Taj Mahal: Musical motion and perpetual progress
Two of last year’s best recordings were the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. 3,” and “Red Hot + Riot,” a tribute to the music and spirit of the late Afro-pop pioneer Fela Kuti.Apart from the fact that both albums were packed with musicians ? the Dirt Band’s two-disc set featured guests on most every track, and “Red Hot + Riot” was made by a huge ensemble of musicians from Africa, the States and the Caribbean ? there was little the two had in common.”Circle” was an all-acoustic trip back to America’s country and folk roots; “Red Hot + Riot” paid tribute to Fela by playing his songs with a cutting-edge mix of hip-hop, funk and jazz.But the two recordings intersected in one place: Taj Mahal. Taj sang “Fishin’ Blues,” a song with which he has long been associated, to open disc two of “Circle,” and also joined Alison Krauss and Doc Watson on “Glory, Glory,” which earned a recent Grammy nomination. On “Red Hot + Riot,” he sang the album’s closing tune, “Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am.”It is a far distance between American acoustic string music and a modern take on Afro-pop. But Taj, who performs Thursday at the Wheeler Opera House in trio with bassist Kester Smith and drummer Bill Rich, has long been able to bridge musical divides.”My music goes to show what type of diversity we have on our planet, and what the music can do for people,” said Taj. “I come from a diverse multitude of cultures. From a historical perspective, the amazing cultures I grew up around, the magic of language, musical languages I grew up with, it’s a no-brainer to play all these kinds of music.”Taj grew up in Springfield, Mass., surrounded by music of all kinds. His mother, from the same small South Carolina town that produced Dizzy Gillespie, sang gospel and classical music, and also enjoyed Southern jump blues. His father had been a professional jazz musician and composer, whose arrangement of “Swamplands” was used by Benny Goodman.After Taj’s father died when Taj was 11, his mother married a Jamaican who played Caribbean styles on his guitar.”Imagine what I heard in my head,” wrote Taj in the liner notes to “Taj Mahal: In Progress & In Motion, 1965-1998,” a three-disc retrospective released by Columbia/Legacy in 1998. “The sounds of the neighborhood were the crosscurrents of the world, languages from all countries, accents from everywhere.”Taj ? whose given name was Henry Saint Clair Fredricks ? has put the variety of sounds he heard to good use. He first gained wide recognition as co-leader, with guitarist Ry Cooder, of the Los Angeles band Rising Sons.The group, formed in 1964, mixed folk blues, rock and Beatles-style pop and were a hit on L.A.’s Sunset Strip. But the world was ready for neither the Rising Sons’ eclecticism nor a multiracial band, and the band broke up before releasing a record. (The Rising Sons did, however, record an album, which earned enthusiastic acclaim upon its eventual release in 1992.)The Rising Sons behind him, Taj made his own name as a folk blues player. But he veered in other directions as well, releasing a series of Caribbean-influenced albums and exploring jazz sounds.Taj’s explorations have only become more adventurous as he has aged. In 1996, he released “Phantom Blues,” a high-powered, horn- and electric-guitar-filled romp through old-time rock ?n? roll.”Seor Blues,” a Grammy-winning album from 1997, featured more blues-touched rock, with a title track written by jazz pianist Horace Silver.The next year Taj, who lives on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, released “Sacred Island,” a Hawaiian-oriented album credited to Taj and his Hula Blues Band. And in 1999, Taj collaborated with a group of Malian musicians, including kora player Toumani Diabete, to record “Kulanjan,” an album that deftly mixed African and American styles.To Taj, such diversity is a natural expression of what it is to live on a planet that contains so many cultures.”I try to show this diversity of music in humanity over years and years and years and years,” said Taj. “We have to be conscious that we are not the only ones here, that this is not the only way. My music goes to show the diversity we have on our planet, and what the music can do for people.”My interesting question is, why is it so confusing? What bothers people is, how can it make sense? How can it make sense to communicate in so many languages? Why don’t we take these opportunities we have?”[Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com]
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