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Taj Mahal: Savoy

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Taj Mahal: Savoy
Savoy, from Taj Mahal, is the latest entrant in the crowded field of pop music artists trying their hand at the fertile songbook of old big-band, swing-era standards. Unlike most, Mahal's roots show he's well suited to the task. He was born in Harlem in 1942. He grew up in a musical family, and his parents were both involved in the arts. His father was a jazz pianist and arranger, working with Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, and Fletcher Henderson among others. His mother was a well known gospel singer.

Taj Mahal is a living legend in the pop music world, releasing several dozen albums in his career from rock and R&B to various international genres, but is mostly known for his work in the blues field. Additionally he has recorded and performed with several jazz luminaries over the years, including David "Fathead" Newman, McCoy Tyner, Wynton Marsalis, Pharoah Sanders and Eddie Palmieri.

The 14 tracks on the album, produced by his good friend John Simon, are a throwback to that time when Mahal was growing up. It features older standards written by composers like of Duke Ellington, Louis Jordan, George Gershwin and Louis Armstrong, the one exception being Benny Golson's "Killer Joe."

The album kicks off with the title track. The song fades in with the old-time sounds of muted cornets and chunky rhythms before the intentionally sweet, saccharine female backup singers (somewhat like the old Ray Charles singers) come in singing the theme. Mahal enters, giving a minute-long spoken introduction where he tells the story about how his mother and father met at the Savoy Ballroom while attending an Ella Fitzgerald with Chick Webb concert. Then he talks about how much he's always loved the music and that's why he ended up deciding to make this record and "throw a thunderbolt down your way." One cannot help hearing shades and influences of Louis Armstrong in Mahal's gravelly vocals, particularly on the title track and on Louis Jordan's "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby" and Gershwin's "Lady Be Good," where he channels Ella Fitzgerald scatting like Armstrong. The one duet is "Baby, It's Cold Outside" featuring a saucy Maria Muldaur as the female singer.

It's clear that Mahal is thrilled to be doing this project and is trying to make it as authentic as possible. That is both a plus and a minus. The arrangements are singularly excellent. The song selection is varied, but predictable (except for "Killer Joe"). While Mahal's enthusiasm shows throughout, the essence of whom he has always been as a performer and vocalist seems a bit muted, contributing to a sameness that pervades throughout. Perhaps the fact he was 80 years old while recording this tribute to his upbringing, has something to do with it.

The album is ultimately a pleasant and satisfying trip down memory lane. Nothing more, nothing less. It's a three star affair, but you can add another half-star if you are a Taj Mahal fan.

Track Listing

Stompin' At The Savoy; I'm Just A Lucky So-And-So; Gee Baby Ain't I Good To You; Summertime; Mood Indigo; Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby; Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me; Sweet Georgia Brown; Taj Mahal/Maria Muldaur - Baby It's Cold Outside; Lady Be Good; Baby Won't You Please Come Home; Caldonia; Killer Joe; One For My Baby (And One More For The Road).

Personnel

Taj Mahal
guitar and vocals
Mike Rinta
trombone
Sheldon Brown
saxophone
Leah Tysse
vocals
Ruth Davies
bass, acoustic
Danny Caron
guitar
Lincoln Adler
saxophone
Kristen Strom
saxophone, alto
Charles McNeal
saxophone, alto
Additional Instrumentation

John Simon: piano.

Album information

Title: Savoy | Year Released: 2023 | Record Label: Stony Plain Records

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