TAJ MAHAL / “Taj Mahal Mixtape”
A good while back we promised to present a Taj Mahal retrospective. Here’s a hefty payment on that debt.
Although I hesitate to say Taj is my favorite blues musician because there are so many great purveyors of the blues whom I admire at the deepest and most profound level of respect, I can honestly say that he is among the top five. Perhaps the main reason he ranks so high is because he has covered so much ground so well.
Today I’m going to deal with two of the first three major phases of his blues career. I won’t deal with Taj’s recordings with a small combo, which is how he made his first mark as a recording artist. Instead I’ve decided to focus on the solo work and the work with the tuba band. And believe it or not, there are three more important phases to deal with at another time.
I’m going to start with the tuba band; four tubas to be exact. Here is the ensemble line up:
Taj Mahal – Vocals, blues harp, chromatic harmonica, National steel-bodied guitar, five-string guitar, fife
Howard Johnson – Tuba (BBflat, F), baritone saxophone, brass arrangements
Bob Stewart – Tuba (CC), flugelhorn, trumpet
Joseph Daley – Tuba (BBflat), valve trombone
Earle McIntyre – Tuba (Eflat), bass trombone
Bill Rich – Electric bass
John Simon – piano, electric piano
John Hall – Electric guitar
Greg Thomas – Drums
Kwasi “Rocky” DziDzournu – Congas
This live recording is titled The Real Thing and is from a February 13, 1971 concert at the Filmore East in New York City. I won’t hesitate in stating that this is my favorite Taj Mahal album. Of course I am an avowed jazz head and as such am blown away by the horns.
If you’re not deep into jazz you might not recognize that the four tuba players are the cream of the crop of tuba playing jazz musicians. There are a few other jazz tuba players who were active at the time but none others were as adventurous as this quartet. These cats could and did pay it all including avant garde stylings. They are all also top notch technicians.
I doubt that mellow is the first word that comes to mind when someone says tuba but nonetheless that is exactly what comes to mind as the chorus of tubas provides a down soft sonic pillow for Taj’s exhortations, moans, groans and chortles. In fact the horns make the other instruments mere background not by being loud but by sounding so damn pretty.
Pretty tubas—who would have thought it? And that’s precisely the greatest quality of this document. What kind of imagination does it take to think to put together a four tuba band for a blues gig? I know of no pre-existing four tuba ensemble in recorded music but then this was in the middle of the golden era of black music.
This recording also features more of Taj’s harmonica work than any four or five other recordings put together. Taj was no great shakes as a harp player but he was an adept band leader. Taj plays his harp like he was a church organist pushing a choir to higher and higher expressions of ecstasy.
I also really like the song selections, plus Taj is in excellent voice. When they get fully wound up and wide open shouting it’s like the Basie band in its prime. I won’t even begin selecting favorite tracks because almost everyone has something great going for it. On second thought the two ballads, “Big Kneed Gal” and “John, Ain’t It Hard” stand out to me as pure “D” definitions of mellow swing. On the other hand these soft blues probably stand out because they run up next to some volcanic outpourings on tunes such as “Sweet Mama Janisse” and “Diving Duck Blues.”
And for those unfamiliar with the original recording, this Mixtape does not include the whole program. If you like this set you really ought to do yourself a favorite and get all eleven tracks.
Now, let me share a little contradiction: although The Real Thing is my favorite Taj Mahal album, it’s not the most influential on me. As a performing poet Recycling The Blues And Other Related Stuff was the ultimate teacher for me.
Recycling was a solo set in which Taj drove a crowd into a frenzy. Just Taj, no other musicians. Just Taj, his voice, his body and his instruments. That’s Taj Mahal – Vocals, Steel-Bodied Guitar, Kalimba, Banjo, Conch, and Hand Claps. As you can hear, the folk were literally stomping and hollering.
Did you ever wonder how it could be that them old blues cats would play for dances and such and people would talk for days about how much fun they stomping and buck dancing all night long? Ever wonder how one person could set a whole yard or juke joint of people to dancing to a fare thee well? Well, wonder no more. In Taj album you have audio documentation of how it was done.
After I heard that album I went out and got me a kalimba and spent a couple of months woodshedding til I became right handy with the instrument. I still own that kalimba, it sits atop a CD shelf and has survived moving from house to house and the great flood of ’05. I doubt I ever would have pursued playing a thumb piano were it not for Taj’s captivating example.
Then there was “A Free Song” with its wonderful refrain “rise up children, shake the devil out your soul.” Man, I could get a room full of negroes hollering and shouting behind that song.
Taj is the one who showed me that if we used our imaginations and tapped into the musical traditions that are part of our cultural treasure, we didn’t need anything else to reach people.
In fact, I do believe the audience was hollering louder at the solo concert than at the Filmore when the four tubas were in full voice.
I don’t think I need to say anymore. Yall got ears. Govern yourselves accordingly.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Taj Mahal Mixtape Playlist
These tracks are from The Real Thing
01 “Sweet Mama Janisse”
02 “Going Up To The Country And Paint My Mailbox Blue”
03 “Big Kneed Gal”
04 “You’re Going To Need Somebody On Your Bond”
05 “Tom And Sally Drake”
06 “Diving Duck Blues”
07 “John, Ain’ It Hard”
08 “You Ain’t No Street Walker Mama, Honey But I Do Love The Way You Strut Your Stuff”
These tracks are from Recycling The Blues and Other Related Stuff
09 “Conch Introduction”
11 “Bound To Love Me Some”
13 “A Free Song (Rise Up Children Shake The Devil Out Your Soul”
15 “Conch Close”
This entry was posted on Monday, December 14th, 2009 at 1:39 am and is filed under Classic. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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