When two great soloists decide to make a record together sometimes something magical happens – and that’s certainly the case with The Colonel And The Governor, the new CD from Tommy Emmanuel and Martin Taylor. Both players enjoy a reputation for being able to fill a stage with sound, playing melody, bass and rhythm all at once – and so putting the two of them together in a recording studio in Nashville last summer guaranteed some true fretboard wizardry! The dynamic duo are about to embark on a UK tour together and, despite their mutual tendency to spend most of the year in different time zones from one another, Acoustic managed to get them in the same place at the same time for an in depth look at their unique fingerstyle alliance.
We began by asking the most fundamental question of all: how did the album’s title come about and most importantly, who’s who?
TE: I’m The Colonel and he’s The Governor … I’m actually an honorary Kentucky Colonel which is strange, being an Aussie and all. I was given this honour by the State of Kentucky because I get involved in a lot of charity things and fund raising and I have my annual Tommyfest in Elizabethtown every year which is actually one of the top four tourist attractions in the state. And, of course, I’ve always had a connection to Kentucky through Merle Travis and his music and when I was a kid some of my best friends in Australia were American and they were from Kentucky. So there’s always been a connection. So, basically the colonel thing means that I can get free tickets to the Kentucky Derby and that’s about it! As I think most people know, ‘The Governor’ is a term of endearment and respect in England and I’ve always said that such-and-such is a good player, but Martin is The Governor. He’s like the boss and it doesn’t matter where I am someone will ask me about Martin or Albert Lee and I always say that those guys are the governors, the rest of us are just sergeants and privates!
MT: Tommy’s always called me The Governor or Guv and it’s been like that ever since I’ve known him. Tommy’s manager put up a little mock-up of the cover with ‘The Colonel And The Governor’ on it and we said that actually that was a great title. Everyone else seemed to like it as well. We’d had a couple of other ideas but they’d been done before; you have to do a bit of research on that because it can cause a lot of confusion. But there’s never been a Colonel And The Governor before to our knowledge. Now that we’ve got to a certain age where we’re not the young lads any more it’s quite nice to have these titles.
Where did you both first meet?
MT: It was on my second trip to Australia. The first trip I did with Stephane Grappelli in 1990 and I think it was ‘92 when I went on my own and did my first solo tour – I’ve done about 14 or 15 now. I didn’t realise it at the time but the agent I was working with had been involved very much in television in Australia and some of the older producers that he had worked with were still there. So when I went there I was really amazed at how much TV I got and I was asked to go on this TV show called Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday which was run by Daryl Somers. It’s a funny thing because it started as a kids programme with puppets but it was so clever that adults actually liked it more than the kids! So it became a big Saturday night thing like Noel’s House Party over here; it was different but it was as big as that show was at the time.
TE: I was playing at a big jazz festival and I turned on the TV in my hotel room and they were saying, “Here he is, all the way from England, Martin Taylor…” and he came on with his long red hair and played ‘I Got Rhythm’ and just blew everyone away. I had never done this in my life but I rang the TV station immediately and asked them where he was staying and they told me because I’d been on the show around 100 times before. So I contacted him and he’d heard of me and so I invited him to come and play with me. I was playing a concert at the State Theatre in Sydney which is one of the most beautiful venues in Australia and I had Martin come and play. We played some Django tunes and the crowd went nuts!
MT: What I didn’t realise at the time was that they had a policy of never having instrumental music on Hey, Hey… Tommy had been on it several times before but he always had to do it with a singer because they had said that he couldn’t go on and just play instrumental music. I didn’t realise this, so when Tommy saw me on TV he said to me later, “This is fantastic because at last they’ve got an instrumentalist on Hey, Hey… so now I can go on there as an instrumentalist.” So without realising it I kind of opened the door to let some instrumental music on the show.
Were you aware of Tommy at the time, Martin?
MT: At that time Tommy was really, really well-known in Australia, but he wasn’t particularly known outside of the country. He hadn’t worked that much outside of Australia and New Zealand, but he was massive, a real household name there. As soon as you get off the plane in Australia if you’re a guitar player you get, “Are you as good as Tommy?” and all that kind of thing. So I knew of Tommy but I hadn’t heard him play at that time.
You both come from different disciplines as players so where did you find the common ground for making this album stylistically?
TE: Martin improvises a lot more than I do in my show and he’s kept to the roots of the music that’s in his blood and he’s faithful to it all the time and I love that about his playing. When you listen to what he plays on something like ‘Jersey Bounce’, his phrasing and things… I couldn’t emulate that. I couldn’t learn to do what he’s doing because I’m not him and so how we found common ground is through our mutual love for melody and swing. Of course we both love Django and we both love Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Charlie Christian and people like that but we also like to have fun and entertain people.
MT: Our musical vocabulary is quite broad, even though we are what we are individually and we come from different backgrounds. I don’t particularly like being known as a jazz guitarist because, over the years, I’ve expanded from that quite a bit. It’s really the same for Tommy because he’s got a very broad vocabulary in music and so there was a lot of common ground that we could find. Also, I think in recent years Tommy has been exploring more jazz things from the Django school and older jazz – not really straight ahead stuff. He’s been working with Stochelo Rosenburg quite a bit and so it’s really fascinating for me; I love hearing Tommy play these old jazz tunes because he doesn’t play all the jazz clichés. He’s never done all of that and so he comes out with some great ideas that you just don’t expect. That was one of the things that I got when we were recording this album; he would just totally go for it on tunes like Benny Goodman’s ‘Jersey Bounce’ or the one he really liked which was ‘Bernie’s Tune’. He just loved playing that and when it came to his solo he just fired off like a rocket but without playing any jazz clichés at all, it’s just purely from instinct and from being such a natural musician.
TE: We’re not terribly precious about ourselves and we don’t take ourselves too seriously, if you see what I mean. So we are able to just throw ideas around as musicians and as artists as well. Martin, Frank Vignola and guys like that that, I really respect and love working with because they’ve got the same kind of open attitude, y’know? So I don’t feel that there’s anything that I can’t approach Martin with, whereas other players I might be on egg shells and if I suggested a certain tune they’d turn it down because it was a pop song or something like that. Whereas Martin would listen to it and say, “I like that melody, let’s do it…” It’s all about that attitude.
MT: Well as you said, Tommy and I come from these slightly different worlds where I come from this straight ahead jazz background and Tommy doesn’t. But in other ways we have a lot in common, certainly in our lives. We both started playing and performing when we were very young and we enjoy a lot of the same guitar players as well. A lot of the guitar players that influenced me like Django, Chet Atkins, Charlie Christian and Les Paul, Tommy knows all that stuff, too. So we have far more in common than we don’t and we’ve both been playing professionally since we were at school and so we’ve got such a vast vocabulary between us and when we come together there’s a kind of a merging and we find that common ground. At the same time we bring all this other stuff into it as well; so if we’re playing a Django Reinhardt tune, which you’d think is possibly from my area, I’m bringing to it all these other influences and Tommy’s bringing his country and fingerpicking stuff to it as well. So we find the common ground but we also bring years and years of experience to it as well.
How did you go about picking the material for the album?
TE: I guess to answer the question technically, the material was chosen by a unanimous feeling that this really works for us and it has to be that way. We both have to fly our kite and we both have to agree what song is going to do that for us. There isn’t a song on there that I go, “Uh… well I’ll do it for him.” I’m way too selfish for that! If you record an album in the way that we did, sometimes you’ll get an idea and go through the arrangement and see that it’s all working and then you might get a better idea when you get into the studio and you might want to change something. Some of those songs are real classics, like ‘A Smooth One’ or the ballad that we’ve always loved which is ‘The Nearness Of You’ and for me that’s a joy to play with Martin because I get to just play the melody and nothing else and Martin does all the colours underneath. He’s playing beautiful rich chords and the moving lines against what I’m doing and I’m just playing the melody like I’m the singer and that’s one of my favourite things to do.
MT: It was something that we didn’t have any doubts about because we’ve played together many times in the past we just knew that if we went into the studio it was going to be really good. We just had that feeling that something was going to happen. I think we had about 10 days booked in the studio but we only did three or four. It was done very, very quickly.
The musical rapport between the two of you sounds very spontaneous on the album…
MT: It is! I mean, we worked on things, but mainly just to get the feel. What happened first of all was Tommy was on tour in the UK and I was at home in Scotland and he was playing quite near me at the Perth Concert Hall and he had a couple of days off and so he came over and stayed at my place. We both had lists that we had already made up and so we just played and came up with some ideas – things like the opening track, ‘I Won’t Last A Day Without You’. I said to Tommy that I thought we could do something with that tune and so we listened to it and we played along with The Carpenters doing it and looked at each other and went, “Naaaah, it’s not working” so we thought we’d forget that one and started working on something else and then I said, “Wait a minute, I’ve got an idea for it…” and we just gave it a different feel. That became the one tune that we really became quite obsessed with and certainly after we spent those couple of days together we’d speak to each other and say, “Have you still got that tune in your head?”
We filmed everything we did in my front room so that we could remember it and so we had some kind of reference. Then when I was in Nashville in July I was playing at the Chet Atkins Convention and we got together at Tommy’s house, so by the time we went into the studio we had a pretty good idea about what we were going to do. We’d nailed everything down, we had chosen what we were going to play and the things that were going to be rejected had been rejected by then.
TE: First, you decide on the song and then you work the arrangement. When you know that everything about the arrangement is working, then there’s your vehicle so now you can just get on the thing and go. So once Martin and I had decided on the arrangement of a song it was, “Ok – let’s go and play it now…” So you play it once and have a listen and you might change the rhythm or you might say, “How about if I make the chords different in your solo?” just so you don’t throw the other guy. Or you might make some decisions and decide to come back to that one later and when you do, you play it through first time and you’ve got it. And that maintains the spontaneity.
The other thing that Martin and I can do is we can both take a solo and know when part of that solo is really working but maybe the end of it needs to be better. So we’d say to each other that we’d go back and fix it but we didn’t want each other to hear what we were going to play. We wanted to surprise each other. There were a few times when Martin would say, “I think I can do it from there out – go and get some coffee…” and he’d give me a wink or something. So I’d go out for a while and when I came back and he would say, “Here, I’ve got something to play you…” and he’d surprise me with what he’d put on there. That’s the freedom in this style of playing.
Were there times when you would musically tease one another a bit during the sessions?
TE: Oh, absolutely! And you can hear it in ‘Bernie’s Tune’ where I did a little descending run, which, for a second, created a real dissonance, and then Martin starts his solo with that same dissonance and it cracks me up immediately. It’s like he’s saying, “I’m on to you!”
Were you playing your Peerless Maestro for the recordings, Martin? It sounds fabulous acoustically…
MT: Well, even when I play live I have a mic on the guitar as well anyway. When Tommy’s playing flat-top it’s so percussive and the archtop doesn’t have that and so it was a case of trying to find that balance and we spoke about that a lot to the engineer, Kim Person – who is a fabulous engineer and also a guitar player, too. A flat-top’s sound kind of goes outwards and really projects whereas an archtop will go inwards and has that decay to it and is slightly middy, if you know what I mean. So we had to find a way where we could make my guitar sound more acoustic than electric. But that’s kind of how I play on live gigs now anyway in that I use a lot of mic on the guitar as well as the pickup. I don’t really like just the pickup sound; as you know, even though I play an archtop jazz guitar and I come from a jazz background I’ve never really played with a sort of full-on jazz guitar sound. My sound has always been a lot more sparkly and acoustic; I like quite a lot of bottom-end as well and I’ve always avoided that middley kind of sound of a regular archtop. You can definitely tell that there are two different types of guitars being played and I think that’s one of the nicest things about it, but at the same time they blend together really well.
How are the concerts going to be structured? Are you going to play the whole set as a duo or will there be a sprinkling of solo tunes as well?
TE: It will be mostly together, but I think that most people know Martin as a solo player and most people know me as a solo player, too, so I think that for part of the show we’ll do some solo stuff. In things like ‘Down At Cocomos’ where Martin is doing the steel drum sound, that’s a chance for me to do some percussion and so I’ll take a drum solo on my guitar during that part and so that’s going to be a fun and entertaining part of the show. It’s a chance for us both to be creative in a different way. Also, Martin plays mandolin very well and I’ve asked him about bringing his mandolin on this tour so we can do a montage of Scottish and Irish fiddle tunes.
MT: I’ve done some things in the past where I haven’t played any solo things and had people complain because it’s what they expect. And it’s the same for Tommy, of course. It’s really going to be an entertaining show because we both love performing and Tommy’s an incredible showman; when he gets up on stage he gives it the full works, he’s just amazing. I’m not that kind of showman but at the same time I am a performer, I don’t just get up there and play, I enjoy entertaining an audience and when I’m on stage… I was going to say, “When I’m on stage with somebody like Tommy”, but there actually isn’t anyone quite like Tommy! Anyway, when I’m on stage with other guitarists I like to have that interplay and I think the audience enjoy that as well. So we’re not just up there playing, there’s something else there as well.
Are there more albums together planned?
MT: There is still stuff on the list that we didn’t record and so we’ve easily got another album along the way at some point.
TE: This album is something we’ve both wanted to do for a long time and I hope it will be the first of many. Playing with Martin for me is not just a joy but it always feels like the greatest honour because he really is The Guv, you know? You can trust his judgement, you can depend on his arrangements and you can let him go on stage. He has the right discipline and that’s the mark of a great artist; one who knows their craft really well. You can learn a lot from someone like that. He’s got a great way with people and one of the things that endears him to everybody he meets is how he treats people and Chet Atkins was like that, too. He was a great example to me when I was young; I was with Chet a lot personally and it was always a great experience because it was a real eye opener as to the way he treated people and the same goes for The Guv.
Tickets for The Colonel And The Governor are on sale now. Tommy and Martin will tour throughout March 2013.