from The Seattle Times:
When Taj Mahal released his first album under his own name 40 years ago, he was swimming furiously against the cultural current, refusing to relinquish the blues tradition to the rock bands riding the charts.
“It was pretty simple — the next generation of bluesmen were mostly white,” says the vocalist, guitarist and promiscuous multi-instrumentalist. “But there was still a generation of young black players with no access to the national radar screen, no visibility whatsoever. Many of the songs that I brought out would never have been part of the blues or roots canon if I hadn’t recorded them, because they missed out on the transition, on moving up to Chicago from the country.”
Four decades later, Taj Mahal can rest assured that his work has provided a creative lifeline for myriad artists, from the old-time string-band sound of the Carolina Chocolate Drops to blues troubadours like Eric Bibb and Corey Harris.
Part of his enduring influence rests on his refusal to limit himself in any way, as he demonstrates on his recent release “Maestro” (Heads Up), a gloriously eclectic album featuring guest appearances by the likes of Angelique Kidjo, Ben Harper, Ziggy Marley, Los Lobos and Jack Johnson.
“What I wanted to do was make a really good dance album,” says Taj Mahal, 66, who opens his annual Thanksgiving residency at Jazz Alley today with his longtime trio featuring drummer Bill Rich and bassist Kester Smith, a tradition dating back to the mid-’90s. He plays through Nov. 30, with Monday and Thanksgiving Day off.
“It’s 40 years I’ve been doing it in my own way, following my muse, loving the music that I love,” he continues. “I’m part of all these cultures. It’s not like I go to Jamaica and steal from the Jamaicans and bring to the Americans. This is what I grew up with, jazz and gospel, reggae and bebop.”
In many ways, Taj Mahal is the closest thing we have to an American griot. His music embraces the raw energy of field hollers, the rent-party gumption of early jazz, the wit and sensuality of American songbook standards, the urbane grooves of rhythm and blues, the church-derived cadences of soul music and the rhythms of West Africa, via New Orleans and the Caribbean.
In recent years he’s often found himself sharing the bill with contemporary bands like Uncle Tupelo and Wilco, introducing the blues to a generation weaned on hip-hop and alternative rock. Part preservationist and part visionary, he uses his expressive growl of a voice to conjure an era when socializing and dancing were indistinguishable.
“What I like about a lot of the younger jam bands is that they make room for the kids to dance,” he says. “I like the feeling of not having to tell people to get up, they just find their way to the dance floor. You tell people who are coming to Jazz Alley to bring their dancing shoes.”