Taj Mahal – Maestro
| Taj Mahal – Maestro
Heads Up – 2008
Taj Mahal Celebrates Four Decades of Blues, Roots, Reggae and Beyond on his new Album Maestro; featuring Guest Appearances By: Ben Harper, Jack Johnson, Angelique Kidjo, Los Lobos, Ziggy Marley and more
The mythology of American blues is filled with images of the lone musician standing at the crossroads, caught in that gray area between light and shadow, cutting impossible deals with dark forces, offering up nothing less than his soul as collateral.
Composer and multi-instrumentalist Taj Mahal, a two-time GRAMMY� winner and one of the most influential American blues and roots artists of the past half-century, has made no Faustian deals in his long and distinguished career, but he stands at an important crossroads nonetheless. In his never-ending exploration of the complex origins and underpinnings of American music, he has forged a four-decade career by gathering and distilling countless musical traditions from a range of geographical and cultural sources: the Mississippi Delta, the Appalachian backwoods, the African continent, the Hawaiian islands, Europe, the Caribbean and so much more. Taj Mahal doesn’t just stand at the crossroads. He is the crossroads.
This twelve-track set – his first U.S. release in five years – marks the fortieth anniversary of Taj’s rich and varied recording career by mixing original material with chestnuts from vintage sources and newcomers alike. Guests on this anniversary gala include Ben Harper, Jack Johnson, Angelique Kidjo, Los Lobos, Ziggy Marley and others – many of whom have been directly influenced by Taj’s music and guidance.
But Maestro is much more than just a tribute to past glories. It captures the same level of intensity and depth that has characterized every one of Taj’s recordings since his self-titled debut album in 1968. Simply put, four decades have done nothing to dilute his energy quotient. “The one thing I’ve always demanded of the records I’ve made is that they be danceable,” he says. “This record is danceable, it’s listenable, it has lots of different rhythms, it’s accessible, it’s all right in front of you. It’s a lot of fun, and it represents where I am at this particular moment in my life.”
Ben Harper joins in on the vocals on “Dust Me Down.” Written by Harper, this jagged and gritty tune is the latest chapter in a longstanding association between these two musicians hailing from separate and distinct generations. Harper’s grandparents, proprietors of the Folk Music Center and Museum in Claremont, California, were fans of Taj who booked him to play numerous gigs at the center many years ago. “Later on, I met their grandson,” says Taj. “I coached him with his guitar playing when he was a teenager. He really had a sensitivity to the music, and over the years we’ve done some performing and recording together.”
Jack Johnson steps in to share vocals on Taj’s well-known “Further On Down the Road.” Taj’s banjo and harmonica juxtaposed against the horn riffs provided by the Phantom Blues band give the song a vibe that’s equal parts down home blues and vintage Stax.
In “Black Man, Brown Man,” Taj takes a trip to the islands with the help of Ziggy Marley and his six-piece band. “It was a tune that came to me back in the ’70s, when we were in the midst of recording a lot of that Caribbean, African and Latin music,” Taj explains. “I thought it would be a good song for Ziggy and I to do. It not only has a nice reggae vibe, but it addresses a timely topic.” The collaboration on this track represents the third generation of Marleys with whom Taj has now been associated. Reggae icon Bob Marley, along with Jamaican bassist/keyboardist/producer Aston “Family Man” Barrett, helped record and mix Taj’s 1974 album, Mo’ Roots (Family Man also played piano on the Mo’ Roots track, “Slave Driver”). Two decades later, Taj enlisted Bob Marley’s mother, Cedella Marley-Booker – Ziggy’s grandmother – to record an album of African children’s songs on Music for Little People in the early ’90s.
The set closes with Taj and the Phantom Blues Band serving up a swaggering, roadhouse rendition of the Willie Dixon/Bo Diddley classic “Diddy Wah Diddy.” In the end, as in the beginning, it’s always about the blues, always about making people move.
“With his record, as with all my records, I want people to roll back the rug and go for it,” says Taj. “This record is just the beginning of another chapter, one that’s going to be open to more music and more ideas. Even at the end of forty years, in many ways my music is just getting started.”