Taj Mahal still stands on common ground | AspenTimes.com

Taj Mahal still stands on common ground

Stewart Oksenhorn
Taj Mahal performs at the Wheeler Opera House this week. Aspen Times photo/Stewart Oksenhorn.

In the liner notes to “Mkutano,” a new CD pairing American bluesman Taj Mahal with Zanzibar’s Culture Musical Club, the question is posed: Could an Afro-American world-blues musician like Taj Mahal be able to resist the magnetism exuding from this confrontation between Africa and the Orient, India and Europe?Talk about your obvious answers. Taj Mahal was born for such musical adventures. “I was conceived and born of diverse characters in the first place,” said the 62-year-old by phone from Berkeley, Calif. Speedily, Taj runs down the various cultural influences that went into making the musician born Henry St. Claire Fredericks. His mother was an African-American – though with some Irish blood – raised on gospel music in South Carolina. Taj’s father, a jazz musician and composer who spoke seven languages, was from the Caribbean island of St. Kitt’s, a British colony at the time. After the elder Fredericks died, when Taj was 11, his mother remarried a Jamaican guitarist. Taj was born in the Harlem of the 1940s – as strong a crucible of Afro-American culture as has existed – and raised in Springfield, Mass., and Brooklyn.So, to answer the rhetorical question, it was in his blood to pursue a project like “Mkutano.”

“I was very educated and open to the world, especially on my father’s side, through the British. When you’re in the Caribbean, with a British side, you get a lot of cross-influences,” said Taj, who performs with his regular rhythm section – bassist Billy Rich and drummer Kester Smith, both of whom appear on “Mkutano” – Monday, March 28, at the Wheeler Opera House. “The world was open to me, and I’ve always been trying to make sure I’m open to it.”Over his 40-plus-year career, Taj has explored as wide a variety of indigenous styles as any musician who comes to mind. “Mkutano” is his second recent exploration of African music, following 1999’s “Kulanjan,” a collaboration with Malian kora player Toumani Diabate. For several years spanning the late ’90s and early ’00s, Taj had his Hula Blues band, which released two albums mixing Hawaiian instruments and rhythms with the blues. Earlier in his career, Taj did some serious digging into reggae and other Caribbean sounds. And what he remains best known for is the rural Southern blues, as heard on such songs as “Cakewalk Into Town” and “Going Up the Country, Paint My Mailbox Blue.” And Taj first made his name in the Rising Sons, a blues-rock band co-led by guitarist Ry Cooder, whose highly intriguing album, recorded in the mid-’60s, wasn’t released until the ’90s.Most every one of those sounds was in his head from the time Taj was young, further evidence that his nomadic ways were inborn. “Most of the stuff I’ve done in music, I thought about as a kid,” he said.One of the few languages Taj hasn’t picked up is that of the executives at the big record companies. After some years on Columbia, Taj parted ways with the major labels in the late ’70s.”I ditched the corporate music world because they never understood what I was doing,” he said. “We had missteps in communication. “When I left Columbia, I said, ‘How can you get away from playing black music? That’s what this whole thing is, anyway.’ And now they’re back to hip-hop. What I’m doing is my own search for different voices that have been silenced by a colonial kind of situation.””Mkutano” – recorded in the island city of Zanzibar, in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Tanzania – came about through Taj’s German label, Tradition & Moderne. Two executives played Culture Musical Club CDs for Taj. And though he was eager to explore cross-cultural projects, Taj had to give some thought to whether it made musical sense.

“If I have a cultural connection to it, I’m always interested in expanding my language,” he said. “I listened to the Zanzibar stuff and it interested me. But I didn’t want to make an album that sounded like a giraffe grafted onto a Volkswagen, like some people do. That’s a crack of malarkey. But when I figured what instruments would work together, and what scales would work – because they’re different – we found a common ground. It was a real true meeting of the minds.”Whether standing in Hawaii or Harlem, Mali or Mississippi, Taj usually seems to find that meeting place. “I just love to be open and challenge myself to be open to various musical styles,” he said. “Because they’re all in my background, even if they’re not in my recent past.”My point is always, are we on the same page as human beings? If we can find common ground – well, we can. I am common ground.”Tony Messina, on the other hand, is a far more reluctant stylistic traveler.Growing up in South Philadelphia just before rock ‘n’ roll took hold, Messina fell for the vocal pop-jazz of the time. And while there were some hesitant flirtations with rock, Messina remains married to the music that first grabbed hold of him. His latest CD, “Rated R: For Romantics Only,” features classics like “My Funny Valentine” and “That Old Black Magic,” alongside four original tunes – including the fairly explicit “Mile High Club” – and a medley of the Beatles’ “Something” and “Yesterday.” But while the material crosses some different fields, the style is all of a kind, with Messina’s Sinatra-esque vocals backed by a standard jazz quartet.

“It was just there when I was a kid,” explained Messina, a frequent Aspen visitor who celebrates his latest CD with a jam session at the Colony on Sunday, March 27. “In high school, there was a hot dance band that I sang with. Sinatra was hot, Nat King Cole. That’s what I was exposed to and that’s what I liked. I listened to the Beatles and Elvis, but the two people I learned the most from were Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. So this had been in my blood since I was a kid.”When the Beatles invaded America in 1964, Messina’s style of music was swept aside. So professionally, he adapted.”My manager told me he couldn’t sell Tony Messina in the style I was doing,” said Messina, who ended up doing a revue-style rock show – “almost like a Tom Jonesy type of guy,” he said – in Vegas and the Catskills. “I’d be making rock ‘n’ roll records by day and singing this hot jazz at night in a club.”At 65, and comfortable in a career that includes private parties, corporate gigs and club dates, Messina isn’t chasing what’s popular anymore. “Rated R: For Romantics Only” may be more in tune with another era. But it is the sound of someone who knows what he wants to do.”I’m comfortable and it’s honest and people respond to it,” he said. “I’m not pushed in a certain direction: ‘Maybe if it sounded more like R.E.M., it would have wider appeal.’ But that’s not me. Audiences know emotionally when you’re honest and when you’re full of [it].”The lineup for Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ 15th annual June Festival, set for June 23-26 under a tent in Rio Grande Park, mixes acts from Jazz Aspen’s not-so-distant past with a sprinkling of new faces.

David Byrne, the former Talking Heads frontman who made his Jazz Aspen debut just nine months ago, returns – with good cause. Byrne’s performance at last summer’s Labor Day Festival, scheduled to feature the Tosca Strings, was in doubt till the final moment due to cold and rain. Byrne, with a streamlined group, eventually played an abbreviated set of Talking Heads hits. His June 24 set is once again slated to include the Tosca Strings, who appeared on Byrne’s latest CD, “Grown Backwards.”Also returning in a different form is Boz Scaggs. The singer, know for such ’70s soul hits as “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle,” appeared at the 2003 June Festival with a jazz combo, and sang tunes from “But Beautiful,” his then-current album of standards. His next performance, set for June 26, is billed as a show skewed more toward his hits.Additional performers include soul singer Isaac Hayes, best known recently for providing the voice of Chef on the animated show “South Park,” and British reggae band Steel Pulse (appearing as a double bill on June 23); and vocalists Bobby McFerrin and Dianne Reeves (another double bill, on June 25).Yerba Buena, a New York-based, contemporary pan-Latin band that played late-night sets last June, opens for Byrne. Funk-jazz bassist Marcus Miller will open for Scaggs. A free gospel concert on the main stage will feature Ricky Dillard’s New Generation Chorale.Away from the main stage, jazz keyboardist Ramsey Lewis (June 22), and groove combo Robert Walter’s 20th Congress and New Orleans brass band Bonerama (June 24) will play JAS After Dark gigs at the Belly Up. Jazz-groove guitarist John Scofield will perform a tribute to the late Ray Charles at the Hotel Jerome. Additional artists for the free stage are still to be announced.Tickets for the June Festival go on sale to JAS Club members Wednesday, March 30, and to the public April 4.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com

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