Taj Mahal: Maestro

Doug Collette By

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Taj Mahal: Maestro Maestro is the perfect title for this Taj Mahal album. No matter who the star cameo is on a given track—and there is a famous name on almost every one—it's quite clear that the source of direction (not to mention the original inspiration) comes from Mahal himself. Not surprisingly, the best moments arise in his role as a bandleader.

His own Phantom Blues Band accompanies him on a salty take on "Scratch My Back," the steady pump of the rhythm section accentuated by horns. In a tropical variation on that theme, Mahal calls upon Los Lobos and his own daughter Deva for a reggae-influenced arrangement of "Never Let You Go" that is as tender as the previous track is earthy. A bedrock twelve-bar Elmore James would be proud of, Mahal gives "TV Mama" a twist: it's all about a high-tech TV. Los Lobos reappears here, not surprisingly, since the group knows all too well that the blues has always been about what affects people most deeply.

In a demonstration of the difference between mere admiration and genuine musical empathy, Ziggy Marley aids in no small part to authentically render the cultural dislocation of "Black Man Brown Man." The track's success may not be wholly surprising considering it's Marley's band, but it's also emblematic of Mahal's ability to simultaneously fit in with other musicians and inspire them to his level of excellence.

"I Can Make You Happy" is one of a pair of cuts including The New Orleans Social Club with George Porter Jr. and Leo Nocentelli (as produced by Warren Haynes) and it reaffirms the blues foundation of Mahal's music in general and this album in particular. Still, as on "Hello Josephine," all involved approach the genre from a New Orleans angle, injecting the performance with just the right amount of idiosyncratic rhythm. Sandwiched in between is "Slow Drag," whose narrative (not to mention doleful horns) might be the soundtrack to a NOLA funeral—only this time it's for a love affair, not an individual. And it's Mahal's own band that conjures up this voodoo, reaffirming the accuracy of their instincts and those of their leader.

The individual cameos on Maestro are, in contrast, hit and miss. "Dust Me Down" is one of the disc's more conventional blues numbers and, to his credit, Ben Harper isn't intimidated in the presence of Mahal, but he doesn't exhibit the same level of natural gusto. Likewise Jack Johnson on "Further on Down the Road," who doesn't elevate his self-styled groove to match the jaunty gait signaled by the sound of Mahal's harmonica and furthered by his own gruffly charming singing.

"Strong Man Holler" almost sounds like an afterthought in its dreamlike dirge beat but, by the time it's over, Mahal and His Phantom Blues Band erupt into a high-stepping dance that is emblematic of the elemental spirit within Maestro's dozen tracks.

Track Listing: Scratch My Back; Never Let You Go; Dust Me Down; Further on Down the Road; Black Man, Brown Man; Zanzibar; TV Mama; I Can Make You Happy; Slow Drag; Hello Josephine; Strong Man Holler; Diddy Wah Diddy.

Personnel: Taj Mahal: vocals, guitar, harmonica, banjo; Ben Harper: vocals; Angelique Kidkjo: vocals: Jack Johnson: vocals; Ziggy Marley: vocals; C.C. White: background vocals; Deva Mahal: background vocals; Tracy Hazzard: backing vocals; Pebbles Phillips: background vocals; Leo Nocentelli: guitar; Johnny Lee Schell: guitar; David Hidalgo: guitar; Cesar Rosas: guitar; Jason Mozersky: guitar; Takeshi Akimoto: guitar; Ivan Neville: B3 organ; Henry Butler: piano; Mike Finnigan: keyboards; Jason Yates: keyboards; Mick Weaver: keyboards; Michael Hyde: keyboards; Steve Berlin: organ, baritone saxophone, tenor saxophone; Larry Fulcher: bass; Conrad Lozano: bass; Jesse Ingalls: bass; Paul "Pablo" Stennett: bass; Bill Rich: bass; George Porter: bass; Tony Braunagel: drums; Cougar Estrada: drums; Michael Jerome: drums, percussion; Debra Dobkin: percussion; Angel Roche: percussion; Louie Perez: jarana; Carlton "Santa" Davis; Raymond Weber: drums, rub board; Kester Smith: drums; Joe Sublett: tenor saxophone; Darrell Leonard: trumpet, trombonium; Rudy Costa: alto saxophone; Angela Wellman: trombone; Billy Branch: harmonica; Bassekou Kouyate: ngoni; Toumani Diabate: kora.

Year Released: 2008 | Record Label: Heads Up International | Style: Blues

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