Music Review: Taj Mahal Maestro
I've been trying to remember the first time I heard Taj Mahal, and for the life of me I can't. On the other hand I can't remember a time when I didn't know the name Taj Mahal. He's one of those musicians who has been a constant presence, maybe not always in the forefront, or even someone I've listened to on a regular basis. Yet in a world where names come and go and musical fashions change with the hour, mere mention of his name has always be sufficient to gain my attention.
He always seems to pop up or be involved in music related things which I'm interested in; from his appearance in the movie Songcatcher as a banjo playing blues man to his support of Tim Duffy's Music Makers Relief Foundation. His interest in music is so broad that to try and confine him to one genre by calling him a blues musician almost seems a disservice, as he seems as comfortable with early Americana music as he does with reggae and Hawaiian music. He was first person to get me to take the ukulele seriously as an instrument after years of seeing it in the hands of people like Tiny Tim and adolescent movie stars of the forties and fifties, and he was definitely the first person to convince me that the banjo was indeed a blues instrument.
Of course all of that is peripheral to what's most important - his music. For forty years he's been writing and performing great music and in celebration of that anniversary he will be releasing Maestro, on Heads Up Records, September 30th 2008. Although the recording is not an overview of his career or a greatest hits package, it could be looked on as a retrospective of his time in music. The twelve tracks reflect not only the various musical styles that Taj has proven his excellence with over the years, they also display his virtuosity on his favourite lead instruments, slide guitar, banjo, and ukulele.
The word maestro, when used in connection to music, is usually associated with the conductor of an orchestra, and it implies a position of leadership and experience. It's direct translation though, master, implies more than just leadership, suggesting as it does a person with authority over others, or someone who is considered to be an authority on a particular subject or object. I think it would be safe to say with Taj Mahal that all of those definitions are appropriate.
Of course the word maestro also carries with it a certain level of recognition and appreciation for a person with years of experience under their belt like Taj Mahal, and becomes an honorific to express the respect and admiration that people feel for that individual. On Maestro Taj is joined by musicians from countries all over the world in order to help showcase his special abilities. The fact that quite possibly most of them weren't born when Taj first started working professionally only emphasizes the level of respect that is felt for what he has brought to the music industry.
Now most times when a performer of Taj Mahal's stature releases a disc which features guests on it, they might play a support role on occasional songs, either by singing back-up or laying down a lead track on one of the star's past hits. That's not the case with Maestro as Taj is not only using the disc to celebrate his career, but the music he loves. For example, not only does Ben Harper join Taj on the CD, the song they do together, "Dust Me Down" was written and produced by Harper, and would just as easily fit onto a recording celebrating Ben Harper as it does Taj Mahal. It's a great up tempo rocking blues number that shows off both men's ability to their finest.
Each of the songs that Taj has elected to do with one of his guests not only showcases his own diversity, but also plays to that person's strengths as a performer. As is the case with his number with Harper, on the piece he performs with Ziggy Marley, Taj's "Black Man, Brown Man", he joins his guest's band in the studio, making sure that Ziggy is seen in the best light possible. Given the political nature of the song, in some ways its also a nod to Ziggy's father Bob and his contributions to music, as it reflects Bob's concerns about black people's struggle for identity. Of course Taj puts his own distinctive touch to the reggae number by playing banjo and making it sound like the most natural thing in the world, although I'd be hard pressed to think of another example of banjo and reggae coming together in one song.
While the songs featuring the guest musicians are special, some of my favourite material from Maestro are songs that Taj Mahal performs with the band that's accompanied him on and off throughout the years, the Phantom Blues Band. From their opening cover of "Scratch My Back", his tribute to Otis Redding who made the song famous in the 1960's, Taj's own "Further On Down The Road", on which Jack Johnson joins them as guest vocalist, and "Slow Drag", to the last song on the disc, Willie Dixon's "Diddy Wah Diddy", these tracks put Taj right where he belongs - centre stage. Nothing against Jack Johnson, but these were Taj's songs and I don't think anything Jack could have done with his vocal tracks would have been enough to come close to matching the intensity of Mahal's performance.
Of course that's a hallmark of every song on this disc, the amount of energy that Taj Mahal is kicking out. It doesn't matter if he's covering Fats Domino's "Hello Josophine" accompanied by The New Orleans Social Club, singing a duet with his daughter Deva on the song they wrote together, "Never Let You Go", backed by Los Lobos, or moaning out his own "Strong Man Holler" in the best electric urban blues tradition, he's putting every ounce of himself into every note he sings. Sometimes on anniversary discs like this one, the artist will coast, and attempt to get by on their reputation alone, but that's not the case of here, as Taj appears to be playing with the same amount of enthusiasm for the material now as he did when he released his first album back in 1968.
If there was ever any doubt as to Taj Mahal's place among the premier performers of contemporary blues music Maestro lays them to rest. Perhaps some of you have forgotten just what an amazing singer and instrumentalist Taj is, after all it has been five years since his last domestically released studio album, but listening to him and the Phantoms jump all over the first few bars of "Scratch My Back" I can't see anybody having any trouble remembering him for a long time.
There aren't very many popular musicians who have the vision, the talent, and the commitment to music that would merit them being referred to as a Maestro, but Taj Mahal is one of them. His music combines the elemental passion of early blues players like Leadbelly with a willingness to be influenced by everything from the African roots of the music to the sound of Hawaii's ukulele. He's taken a leadership role in ensuring that those who played before him and the roots of the music aren't forgotten while never losing track of the future through his willingness to share the spotlight with the next generation. Ladies and gentlemen allow me to reintroduce to you, Maestro Taj Mahal, and recommend that on September 30th, you proceed directly to your nearest music outlet and purchase a copy of Maestro - you won't regret it.