The 'Real' Definitive Edition
Friday, February 15, 2013
In conjunction with 'Black History Month,' Sony Legacy has just released 'The Complete Columbia Albums Collection Of Taj Mahal,' a 15 disc boxed set of Mahal's wonderful CBS recordings spanning from his earliest work with The Rising Sons in 1965, through to his final Columbia LP, 'Satisfied n' Tickled Too' issued in 1976. Crucial recordings such as his eponymous debut, 'The Natch'l Blues' and 'Giant Step,' 1971's 'The Real Thing,' which was the seminal recording that first introduced his now legendary tuba band, as well as Mahal's initial foray into his unique pan-cultural 'World' blues, the powerful 'Mo' Roots' are all naturally a part of the collection. Additionally, last summer's two disc compilation of rare outtakes and concert performance, 'The Hidden Treasures Of Taj Mahal' has also been added to the box, distinguishing this set as potentially the 'definitive' collection of Mahal's formative years.
Beyond my mere wish to praise the many musical accomplishments of Mahal, I am also extremely flattered at having been chosen by Taj himself to pen the liner notes for 'The Hidden Treasures...,' an honor that eventually extended to my additionally writing the notes for 'The Complete Columbia Albums Collection' as well. These two projects have been my first opportunity to 'professionally' publish beyond the context of this humble blog, and I am indeed delighted. These generous 170 tracks are widely regarded as being among Mahal's most essential works, having laid the groundwork for his remarkable career as a bona fide Blues master, and I'm honored to have played a small role in documenting it. But 'TCCAOTM' is not actually the 'definitive' collection. Let me elaborate.
As a brief back story, my understanding and admiration for Mahal's music came to his attention back in 2011 when I published two essays within these pages, 'Nothin' But The Real Thing: The Natch'l World Blues Of Taj Mahal' and 'Sho' Nuff Makes Me Feel Alright: The Down Home Blues Of Taj Mahal.' As a result of these two short pieces, I was contacted and commissioned by Sony Legacy to contribute liners for 'The Hidden Treasures...,' released last September. I then submitted an extensive three part essay (far beyond what had been requested) for consideration. The original piece consisted of a general overview of Mahal in two parts, 'What It 'Tis It T'aint, And What It T'aint It 'Tis' and 'Explaining The Paradox.' The third section which pertained exclusively to 'The Hidden Treasures...' was appropriately entitled, 'Revealing The Hidden Treasures Of Taj Mahal.' Pleased with the results, Sony Legacy elected to include the last section within the corresponding release, saving the first two sections for inclusion in the scheduled, 'Complete Columbia Albums Collection' to be released at a later date. Naturally, I was thrilled that my words would now compliment not one, but two prestigious Mahal collections. I still am. But here's the rub. For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, the powers that be omitted the all important, 'Explaining The Paradox,' section in the latter compilation. And why is this important to note? Well, after devoting 1,000+ words pointing out the myriad of misconceptions that surrounded Mahal's musical vision in those early days (both from the public and also within the music industry itself), erroneous perceptions that left many scratching their heads wondering just what this guy Mahal was all about, I conclude the section by declaring, "in the end he became a walking riddle, and one that clearly begged for clarification." Unfortunately my attempt at clarifying that vision as outlined in the section that followed ('Explaining The Paradox') was subsequently omitted in the final release, thereby leaving us with an unresolved conundrum. If Mahal and his aspirations during these years "begged for clarification," then clarification should be given. But it isn't, and not for my lack of trying.
While I believe that the release of 'The Complete Columbia Albums Of Taj Mahal' is a noteworthy and long overdue collection, I am at a loss to explain why that 'all important' section of the original essay was scrubbed. While I remain thrilled and honored to have been a contributor to these two important projects, and I certainly don't wish to bite the hand that feeds, I do feel that we've all been done a disservice by the sections omission. I truly commend Sony Legacy for finally giving Mahal the boxed treatment his recorded legacy with the label deserves. But let's see it all the way through and complete the picture, shall we? I fortunately have my own forum to correct the oversight reflected in the new box and I aim to do just that. Therefore I'm offering below the 'original and compleat' liner notes as they were intended to read, doing justice to what is otherwise a truly significant and beautiful package.
True story. In the late 60’s, or early 70’s, a Javanese émigré arrived on the shores of Northern California to open a small, but very exceptional Indonesian restaurant. As the owner, chef, and eventual friend, she was a warm and caring woman who stood small in stature but big at heart. Welcoming and motherly to all her customers, she spoke of a gregarious, young Black man who on occasion would drop by her humble establishment to treat himself to a satisfying and reasonably priced meal. According to her observations however, this particular young man was apparently one who was very down on his luck. She was convinced that he came to dine only when his pockets were amply filled with enough spare change to afford the small price of one of her lovingly prepared entrées. “I knew he was poor,” she would say, “I could tell by the condition of his clothes. They were always rumpled and frayed around the edges. And he always looked so tired. I felt sorry for him whenever I’d see him,” she’d continue maternally, “but he was always very nice. So each time he came in, I made certain to put a little extra food on his plate and it would make him so happy. He’d thank me because he did without and was so hungry.”
It was during those same years, and at the time of these recordings that one, Taj Mahal was hard at work carving out a name for himself as a blues practitioner of the highest order, mining the rich legacy of his musical mentors on concert stages throughout the U.S. and Europe while working to create a new and unique voice for himself. The up and coming Mahal was nevertheless a man out of time, widely misunderstood by his critics, and largely dismissed by African-American audiences for embracing acoustic Country blues as a source of Black pride. During a period when blues music and Black Power were moving forward into new (and potentially questionable) territories; Taj turned it all upside down to expose and make use of the many roots that gave life to the still evolving genre, thereby embracing the fertile history of his people. For those who didn’t care to understand the motivations behind this move, his incorporation of the pre-war styles --- work songs, Delta, and Piedmont blues --- seemed almost a throwback to the days of Hokum and minstrel shows. But Mahal knew what he was doing. Young and enthusiastic, he poured old wine into new bottles, mixing it all up and keeping things interesting. Like wearing holey socks with shiny shoes, he infused humility and a certain authenticity back into a music form that was nearly at risk of losing its way altogether. It was a bold move, and it should have been a welcomed one. Yet despite a handful of solid LP’s to his name and countless appearances under his belt, Taj Mahal and his determination were sadly misread.
Fast forward a just a few short years later and Mahal has now found his groove. Having refined his path a bit, Taj is expanding his blues perspective even further to become a global one, and in the process emerge not only as a world class songwriter and musician, but also an early pioneer of world music fusion by way of his all-inclusive vision that demanded he explore beyond the boundaries of the form as we knew it. The restaurant owner meanwhile is in Tower Records where she’s looking to purchase a new John Denver recording, or something equally innocuous. Having found the record she was looking for, she slowly moves up the alphabet and over to the next aisle where her eyes are caught by a copy of Taj’s wonderful 1971 release, ‘Happy Just To Be Like I Am.’ There on the jacket is a photo of an earnest looking Mahal appearing confident, content and for all the world; quite happy just to be like he was. “That’s him!” she cried aloud, stunned by the image staring back at her. “That’s the man I told you about! The poor Black man who used to come into my restaurant! That’s him! He must not be poor at all. He must be famous!”
Well at that point in his career, Taj Mahal was indeed on his way to becoming famous, but he was certainly far from being poor. He was in fact, a very rich man. Rich for the wealth of understanding and simpatico he held for the blues. Rich for his ability to see the bigger picture, appreciating that the river from which the blues flowed had many tributaries. You see, Taj recognized that in order to become the consummate bluesman, one must not limit themselves to just one fork of the source. In order to move forward and to grow, one must sometimes look back and in doing so, utilize the wisdom of the past to shape the form of the future. So Mahal began forging his own tributary, mingling sophisticated urban grit with simple country molasses in order to create an oddly satisfying and one-of-a-kind dish that only he could, and would dare serve. The recipe did succeed in winning him many an enlightened fan, but it also created great bewilderment and consternation among his critics, many of whom were uncertain what to make of his contradictions and all-encompassing approach. Was he uptown, or downtown? A weekend dabbler, or the real thing? Do we consider him down home, or just low down?
In hindsight, we now know that Mahal indeed was, and still is the real thing. More so, we also realize that he was a man very much ahead of his time, employing the entire spectrum of blue. Taj utilized indigo shades from all of the mighty river’s feeders, deftly incorporating them into that voice he was so steadfastly sculpting back in those early years. Today, some four decades later when soulless, cookie cutter music dominates the hit parade and panders to the lowest common denominator, we should count our lucky stars that someone like Mahal had the foresight, the degree of interest, and the love for the blues to dip his toes into the music’s many streams and help keep them alive and flowing. As true testament to his vision however, there fortunately remain many young artists who work outside of the mainstream that would be quick to namedrop Mahal as an inspiration and source of their musical direction. But at the time of the recordings contained in this collection, Mahal’s own creative inspiration was still largely misconstrued. Just like my culinary friend misread the visual image of Taj, his talent for synthesis perplexed his detractors. Perceptions muddled, they often ended up drawing erroneous conclusions of what they saw, or heard without truly understanding the nuts and bolts of its design and purpose. Our restaurant owner interpreted Taj’s frayed and rumpled clothes as him being a man without means, when in actuality he was merely a working musician living out of a suitcase. The tired eyes she saw across the table were not bloodshot and drooping from working long hours for a pittance, but rather from having just spent three grueling months on the road. And the voracious appetite that she was convinced came from hunger, was simply just that of a man who appreciated good food and recognized a superb groaning board when he saw one. Likewise with his critics, they failed to either see, or comprehend the entirety of Mahal’s canvas. Here was an active blues musician drawing from deep within the well, presenting a uniquely happy kind of blues gumbo, and doing so with unbridled heart and soul. Then he adds a touch of historical academia to the proceedings (consciously, or unconsciously) and effectively pulls it all off with nary a single ounce of pretension. So in the end he became a walking riddle, and one that clearly begged for clarification.
Explaining the Paradox
Here’s the thing, plain and simple. Taj Mahal has always been a conundrum; a man who is capable of mirroring many things to many people, and the reason why is because he’s an enigma --- an alchemist and a contrarian. He’s both a heretic and a priest, a music maker and a pipe fitter, a blues master and a regular guy. He’s the elder statesman steeped in the narrative of the blues who also manages to remain remarkably fresh and contemporary, a textbook example of what it ‘tis it t’aint, and what it t’aint it ‘tis. And Mahal is a force of nature as well. He’s the slow turning of the Earth and the wind that rustles through the pines. He’s the sweet song of the whippoorwill and the startled cry of a newborn babe. He’s the heavy plow that tills the soil and the graceful tree that bears the fruit. Concurrently he’s the refreshing quench of water from a mountain spring yet the satisfying burn of Kentucky Bourbon on the throat. And lastly he’s a conjurer. Through his music he’s been a dirt farmer, a man of gentry, and a Mississippi riverboat gambler. He’s played the role of the pious country preacher of old South camp meetings to a chain gang prisoner breaking rocks in the hot, midday sun. He’s been a hard-boiled harp player with a gold tooth and process blowing gritty on the South side of Chicago to a West Indies fishing boat captain sipping Banana Daiquiri’s with a St. Kitts woman. He’s dwelled deep in the bottomland and lived high on the hog in Tuscaloosa. Big city bred, he moved up to the country where he then painted his mailbox blue. And when he went down to the crossroads, his baby up ‘n caught the Katy and left him behind with nothin’ but a mule to ride and a serious case of the Statesboro blues. It should then come as no surprise that he generated so much head scratching back in the day. Like the blues tree with its many roots, Taj has become the sum of many parts. But if you were to strip him of the elements that have come to define him publicly, you’d no doubt find that beneath it all he’s really just a simple man with a harp, a steel guitar, and a banjo in his rucksack; a man making music with a whole hell of a lot of heart and soul. And that is probably his greatest gift. Because of that underlying simplicity, Mahal has managed to remain not only focused, but remarkably grounded throughout 40+ years in an industry that can alter a man in many an odd and dramatic way. It also hasn’t hurt that honesty is, and always has been at the root of all he’s done. It’s that inherent naturalness that he possesses which has fueled his ability to keep it real, and that I believe has been the key to his great success and longevity.
Today there’s nothing to be confused about when it comes to Taj Mahal. Whether you see him as the everyday man that he is, or as a man reflective of many characters, you have to admit that behind it all he’s certainly a blessed and very rich man. Blessed for his sincerity and candor, blessed for his resilience and triumph, blessed for his ability to remain forever young at heart. He is rich on the other hand for the breath of his vision, as well as for the courage of his convictions; convictions that have staunchly kept his own blues from becoming a static form, a museum exhibit at best. But mostly, Mahal is rich for regarding the blues as a living organism. Much like himself, it’s a music that can manifest itself in multiple guises and outward semblances, all of which he’s admirably explored and generously shared with anyone who’s ever cared to listen. And for that my friend, we too are all the richer.
Revealing the Hidden Treasures Of Taj Mahal
Revealing the Hidden Treasures Of Taj Mahal
Despite Mahal’s laidback and easygoing demeanor, he is nevertheless a man who is fully in control when it comes to his art. Believing that first takes are the purist and most honest representations of his songs, he’s insisted on issuing only what he believes to be the absolute best representation of his material, systematically wiping all else that fails to meet his demanding standard. As a result, we’ve been faced with the harsh reality that precious few outtakes from Taj Mahal have ever surfaced within his substantial Columbia catalog, or elsewhere for that matter. However, on very rare occasions there have been performances that while equally strong and compelling, just simply didn’t make the grade for whatever may have been the prevailing reason. It’s those buried riches of which I speak that comprise The Hidden Treasures of Taj Mahal, making this collection of previously unreleased rarities a very welcomed collection. For what you hold in your hands is indeed the mother lode. And what a bountiful chest of treasure it is. A dozen studio recordings made between the years of 1969 and 1973 and an entire live performance captured at London’s prestigious Royal Albert Hall in the spring of 1970 where Taj opened for his label mates, Johnny Winter and The Santana Band. Rarely has a collection revealed so much about an artist early in their career as does Hidden Treasures.
Rather than pontificate on end about the wealth of riches to be found within these sessions, I believe it best to allow you, the listener, to bask in the glow of these jewels, marvel at their brilliance and draw conclusions of your own. Nevertheless, there are several specimens within that I can’t help but direct to your attention.
The greatest gem is perhaps the whole of Disc 2, Live at the Royal Albert Hall. Recorded in the early months of 1970, we find Mahal in the very time and space addressed in the essay above, refining his voice and hovering just on the cusp of further expanding his unique amalgamation of blues based music. This live setting is undoubtedly the environment where Taj has always excelled best, the place where it all comes together and with the help of his sterling band which included the great Jesse ‘Ed’ Davis, Mahal certainly delivers the goods. In doing so, one cannot begin to over-emphasize the remarkable contributions that the guitarist brought to the architecture of Taj’s early sound. Mahal himself has made it clear that Davis is “at the top of my list of a handful great of modern musicians who through their instrument, voiced an incredible array of emotional styles” thereby making his own work that much clearer and easier. “Never at a lost for what to play or when to play it, and with a tone and a touch like nobody before or since, Jesse’s ability to see an arrangement in his head front to back with all stops in between was beyond awesome in my book!” Obviously Mahal holds the late guitarist in high esteem, and the unique chemistry that two men shared is abundantly evident throughout this never before released live date.
Boldly opening with an a cappella number, Mahal begins his set in a low-key manner, then pulls up a stool and effortlessly slides into his patent acoustic territory with a winsome reading of ‘Oh John, Ain’t It Hard.’ But it’s after he introduces his band, picks up his harp and launches into the electric portion of his program that the real fun begins. In just over 52 minutes, Taj and his group take us on a musical journey across the great American blues landscape. From the backwoods of Louisiana to the urban sprawl of Chicago, Illinois, we travel down dusty country roads and traffic-choked highways, catching a glimpse of the developing Taj Mahal during a very exciting time in his now long and storied career. It’s a marvelous example of the man at work, and one that’s been long overdue for release.
Disc 1 on the other hand; The Hidden Treasures of Taj Mahal is no less exhilarating and satisfies largely in part to Taj’s superb choice of accompanying musicians throughout. Among them once again are the marvelous, Jesse ‘Ed’ Davis, the multi-talented and idiosyncratic, John Simon, his big bottomed brass band featuring Howard Johnson, Earl McIntyre, Bob Stewart and Joe Daley, as well as his utilization of the wonderful and sadly missed, Dixie Flyers. It’s with the latter where we hear for the first time Mahal’s own version of ‘Chainey Do,’ a song he originally gave to the Pointer Sisters. With the backing of Davis sitting in with Jim Dickerson and his Flyers, Mahal’s take is as low down funky and syncopated as anything from the pen of the mighty Meters. It’s almost startling to hear Mahal shake a tail feather as authoritatively as he does on this early recording. Equally urgent is an alternate version of ‘Tomorrow May Not Be Your Day’, which is taken from the same session. Minus the punchy horn arrangement and fife solo that we’ve come to know on the official release, this reading is far more raw and driving, easily eclipsing the original by a country mile, likely to become the one track you’ll never tire of placing on repeat. Additionally surprising is Taj’s choice to cover Dylan’s ‘I Pity The Poor Immigrant.’ To my knowledge, this represents the one and only time he’s interpreted a contemporary. Lastly, the real treats are three tracks produced by New Orleans iconoclast, Allen Toussaint. The R&B giant softens Mahal a bit with a simple touch and the simpatico accompaniment of his sidemen, making ‘Butter’ every bit as blond and rich as its namesake; the creamy roux of Crawfish Étouffée.
Yes, there are riches that abound throughout, yet there is one final highly prized and lustrous gemstone to unveil. In setting up a rehearsal of ‘You Ain’t No Streetwalker Mama, Honey But I Do Love The Way You Strut Your Stuff,’ Taj imparts a wonderfully colorful directive to his band members. There within those instructions lay a precious pearl of insight that sheds a great deal of light on understanding the dichotomy of Taj Mahal, had it only been uttered for all to hear so many years ago. The abstract musical direction that Taj puts forth is as long and hilarious as the song title itself, delivered in a language that only a musician could possibly comprehend. But he concludes with a simple sentence that is easily understood by anyone, stating a truth that serves to explain everything so very neatly. They’re words that might also easily sum up not only Mahal himself, but the entirety of his musical vision as well. “It’s all in there, man!” he declares emphatically, and indeed it is, the whole history. All you need to do is open your ears and the greatest hidden treasure is clearly revealed. © 2012 Miles Mellough