June 24, 2024

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CD review: Taj Mahal – Savoy – 2023: Videos, CD cover

This isn’t the Taj Mahal of his Columbia Records days – The Natch’l Blues, or Giant Step/De Ole Folks at Home, wearing shades, neckerchief, resonator guitar on a back porch with suede boots & slender. This Taj Mahal is the mature version. White hair, either a Hawaiian shirt or a nicely tailored suit with a couple extra pounds (like the rest of us). But the talent is there. It’s just been redirected.

A Grammy winner Taj goes through several vintage genres with the atmosphere pulled back from their respective eras. He’s Cab Calloway on “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” a genuine entertainer on “I’m Just a Lucky So and So,” & he’s drenched in 40s cocktail lounge blues of “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You.” His ragged voice is rich with experience, style, & class.

A roots artist goes deep into another soil. Instead of a rural spud, pumpkin, or radish with rootsy folk flavors, he sprouts more like a sweet cherry tomato, tall corn stalk & bright red beets beneath the bright Americana sun. Produced by pianist John Simon (The Band, Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, Blood, Sweat & Tears), the set is loaded with swing-jazz-big band era standards on the 14-cut Savoy (Drops April 28–Stony Plain Records). The Savoy lasted between (1926-1958) & this collaboration is classically endowed.

Each song lays down impeccably with slinky female choral coloration. The band’s vintage sounding with authenticity per the decades they represent. Duke Ellington, Louis Jordan, George Gershwin & Louis Armstrong melodies spill from this rich songbook.

I started to really enjoy Taj when he did 2 songs on a compilation CD called Largo. The thrilling “Freedom Ride.” & “Banjo Man.” This Savoy set is a foray into the opposite – with nostalgia & vintage arrangements — it’s natural for an artist like Taj Mahal.

On Taj Mahal‘s latest album, Savoy, the octogenarian reconstructs the music of his youth in its original style for a contemporary audience. He describes it as the stuff his jazz piano-playing father and gospel-singing mother listened to when they went out to the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem and whose words and rhythms they brought home. The specific songs mostly date from the 1930s and 1940s and capture the swinging mood of the period. It’s good time music for both when times are good and when they are not—from the Great Depression to World War II and after.

Mahal collaborated with producer John Simon (who also plays piano on the album) and a small combo of San Francisco area musicians to create a lively record that snaps like a pair of hipster’s digits. The arrangements are tight. The main players (guitarist Danny Caron, bassist Ruth Davies, and drummer Leon Joyce) capture the cool vibe of the originals. Simon also employs several backup singers to frame Mahal’s phrasing. Several tracks, such as the jumping “Lady Be Good” and “Mood Indigo”, utilize horns and other instrumentalists to jazz up the tunes.

Mahal’s gravelly voice complements the material. Sometimes it grounds the sweetness of the instrumentation, such as with Kristen Strom’s flute solo on “I’m Just a Lucky So and So”. Other times, Taj Mahal’s lower range adds gravitas to songs such as “Summertime” and “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You”. He makes lines like, “What makes me treat you the way that I do?” simultaneously humorous and sexy. When he answers the rhetorical with “Love makes me treat you that way that I do”, we clearly understand the risqué connotations of the lyrics.

Maria Muldaur joins him in the duet “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”. The Frank Loesser-penned classic has been controversial recently because some critics suggest the song promotes date rape. Mahal and Muldaur perform the track as originally written with all its seductive inferences intact. They are not afraid of offending their audience. They are more concerned with expressing the sultry nature of the song. And they sound like they are having fun!

Two of the most energetic tracks are covers of the Louis Jordan, “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby” and “Caledonia”. Taj Mahal scats on the first and plays a mean harmonica on the latter of the two cuts. He sets a lively pace, and Simon has the band bring it back to him. The tempo never flags, even when Taj Mahal engages in a conversational dialogue with the instrumentation.

Savoy appropriately ends with the closing time ballad, “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)”. Taj Mahal keeps the vocals liquid to fit the slurry nature of the lyrics. The singer sounds like he’s at the end of the night tired and a little drunk. Sure, he’s gloomy without his girl, but the pain has been dulled, and he’s ready to move on. Savoy ends with a promise of a new tomorrow and a thank you for listening.

“Stompin’ at the Savoy,” “I’m Just a Lucky So and So,” “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You.” “Summertime,” “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” “Do Nothin’ Till’ You Hear From Me,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” the brilliant “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” “Lady Be Good,” “Caldonia” & “One For My Baby & Me.”

Musicians – Maria Muldaur (vocals), Evan Price (violin), Taj (vocals/harmonica), Danny Caron (guitar), Ruth Davies (bass), Leon Joyce, Jr. (drums), Carla Holbrook, Leesa Humphrey, Charlotte McKinnon, Sandy Cressman, Sandy Griffith & Leah Tysse (bgv).

Taj Mahal

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