Nah, Billy Taylor couldn’t be 71. At Royce Hall, the ageless pianist had the look and stamina of a man who could have been his son — or even a contemporary of the youthful Turtle Island String Quartet, with whom Dr. Taylor and his trio played his graceful concert work “Homage” Friday night.
Taylor, who now records for GRP, is best known for his steady gig on CBS-TV’s “Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt,” his tirelessly articulate pitches for jazz , and the shower of honors that have come his way. Despite a series of changes in their viola chair, the Windham Hill Jazz-based Turtle Islanders continue to take their act deeper into a thicket of idioms once thought to be out of line for a string quartet.
“Homage,” originally written for the Juilliard String Quartet, is no uneasy Third Stream shotgun marriage. Rather, it is a thoroughly jazz-grounded three-movement suite lasting some 35 minutes, loaded with elegant tunes, with the strings treated as if they were equal components of a jazz group. One wonders how the straight-classical Juilliard group would have handled the numerous jazz solos, with which the improvising Turtle Island whizzes — particularly cellist Mark Summer — were right at home.
On their own, the Turtle Islanders have become even more assured and daring in their explorations of jazz, bluegrass, South Indian ragas, percussive effects , and whatever else they can throw into the pot.
David Balakrishnan’s take on “A Night in Tunisia,” originally a fairly sedate exercise, has become almost savagely intense — and the climactic dialogue between Balakrishnan and Danny Seidenberg is now a madcap food fight with erudite quotes flying wildly. They also unveiled the first movement of a projected suite by Vincent Mendoza, a pleasing mixture of minimalist influences with a groove.
Taylor, concentrating upon tunes from his new album “Dr. T,” still sticks to a zestful mainstream bop line, minus many of the cliches that have hamstrung so many pianists. Few pianists could have traded fours with as much wit as Taylor did in “I’ll Remember April,” nor emulated his porcelain-like solo in “Lush Life.”
Finally, he pulled off a feat of some dexterity by convincingly playing most of “The Man I Love” with the left hand only. Could Ravel’s Concerto For the Left Hand be next for Dr. T?