He holds his audience in the palm of his hand.
That was the tribute Maestro Maurice Abravanel paid jazz pianist Billy Taylor as Abravanel introduced Taylor to an audience drawn by Taylor's fine reputation to Kingsbury Hall Saturday evening.And Taylor and his esteemed sidemen - bassist Victor Gaskin and drummer Bobby Thomas - lived up, with class and remarkable flair, to the maestro's confidence.
In reciting the story of Taylor's appearance with the Utah Symphony in the Mormon Tabernacle years ago, Abravanel said the pianist had "played in a trance" - equally mesmerizing his Utah audience.
The multitalented Taylor had that same, rare command of his audience Saturday, performing a veritable banquet of jazz. The hall sizzled with his repertoire of tunes ranging from a version of George Gershwin's "The Man I Love" to his own composition,"You Tempt Me."
Taylor, who has a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts, does more than entertain. He educates.
"Jazz is a way of playing," Taylor explained Saturday. Sometimes, jazz is "work in progress" during a performance with musicians changing things as they feel them. Even Mozart and Bach were improvisers, he said.
"If it's a tune you're familiar with, then we try to put it in a different light," he said.
Composer, recording artist, arranger and conductor, actor, author, teacher, radio and television personality. Recipient of two Peabody's and an Emmy. All these titles attached to Taylor combine to create more than a jazz artist. His passionate performance shows depth in commitment to bringing jazz to the forum of the university and the media. Its clear he wants Americans to love and understand as "America's classical music."
His style in communicating with his audience is warm, direct, smart - no flamboyance or trickery. But his fingers on the keyboard show an engaging flamboyance, sense of humor, superb skill - and spirituality. Sparks fly and the artists wipe perspiration from their faces during their jazzy renditions. Kingsbury Hall buzzed with the blues and shook with toe-tapping songs like "Celebrate" and "Soul Sister."
The trio's long years of playing together create an impeccable cohensiveness in sound - even as they playfully improvise. While one solos, the others stick with him, somehow just "feeling" when to join in.
Gaskin, who has played with Taylor for 12 years, strummed and plucked his bass to produce incredible sounds - not usually associated with a string instrument. And Thomas wowed the audience with rhythms hard to listen to without jumping out of your seat and dancing.
The audience whistled and roared with approval at the concert's end. It was jazz at its finest, and from the response, Utah would like a lot more of it.