Front Porch

James Taylor Gets Reimagined at Folkey Monkey

Ron Satterfield. Photo by Michael Oletta.

Lori Bell.

Tommy Aros.

Folkey Monkey host, Joe Rathburn.

People in the folk community—those who enjoy hearing a good song sung by a good guitar slinger—have been wise to Folkey Monkey for a long time. Through Folkey Monkey, Joe Rathburn, who is a great guitar slinger and fine singer of songs, asks other prominent local musicians to join him for a couple hours of sharing songs and stories. The musical guest is also encouraged to pick a musician to honor or a theme around which the performance will revolve. Among the artists honored have been Neil Young, Paul Simon, and Bob Dylan.

So it will be no surprise to anyone that this month Folkey Monkey will feature the music of James Taylor.

But there is a twist.

James Taylor will be honored, but he will receive a reimagining as well. For the musical guests sharing the stage with Rathburn will be the jazz trio of flutist Lori Bell, singer and guitarist Ron Satterfield, and percussionist Tommy Aros, jazz musicians who are as much at home with Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock as they are with the songs of James Taylor.

Satterfield provided all the arrangements that the musicians will perform for the event, which will take place on the evening of Thursday, October 10. “The show is called James Taylor reimagined, and that’s what we’re doing. Take the song ‘Gorilla.’ Just imagine that song done the way Richie Havens sang the song ‘Freedom’ at Woodstock. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Satterfield says that the band will take similar arrangements with other of Taylor’s songs, performing them with different time signatures or giving the chords and chord changes more of a jazz voicing. For those who think this might be strange to take on songs by a folk singer,

Satterfield points out that Taylor has been hip to the whole jazz thing all along. “Taylor is a singer/songwriter who has used jazz in his songs from the beginning. He knows his way around a major seventh chord. He knows his way around a minor seventh chord,” Satterfield says.
Satterfield points out that the incorporation of jazz into folk music and the singer/songwriter tradition predates Taylor’s emergence on the national music scene in the early 1970s by at least ten years. “You can hear some of that with Peter, Paul, and Mary,” he says. “The center of the folk music scene was New York City in the late fifties, early sixties, a city with a lot of jazz. And there must have been some influence and cross over. Folk musicians visiting jazz clubs or different musicians associating with each other.”

For those of you who would like an example of this jazz influence, click an old YouTube video of Bob Dylan singing his song “Blowing in the Wind.” Next, click an old video of Peter, Paul, and Mary singing the same song. (You can tell they are old videos if they are in black and white.) Do you hear the additional chords the trio fits in to the classic of the Baby Boomer generation? The Dylan version sounds rough-hewn and a little raw. In addition to the harmonies (and much better voices of Yarrow, Stookey, and Travers), the added chords smooth out “Blowing in the Wind” and give the listener a song with more promise and inspiration.

Bell and Satterfield have performed together for years and years, and the performance of Taylor’s songs is not a recent addition to their repertoire. “I had no idea about Ron and James Taylor at all. This came from out of the blue for me,” says Bell. Satterfield and Bell were performing at a venue when someone asked Satterfield if he could play a James Taylor song. “And he just played it. He knew a lot of other James Taylor songs, too. I had no idea Ron knew all this material.”

There were other songwriters to sing their own songs before James Taylor came to prominence in the early 1970s, and there have been plenty others since who have crafted tunes and put their voice to them. But for most folks, when they hear the term singer/songwriter, James Taylor naturally comes to mind. Few others have excelled at combining deft lyrics with a well-crafted tune, all sung with a warm baritone that has only improved over the decades.

Taylor’s songs vary from the deeply introspective and personal to tunes that are lighthearted and fun, such as “Mexico” and “Steamroller.” With his lyrics, Taylor sketches rather than paints, giving the listener a simple line tied to another and another. This does the most important thing a good lyric is supposed to do: prompt the imagination. This spare style, which might be compared to the narrative of Hemmingway or Raymond Chandler, allows the listener to fill in the blanks. Each time you hear a song from Taylor—even some of the oldest and often heard songs of his, such as “Fire and Rain” or “Shower the People”—it is a new experience. You don’t tire of these songs.

Taylor is gifted with a voice that certainly stands up to others who have interpreted the Great American Songbook. In recent decades his smooth baritone has grown stronger, and he has incorporated more sophisticated vocal techniques, evincing the work that he has done with voice teachers and vocal coaches. If you want to hear how Taylor’s vocal abilities have improved, click on a YouTube of Taylor singing “Fire and Rain” in 1970, then click a video of him performing that song in the last 20 years. Hear the strength and clarity? Hear that vibrato? And if you want proof that he can hold his own with the best, just listen to Taylor with Michael Brecker and their interpretation of Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You.” He handles the 1940 ballad as well as anybody in your grandma’s vinyl collection.

For those of you who like to keep track of such things, Taylor has sold over 100 million albums, earning him 40 gold, platinum, and multi-platinum awards. He is an inductee to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

Lori Bell is one of the most prominent jazz performers in San Diego. The Brooklyn native is hailed for her full tone and commanding improvisational abilities on the flute. In 2011 the Global Music Awards bestowed an Award of Excellence for Bell’s CD Lori Bell. Her CD Music of Djavan was nominated for Best Jazz Album by the San Diego Music Awards in 2008. She has performed at some of the most prominent venues in the country, including New York’s the Blue Note, the Catalina Jazz Club in Los Angeles, and the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Local performance venues include Croce’s and Elario’s. Through 2013 and 2014 Bell was the La Jolla Community Center’s Artist in Residence, composing, arranging, performing, and producing concerts for their Fourth Friday Jazz Series.

With a sound that is always fresh, Ron Satterfield has delighted San Diego audiences for decades. Recordings include As Long As There Is Music, with Jan Tober, and Blue(s), which he recorded with Bell.

Tommy Aros is the first-call percussionist for gigs or recording sessions. He is credited on over 60 albums and CDs, recording with top performers such as Freddie Hubbard, Al Dimeola, and David Benoit. Besides Satterfield and Bell, you can find Aros performing with the funk jazz extravaganza Fattburger. Aros, Satterfield, and Bell have performed together for years. They have that je ne sais quoi that bands acquire with time.

As usual, Joe Rathburn will host Folkey Monkey’s James Taylor show. A native of Flint, Michigan, Rathburn is a stellar performer and one of the best singer/songwriters to make his home here in San Diego. Like James Taylor, his songs range from the humorous to the heartfelt, and he masterfully crafts chords and melodies. He’s a darn good singer, too. He has six CDs to his credit and has opened for Dave Van Ronk, Ray Charles, and even your favorite grease-painted super group from the seventies, Kiss.

James Taylor Reimagined will be released as a CD, with a projected release date, or at least a projected release month, being January of next year. The CD release occurs as Satterfield celebrates eight years of sobriety. “It’s just remarkable. It’s like lifting veil after veil after veil and re-experiencing the joy of life,” Satterfield says. “It can be the simplest joy, like simply sitting on the couch and playing guitar.”

Trio de Janiero will be at Joe Rathburn’s Folkey Monkey on Thursday, October 10, 7pm. Located at Vision, 4780 Mission Gorge Place, Ste. H, San Diego.

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