Talking to Livingston Taylor is like having a lively conversation with your favorite college professor. He's colorful, funny and makes great asides that usually land right back on target. Plus, you always feel you learned something valuable when the exchange is over.
It makes sense – Taylor does teaches part-time at the esteemed Berklee College of Music in Boston. That's when he's not touring and playing his exquisite, pop, jazz and gospel-inspired folk tunes, which he will be doing this Saturday as at the in Scotch Plains.
"I have a huge dilemma," Taylor said, his wry voice clearly setting-up a gag. "I have such a huge backlog of songs, it's really hard for me to figure out what to play each time out. I love my old songs, like, 'Good Friends,' and 'Lost In The Love Of You,' but I'm always trying to figure out a way to showcase all the phases of my development. Plus, I'm writing new songs all the time."
His fans sympathize.
Ever since he burst onto the scene in 1970, with his exquisite, self-titled debut, Taylor has had the best problem a songwriter can have. He's prolific and consistently excellent. Known, now and again, as James Taylor's younger brother, 'Liv' is nobody's second choice. In album after album, this Boston-born, Carolina-raised gentleman has knocked off one supremely-melodic, verbally-witty tune after another. There's "Carolina Day," "City Lights," "Get Out Of Bed," "I Will Be In Love With You" and many, many more.
And, if you've never seen this animated man onstage, this is your chance. He combines the studious demeanor of The Absentminded Professor, with the goofy grace of The Scarecrow in "The Wizard Of Oz." One minute he's making you giggle with some crazy guitar run, the next breaking your heart with Irving Berlin's, "What'll I Do?"
"Ah, Irving Berlin," Taylor said, as if having a sip of some subtle, tasty blend of coffee. "His songs are something I aspire to, along with Gershwin, and composers like Bach and Debussy. When my students tell me they like Billy Joel, I say, 'That's terrific! Now go back further and see who Billy Joel listened to. Modern songwriters shouldn't be your peers. You should be studying and matching yourself against the all-time greats! That's how you improve your craft."
One listen to Taylor truly bears this out. While discussing songwriting on the phone, he played this reporter a bit of Berlin, then discussed the master's great melodies and chord voicings. This, in turn, led to a conversation about Taylor's new pet project: a musical about The Wright Brothers, which he hopes will someday, uh, take flight.
"It's a family story," Taylor said about that other famous Carolina clan. "It's about trying to deal with the conflicts that arise when you're trying to follow your duty to your family, but also your personal dreams. The brothers are central, of course, but they have a father who's a looming, powerful figure, too."
And with that, Taylor launched into a typically melodic and melancholy song from his opus-in-progress. The tune, "I Shouldn't Have Fallen For You," sounded like a natural fit for Broadway.
Of course, no talk with Taylor would be complete without an aside or two about his more famous brother. Clearly, the respect is mutual. James and Liv have written, recorded and performed together. James is a vocal fan of Livingston's. However, JT is a superstar; his younger brother has a fervent, but smaller audience. Still, Liv Taylor likes the freedom of not being a huge pop star, or having to play certain fan favorites at every show.
"I don't know how James does it," Taylor wondered aloud. "How does he play 'Fire And Rain' at every damn show? And be so gracious about it? Man, it would drive me crazy."
Clearly, teaching, performing when he wants and writing what he pleases, makes Livingston Taylor sound like one of the most contented men on the planet. He's not worried about what he did yesterday, either.
"It's all about the next song I'm going to write," he said. "This life of mine is a continuing adventure. And you know? I wouldn't have it any other way."
INFO: Livingston Taylor will perform at JCC of Central New Jersey on Saturday, as part of the center's Split-Level Concert Series. The show starts at 9:15 p.m. Doors open at 8:45. Tickets are $30 in advance, $35 at the show. For more info, call 908-889-8800.