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Album Review: Savoy
Taj Mahal
Cover image of the album Savoy by Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal
2023 / Stony Plain Records
59 minutes
Review by Steve Yip
Did you know Taj Mahal is releasing SAVOY his next album soon?!? Hailed as one of the “custodians of the blues,” Taj Mahal -- no BS, a legend in his own time -- has accomplished a wonderful cultural milestone with his new album scheduled for release on April 28th, 2023. SAVOY celebrates the music from the legacy of the historic Savoy Ballroom (1926-1958) in the capital of Black America.

Way before this writer’s time to make any difference, the Savoy on Lenox Avenue in Harlem was known as “The World’s Finest Ballroom” and “Home of Happy Feet”. Many say that the Savoy Ballroom was the heart and soul of Harlem, and the music of that era is showcased by Taj Mahal in his unforgettable style.

In the pre-Civil Rights era, the North alleged formal equality, but Northern segregation was still openly practiced in public venues, employment and housing. This racist hypocrisy briefly dissolved in this place with Black and white hitting the dance floor. Said Norma Miller, the “Queen of Swing” (1919-2019), ‘The first place in the world that black and white walked through the door together was the Savoy. They were joined by a simple thing called Swing.’

Taj Mahal is now 80 years young -- this folk/blues practitioner and all-round musiologist’s entire body of work has been defined by seeking out, sharing and showcasing various Afro American and Caribbean musical traditions.

You know, for some artists, it seems that at a certain point after a lifetime of practicing their craft, many performers exercise exploratory tribute to the popular music that preceded them. For this writer who only in the recent past began to pay attention to Taj’s work, what comes to mind includes Ella Fitzgerald’s American Songbooks between 1956 and 1965; Linda Ronstadt’s work with Nelson Riddle, and the celebration of her Mexican heritage, Canciones de Mi Padre. Bruce Springsteen’s Only the Strong Survive was only the most recent of this rock icon’s resume coming after his travels through the American folk music universe making a point to sing Woody Guthrie tributes at his massive concerts.

Collaboration is a hallmark of Taj Mahal’s practice. He has worked with Howlin' Wolf, Buddy Guy, Lightnin' Hopkins, and Muddy Waters, Ry Cooder, Wynton Marsalis, Eric Clapton, Gregg Allman, the Tedeschi Trucks Band, and pop songster Cyndi Lauper, who has migrated to the blues. In 2017 Taj collaborated with fellow blues caretaker Keb’ Mo to produce the album TajMo, and went on tour together. You get the idea... the brother is proficient in his art through the years.

In SAVOY you will find classics from the big band sounds of the swing era lovingly presented. I found it like enjoying family style comfort food. Some great soul food at that. While one can say this music is truly mellow and soulful settling, and it was swinging. Like the admonition goes, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing!”

Let’s start with the first number where Taj lays it plain in the first minute or so of “Stompin’ At the Savoy”. With wonderful backup singers serenading in the smooth vocal harmonics of savoy, Taj styles in and ends with a challenge: “Yeah, that was what Harlem was all about. The home of happy feet... the Savoy Ballroom. Yeah, my daddy met my mama; my mama met daddy... listenin’ to Ella Fitzgerald, and the Chick Webb Band*. And that's part of the reason I'm here today, babies! So I grew up listening to all this cool and hip music. You know, I got to enjoy when I was like seven, eight, nine years old. Uhuh... And I'm so glad to be able to throw a thunderbolt down your way. Pick it up!”

Aside from the predominantly instrumental groove of “Killer Joe”, you will catch Taj Mahal’s tasty selections from this canon of popular swing classics from the day. There’s 14 songs in this collection, and here’s my take of what to expect to pick up from this capstone...

- “I’m Just a Lucky So And So.” Written by Mack David and Duke Ellington, and made famous by Kenny Burrell; and Brother Taj, you ain’t just some so and so...
- “Summertime.” Wow, this Broadway classic from Porgy and Bess was first sung by an opera singer, and made famous by Louis Armstrong. Go ahead on... a very homey delivery, Taj!
- “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” Written by Frank Loesser and almost a winter season staple, Taj teamed up with folk and blues singer Maria Muldaur of “Midnight at the Oasis” fame and made this work decently...
-“Caldonia.” Ha! Written and first performed by Louis Jordan, this “jump blues” has been covered by Muddy Waters and even James Brown; and is a fun piece by Taj..
- “One For My Baby...and One for the Road.” This is certainly an audience favorite when it was done by Frank Sinatra in imagined settings delivered by a melancholy bar patron to the bartender. And Taj’s cover recreates this chill mood... love it.

SAVOY offers Taj Mahal’s famously gravel vocals accompanied by some seriously cool, period-infused jazz orchestration. It’s pulled off by producer John Simon, who himself first began playing keyboards with the Electric Flag. Returning to Taj’s former home base in the Bay Area, SAVOY was done at 25th Street Recording in Oakland CA. Without doubt, SAVOY is a triumph to the catalog by this veteran of the blues and African-derived roots music.

Harlem-born and raised Taj Mahal is now in his 80th year, and his SAVOY is a magnificent contribution to a curriculum vitae spanning over 50 years. It’s fascinating to know the brother graduated from the University of Massachusetts with a major in animal husbandry and minoring in veterinary science and agronomy! Perhaps in looking at things from a whole different prism, he has always been in touch with the soil -- but from a different layer of life!

This album drops on April 28, 2023, and advanced orders are being taken. As Taj urged, this thunderbolt is coming at you -- Pick it up!

*Chick Webb Band was the house band at the Savoy, and Webb had hired the teenaged Ella Fitzgerald as his singer.

* * *
Adding a sartorial post script: Aside from formal performances, where Taj presents in a dandy suit and bowtie, dude has a favor for Hawaiian Shirts in other circumstances. I mean, if you check his older album covers, he always had this neat rustic country look. Recently, as I’m a YouTube addict, you see him Hawaiian-attired on stage performance videos. Can I say: this most likely a consequence from the 80s, when Taj moved to Hawaii, and began to introduce native sounds from the islands on top of his blues. We already know he was already infusing Latin, reggae, Caribbean, calypso, cajun, and jazz flavoring in his musical explorations. Not only a steward of the blues, he’s firmly established a reputation in the world music scene and beyond. Loving it...
March 1, 2023
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