Taj Mahal: Señor Blues

Private Music (Windham Hill)

Playing Time: 51:45

Taj Mahal - Señor Blues Cover As a musicologist, Taj Mahal is equalled by few, surpassed by fewer. His previous CD, Phantom Blues, favourably reviewed in this forum, sonically illustrated his ability to combine material, talent and production in an educational, yet entertaining manner. His most recent opus, Señor Blues, is more than worthy continuation of Mahal's exploration of the genre.

Taj Mahal possesses an extensive knowledge of each tributary that feeds the unfathomable river that is the blues. He uncannily selects songs from throughout the century, works diverse in theme and delivery, and weaves them with original material to produce a textbook of blues textures. As if more were needed to enhance this tapestry, Mahal and his musicians understand the need for crisp, clean production values. On Señor Blues, as on his previous CD, these are provided with a skillfully intuitive grasp of how to shade each performance, by producer John Porter.

The similarities between the two CD's lie in the area of echoing elements that formerly have been effective: the band remains intact, with Tony Braunagal handling percussion; John Cleary at the keyboards, Larry Fulcher on bass, and Johnny Lee Schell on guitar. When called upon, Darrell Leonard provides tumultuous horns while Joe Sublett insinuates a tenor sax into the mix. Mahal's vocals are occasionally punctuated by his dobro or harmonica-playing. As for the differences, they are few, but profound. Gone are the guest artists of renown. It is as if Mahal's previous effort has given him confidence in his ensemble, the deserved confidence that they are more than a match for this endeavour.

Señor Blues commences with Queen Bee, a Mahal-penned folk-blues number that begins with a simple guitar-dobro riff that rolls along soulfully, joined by the vocal, a plaintive collection of near-clichés, and singable phrases that emphasize the dichotomy of love's sacredness and silliness. A primitive chorus, "She rocks me to my soul" is nonetheless memorable. The pace is accelerated on Think, the 1957 James Brown version; this is rough and raw soul music, richly sensual in its delivery. Mahal returns the song to its original sensibilities wherein a man asks his woman to think about the totality of their love before she figuratively and literally slams the door. In power, this song surpasses and precludes the sloganizing adopted by Aretha Franklin on her more famous rendition a decade later. Irresistable You is a bouncing love-buggy of a song written by Luther Dixon in 1961; the melody is jaunty while the vocalist takes praising inventory of the physical and mystical attraction that draws him to his woman and gives him the courage to tell her why he cannot resist her. As a counterpoint to this ebullience, a dramatically slower pace is established on Having A Real Bad Day. Which of us has not had such a day, and, longing to empathize with a bluesman, is not somewhat taken aback, albeit humorously, by Mahal's combination narrative-litany that distills eventually down to a musician's missed opportunity to connect with, well , with a hot number? The song exudes a gentle irony, given its bluesy subtext instrumentally created by a mournfully sympathetic piano riff.

The title song, Señor Blues, is contradictory in its delivery, as the band lays down a jazz-fusion track for this 1956 song about the fascination felt for the bluesman by Mexicali senoritas. The break is as close to free-form jazz as any traditional blues song would dare to wander, yet Mahal's

willingness to experiment with style and form creates and sustains this listener's interest. Almost as an apology to the purist, Mahal and company quickly return to a more tradition-based approach on Sophisticated Mama. The piano style is barrel-house, turn-of-the-century, New Orleans river boat, as fingers fly lightly across the keys and a soft sax chorus punctuates unobtrusively; the singer plays, or rather sings, it straight. From this location, Mahal leaps right into what may be the religious music of the end of the millennium, what can only be described as apocalyptic gospel. O Lord, Things Are Gettin' Crazy Up In Here frenetically and aphoristically catalogues the modern plagues and tribulations of the tail end of the Twentieth century, the meanness of people's conning self-salesmanship, the meaningless of television, the extent of drugs and poverty - yet through it all, the music is a feverishly footstomping original composition by pianist, Jon Cleary. This piece is without a doubt the emotional climax of the CD.

What remains is a six song denouement wherein themes and styles are gently reiterated with only slight mutation. I Miss You Baby is a slow and meticulously faithful take on Freddy Simon's 1953 R&B standard, with a plaintive piano and horn ensemble underscoring the forlorn vocal; a smoothly precise guitar break and mournful sax augment the mood further. Mahal and company pick up the pace once more on You Rascal You; what was formerly a novelty song for Louis Armstrong in the 30s sheds its Dixieland flavour and is modernized by phrases such as "sorry butt", and by a more contemporary instrumentation. This kind of hybridization is much more apparent on the next number, Hank Williams' Mind Your Own Business. A honky-tonk song gets the Dixieland treatment; although the singer's mentioning of party lines and individual rings on the telephone are nostalgic to an older listener, the message is still appropriate in these politically correct times: get out of my face and mind your own business!

To this reviewer, the weakest work on Señor Blues is the cumbersomely titled 21st Century Gypsy Singin' Lover Man. Co-authored by Mahal and his pianist, Jon Cleary, this number is a rather mundane treatment of themes and styles that have previously been rendered much more engagingly; it is somewhat of a mystery that this song barely rises above mundanity, since all of the elements are in place; despite strong musicianship and an urgent vocal, the song fails to connect.

Emotions soar once more as Taj Mahal chooses to conclude this opus with interpretations of two blues/soul purists. The first is Etta James' At Last (I Found A Love); Mahal and the band give this soulful number the gospel energy that falls just short of the ecstatic ardor of the previously mentioned song of this genre. The final number finds Mahal faithfully performing Mr. Pitiful, an Otis Redding classic that leaves Mahal paying homage to another master by duplicating Otis' unique vocal style complete with the signature growl, while the band constructs the music from thirty years ago with a sense of reverence.

Taj Mahal is a consummate artist who continues to demonstrate the unique ability to sift through the landscape of the blues, finding gems that others might well overlook, and holding them up to the light with wonder, examining them with an abundance of skill and love. He teaches us as he entertains us - in the end, isn't that what art is all about?

-- D. Malcolm Fairbrother