Taj Mahal bringing blues and a lot more to Aspen appearance
ASPEN Taj Mahal seems to have a point of view on most everything, and his opinions are informed, enlightening, colorful and lengthy. You dont want to raise a serious topic with the singer born in 1942 as Henry St. Clair Fredericks unless youve got some time on your hands to hear what hes got to say on the matter.So it is with guest-star albums, which numerous artists of Tajs vintage have released. Pick a musician with longevity and wide recognition say, B.B. King and surround him with a fleet of guest stars say, Bonnie Raitt, Ryan Adams, Bla Fleck, Jimmy Buffett, Tony Bennett and Chuck D and call it a project. Just dont call Taj Mahal to endorse it.I dont really like those albums. They come off real smarmy and non-musical, said Taj, speaking from his home in Berkeley. Its like a bunch of buzzards coming out. I would not buy these albums. More like a marketing project than a bunch of friends getting together to do something.The exception, in Tajs eyes, is Maestro, a 2008 album featuring guests Ben Harper, Jack Johnson, Los Lobos, Angelique Kidjo, Ziggy Marley and members of the New Orleans Social Club and honoring, no surprise, Taj himself. The album was meant to commemorate Tajs 40th anniversary as a recording artist, a reasonably significant occasion (even if the timing arguably underestimates that career by a handful of years). But it is the spirit of Maestro that Taj believes puts it in a category of its own.I knew everybody on this album, and it was an opportunity to have some fun, said Taj, who appears tonight at Belly Up, in a trio with his usual rhythm section of drummer Kester Smith and bassist Bill Rich. It could have been a three- or four-CD set.Another aspect that sets Maestro somewhat apart is that the music actually makes sense; the guest artists actually share an artistic foundation, apart from a friendship, with Taj.Of course, it would be hard for a musician not to have some musical background in common with Taj. He is often placed in the blues corner; Maestro was nominated for a Grammy as Best Contemporary Blues Album, a category which Taj has won twice before. But a far better description of his full bag of sounds is roots music, and Taj takes a broad, worldly view of exactly what fits in the roots realm. He has not only played a variety of blues the rural, acoustic sort he specialized in early on; more sophisticated sounds with bigger arrangements later on but also delved into Caribbean, African, Jamaican, Hawaiian and Indian styles. Taj isnt into dabbling; when he dives, he goes head-first. He made a full-album collaboration, the superb Kulanjan, with Malian kora player Toumani Diabat, in 1999; and followed that in 2005 with Mkutano Meets the Culture Music Club of Zanzibar, another effort that had him digging in the African soil for inspiration. Taj explored the music of Hawaii, where he lived for several years, on 1998s Sacred Island, and revisited that vibe on 2003s Hanapepe Dream, which mixed some calypso and reggae in with the ukuleles and Hawaiian slack-key guitar. Maestro features tastes of all those sounds plus big-band blues, R&B and funk.Which led me to wonder: Had Taj ever sang rap-style? Yes, he told me. On Squat That Rabbit, from his 1991 album, Like Never Before. The track features programmed tracks, and the liner notes give a shout-out to DJ Jazzy Jeff for his turntable wizardry.Rapping, said Taj, is not a problem. Ive done it in English and German. Spanish, too. He has not only been an occasional (and multi-lingual) practitioner of the form but a fan as well: Its a really valid form, he said of hip-hop. Its gotten weakened by the influx of so much money. Theyve got to come up with something new, a new business model. The flavors been chewed out; you can expect whats going to happen. It used to be like a cacophony from the street that could blow the hair up your neck. It was radical like be-bop when I was growing up. It isnt anything different than that. Its the music that comes out of a basic energy, a crazy innovation.The key to adopting so many various styles is finding a cultural connection to the music. When Taj was growing up, mostly in Springfield, Mass., he noticed a distinction between the music that was popular My Fair Lady and Bob Dylan are two examples he cites and what was played in his house, and seemed to actually come from someplace familiar, from roots he recognized as his own.I have a different background, he said. His father, whose ancestors came from the West Indies, was a gifted musician who quit playing to take work in factories when he started his family. His mother was an African-American from the South.Thats the information I got as a young person, he said. In my house it was music from those roots. I decided I would focus on that music Latin, Caribbean, African, Southern. It was hard for white people to think about that stuff. But it was part of my language as a child. I wasnt trying to push what the industry was trying to push. I was trying to be my own person.Taj says it is not that the music he was listening to was necessarily better than what the white folks listened to. But he had the advantage of seeing clearly the lines between himself and the styles, so the sounds came with history and meaning.I was lucky, he said. The majority of people didnt know the connections in this music. It was a much more interesting way to be involved in music. Because it was my culture, and no one could tell me what I could or couldnt do.Taj absorbed his musical lessons in a church choir, and gathering spots like the Elks Club, Moose Lodge and the Caribbean Social Club places where music wasnt so much entertainment as a way of maintaining a tradition.There was music going through the culture of the time, from grandmother to father to son, neighbor to neighbor, he said. I liked the idea that you could share culture through music.A separate part of the culture, but one that lived strongly in him, was agriculture. Taj worked on dairy farms, joined the Future Farmers of America and seriously considering a career in animal husbandry. Farming and music didnt seem very far from one another, said Taj, who studied animal husbandry at the University of Massachusetts. Im the descendant of a great agricultural tradition.But Taj didnt like the scientific side of agriculture. Moreover, he didnt like the idea of working for someone else I didnt want to be like my father. Someone else always owned his stress. They could raise his stress, give him a pink slip, he said so he concentrated on music.In the mid-60s, Taj received an early lesson in the fact that the music business had constraints of its own. In Los Angeles, he and Ry Cooder formed Rising Sons, a band that played blues-rock with a bit of a Beatles flavor as well. The band signed to Columbia Records before running into the brick wall that was racism: As a mixed-race band, their commercial prospects were deemed severely limited. Rising Sons disbanded, their one album, recorded in 1966 but not released until nearly 30 years later. Not until 1968s self-titled album, featuring covers of songs by such bluesmen as Blind Willie McTell, Robert Johnson and Sleepy John Estes, did Taj make his debut as a recording artist.What followed has proved the point about nobody being able to tell him what to do. Taj made his name in blues, but branched out in so many directions it would make a record label executives head spin.I could stay on blues for so long but then Id hear something else that sounded good, he explained.Along the way, he has found only one musical style he couldnt relate to.Im not interested in heavy metal, Taj said. But I want to let them know mostly what theyre doing is playing bad blues. Seriously. They take a derivative of one of the 12 blues songs, and turn it up to 14. If they took Mozart and turned it up and blasted it, I might be into that.
Taj Mahal performs at 8 p.m. Friday at Belly Up Aspen. Tickets are $48 the day of the show.
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