A master's touch
Reviewed October 2008
Now 66, Taj Mahal has been playing music for four and a half decades, releasing more than 30 albums of country blues, R&B, Hawaiian and reggae-flavored music since 1968. His newest, "Maestro," is his first full studio album since "Hanapepe Dream" in 2003, but he is anything but rusty from a five-year lull in recording. He is in great voice and has surrounded himself with plenty of guests and friends and a variety of sounds in a celebration of his many musical sides.
By Taj Mahal
Heads Up International: 2008
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Things get off to a great start with a reading of the classic "Scratch My Back," with a strong, almost salacious vocal by Taj and powerful R&B performance (one of four on the disc) by the Phantom Blues Band, his backing band for his Grammy-winning disc "Señor Blues." "Never Let You Go" features Taj on ukelele and Los Lobos as the backing band for an original reggae cut written by Taj and daughter Deva, who sings backup. Ben Harper wrote and is guest vocalist on the grinding, bluesy "Dust Me Down," and Taj's influence on his vocal styling is very apparent. Jack Johnson is guest vocalist on the Calypso-styled "Further on Down the Road" and does his best to sing his verse in a perfect mimic of Taj, while the Phantom Blues Band shines in the background.
For "Black Man, Brown Man," Ziggy Marley and Taj trade vocals on a catchy piece of reggae backed by Taj's banjo and Ziggy's band, and features great lyrics and alto sax work by Rudy Costa. It's off to West Africa for "Zanzibar," with vocal contributions by co-writer Angelique Kidjo, rhythmic chanting over melodic percussion and delicate ngoni riffing. Mahal's ability to transport the listener from one style and mood to another is never more apparent than the shift from this tune to "TV Mama" the Lou Willie Turner blues rave-up (also recorded by Elmore James), played to the teeth here by Los Lobos. The disc keeps the focus on the blues for "I Can Make You Happy" with the New Orleans Social Club providing some pounding bottom for Taj in growl mode, in a seeming tribute to Dr. John in a live performance. "Slow Drag" has a shuffle that features some great banjo playing by the Maesmtro, who still can pick clean and quick, with good support from the Phantom Blues Band. Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew's "Hello Josephine" is next up, live, and Taj does his best to sound like the Fat Man as the Social Club cooks some gumbo with piano and organ in the background. "Strong Man Holler" is a dark, moody blues featuring some superb harp and singing by Taj, in swamp mojo persona. The Phantom Blues Band helps close things out strongly with a great cover of "Diddy Wah Diddy," the Willie Dixon/Fred McDowell rocker; the harp and vocal are a lot like the great cover of the same tune by the Fabulous Thunderbirds on their great album "T-Bird Rhythm."
"Maestro" has something for everyone, and the varying textures are held together by one of the great voices in American music. It is a generous helping of standards and origninals, of blues, island music, R&B and samples of other sounds, all played and sung well by a Maestro.
Review by Frank Kocher, a longtime San Diego resident, musician, music collector and frequent contributor to The San Diego Troubadour.