Taj Mahal – ‘Savoy
(Stony Plain Records. Album review by Adam Sieff)
I hope that Taj Mahal (aka Henry St. Claire Fredericks, Jr., b.1942) needs no introduction. If all that name means to you is a mausoleum in Agra or a local restaurant, you may have missed out on a lifetime’s worth of great music from a remarkable man and musician. I was hooked from the moment I heard The Natch’l Blues in 1968 and have enjoyed his global musical tour ever since, incorporating blues, jazz, Latin, reggae, calypso, cajun and the music of Africa and Hawaii.
His latest album is Savoy, a delightful collaboration between Taj and longtime friend and producer John Simon of mostly classic thirties and forties repertoire arranged and performed with wit, style and humour. It was recorded at 25th Street Recording in San Francisco last year by Gabriel Shepard with some of the Bay Area’s finest musicians taking part. Simon’s input is huge, he wrote the arrangements, plays piano and his excellent production allows the tracks to breathe and the Artist to shine. The core musicians are guitarist Danny Caron and bassist Ruth Davies who were so important to Charles Brown’s later career, and drummer Leon Joyce, Jr. The three background vocalists – Carla Holbrook, Leesa Humphrey and Charlotte McKinnon – are all established in their own right and are a key part of the arrangements as well as a dramatic contrast to Taj’s gravelly and well lived-in tones.
The opening track, Stompin’ At The Savoy, sets the scene with Taj talking about how his jazz pianist father and gospel-singing school teacher mother met for the first time at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, during the initial run of Ella Fitzgerald with the Chick Webb Band in 1938. It works well and is topped off with a fine tenor saxophone solo from Charles McNeil, just one of the excellent horn players on the album. Kristen Strom plays a beautiful flute solo on a jaunty I’m Just A Lucky So And So while Carron and Simon play the blues on a sensational version of Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You, with Taj’s world weary vocal delivery just perfect.
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There’s a nice Mood Indigo with a trumpet solo from Erik Jekabson, and both he and trombonist Mike Rinta shine on a snappy Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby. Only a year younger than Taj, Maria Muldaur is a fitting choice for his duet partner on Baby, It’s Cold Outside (appropriately released as a single last winter) with a solo section where Evan Price’s violin intertwines with Rinta’s trombone. Price also plays on Baby Won’t You Please Come Home which features another fine Jekabson trumpet solo.
Although this is all well known (and often, well worn) repertoire, the sparkling, playful arrangements and Taj’s strong presence and charm make them work, although I could have lived without another version of Summertime or Caldonia. The only odd track out timeline-wise is Benny Golson’s Killer Joe which was written in 1960, all the others would probably have been heard at the Savoy Ballroom while it was open from 1926 to 1958. But it’s a very cool arrangement and Taj plays some excellent harmonica before another fine Caron guitar solo – it’s too good not to include. Closing with an extended and deeply blue One For My Baby (and One More for the Road) this warm and hugely enjoyable album will bring a smile to your face, and, let’s face it, these days that’s quite something.
Release date is 28 April
LINKS: Stony Plain Records