(Taj Mahal – guitar, banjo, harmonica, ukulele, vocals; with Phantom Blues Band, Los Lobos, New Orleans Social Club, and others)
In his more than four decades as a recording artist, Taj Mahal has taken the blues to places its never been before: Hawaii, Jamaica, Appalachia, Europe, and Mexico, to name a few. This disc, his initial release for the Heads Up label and first stateside recording in over five years, gives listeners a sweeping musical picture of his sojourns with this venerable music.
With such a diversity of talent gracing the proceedings, one might expect musical chaos. Yet that doesn’t happen. Taj’s unique and wide-sweeping musical vision neatly ties everything together. First there’s his voice, an amazing instrument in itself. It easily moves from a Don Van Vliet/Dr. John gravel-throated growl (“I Can Make You Happy”) to a Hawaiian-tinged croon (“Never Let You Go,”), complete with a hint of vibrato, to a Caribbean-drenched lilt (“Black Man, Brown Man”), to an African High-Life chant (“Zanzibar”), to a N’awlins-inspired stride (“Hello Josephine”)—yet all instantly recognizable as Taj himself.
Next, there’s his uncanny ability to find the exact right accompaniment to bring out each song’s musical center. Some of the choices are quite striking, for example employing Los Lobos as the backing band for “TV Mama” – originally recorded by blues shouter Big Joe Turner and written by his wife Lou Willie Turner. But it works perfectly, combining killer slide guitar, honky-tonk horns, and scintillating harmonica. And using New Orleans Social Club, featuring Ivan Neville on organ and Henry Butler on piano, gives Taj’s already eldritch “I Can Make You Happy” an even spookier aura. Perhaps the most striking example is the guitar/kora/nhoni trio of string instruments (with electric bass, drums, and percussion) that frames “Zanzibar,” the disc’s high spot for this reviewer. Add to the mix Ben Harper and Jack Johnson on one number each, and Phantom Blues Band on four others, and the result is highly satisfying.
Much more than merely a survey of a remarkable 40-year career, Maestro represents Taj Mahal at his very best.
TrackList: Scratch My Back, Never Let You Go, Dust Me Down, Further on Down the Road, Black Man, Brown Man, Zanzibar, TV Mama, I Can Make You Happy, Slow Drag, Hello Josephine, Strong Man Holler, Diddy Wah Diddy
– Jan P. Dennis