subtle and soulful throughout.

Steppin’ Up proves Taylor had lots to say musically, and he thoroughly deserved a solo spotlight. It’s a tragedy that he didn’t live to savor the results, but one can only assume he’d be justifiably proud–this is a wonderful recording!

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