Henry Saint Clair Fredericks, world traveller
For a New York boy to take a moniker like Taj Mahal certainly indicates
a broad vision and openness to more than the usual range of music. This
has not always worked to the interest of his listeners, as Taj turned
out albums that didn't quite pull together their diverse influences. But
starting with Dancing the Blues in 1993, Taj has been doing some of his
best work ever. His two latest albums are distinctly different, but each
is wholly consistent within itself.
Private Music CD 0100582139-2, 1995 (48:03)
Phantom Blues is a curious name for this album. Only a couple of songs
("Here in the Dark" and "Love Her with a Feeling") are what you'd call
the blues, and there is nothing of the phantom, the fleeting, the
fugitive about it. What you've got here is party music, with the
good-time feelings of the Caribbean (Taj's own "Lovin' in My Baby's
Eyes"), New Orleans (Fats Domino's "Let the Four Winds Blow" and Jesse
Hill's "Ooh Poo Pah Doo") and parts East ("Cheatin' on You" and the
Stevie-Wonderish "The Car of Your Dreams").
The album starts with the
acoustic Taj playing dobro and harmonica, but the rest of the album is
dead on the soul side, with Taj in fine, emphatic voice throughout.
Most of the cuts have a several backing musicians and singers settling
comfortably into the grooves. Eric Clapton contributes tasty solos to
"Here in the Dark" and "Love Her with a Feeling," although producer John
Porter does just fine on his own, thank you, on several cuts. Bonnie
Raitt joins in on "I Need Your Loving," a predictable tune that neither
of them lift above the expected. If the song selection were a bit more
adventurous, if both drummer Tony Branagle and the recording had a bit
more snap, it could be a stone classic. As it is, it's still a heck of a
lot of fun.
Water Lily Acoustics CD WLA-CS-46-CD, 1995 (44:10)
Well, it had to happen, right? How could Kavi Alexander, who paired Ry
Cooder with Bhatt to produce the classic A Meeting by the River, resist
Ry's old bandmate Taj Mahal -- with his perfect "aptonym" -- in a similar
setting? Shall we call this genre "ragatime"? This is another in
Alexander's fine series of all analog, no compression, no equalization,
no limiting, no noise reduction, no nonsense recordings. Taj plays his
National guitar, Bhatt his modified lap steel, and Ravikiran backs them
up on the chitra vina, a more traditional instrument that is an ancestor
of the sitar, but played with a slide.
Nothing here is rushed. Everything is serene, with a sense of elegance
and beauty appropriate to the Taj Mahal, the tomb built by Mogul emperor
Shah Jahan in the seventeenth century to memorialize his beloved wife,
The album starts with a modal tune by Taj, "Coming of the Mandinka,"
that would have fooled me, so Indian does it feel. Robert Johnson's
blues, "Come On in My Kitchen," slides along for a wonderful eleven and
a half minutes, with the three musicians tracking each other perfectly.
The Indian microtones are completely at home here. Taj's "Rolling on the Sea"
is almost like a lullaby, a simple line
repeated gently and slowly, with wordless vocals by Taj. It leads
smoothly to the classic gospel tune "Mary Don't You Weep," where Taj
improvises gospel calls and Bhatt and Ravikiran are right there with the
responses. Ben E. King's hit "Stand by Me," is taken very slowly, with
lots of ornamentation by everyone around the Leiber/Stoller tune.
Penultimately, a wonderful version of "Johnny Too Bad" gets the rhythm
up a bit, with Taj's guitar keeping the reggae beat going, and his voice
dropping into his trademark froggy growl on lines like "you run to the
rock for rescue, there will be no rock," while Bhatt and Ravikiran take
some very fine solos. The album ends with some studio chatter as Taj
talks about the affinity he feels with these musicians and reminisces
about his first encounter with curry, while the instruments comment in
Wonderful stuff, beautifully recorded. Water Lily Acoustics has a whole
bunch of terrific music, from gospel, to traditional Indian and Turkish
music, to marvelous hybrids like this. A couple of my favorites are The
Mevlevi Ensemble of Turkey, Wherever You Turn Is the Face of God
(WLA-CS-50-CD) and Hanza El Din's wonderful Lily of the Nile
(WLA-CS-11-CD). These fall outside of the scope of Jelly, but don't let
that stop you from exploring them. -- Glenn Brooks
production notes & song titles
Taj Mahal, vocals (dobro and harmonica on one cut); Tony Branagel,
drums; Larry Fulcher or James "Hutch" Hutchinson, bass; Jon Cleary,
keyboards; Mick Weaver, organ; Johnnie Lee Schell and John Porter,
guitars; various others. Guests: Eric Clapton, Mike Campbell, guitars;
Bonnie Raitt, vocals.
Produced by John Porter, recorded and mixed by Joe McGrath.
Lovin' in My Baby's Eyes | Cheatin' on You | The Hustle Is On | Here in
the Dark | Fanning the Flames | I Need Your Loving | Ooh Poo Pah Doo |
Lonely Avenue | Don't Tell me | What Am I Living For? | We're Gonna Make
It | Let the Four Winds Blow | Love Her with a Feeling | The Car of Your
Taj Mahal, vocals, guitar; Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, mohan vina; N. Ravikiran,
Produced by Kavichandran Alexander, recorded by Alexander at Christ the
King Chapel. St. Anthony's Seminary, Santa Barbara, California, mastered
by Tim de Paravicini.
Coming of the Mandinka | Come On in My Kitchen | Rolling on the Sea |
Mary, Don't You Weep | Stand by Me | Johnny Too Bad | Curry and