Taj Majal Trio
June 25, 2010
You could call legendary musician Taj Mahal a singer, multi-instrumentalist, composer, producer, ethnomusicologist, two-time Grammy-winner, world-class musical collaborator, musicians' advocate or world traveler. These titles are all accurate, yet none convey the warmth, humor, and soulfulness of Taj and his music. Taj has been playing his own distinctive brand of music -- variously described as Afro-Caribbean blues, folk-world-blues, hula blues, folk-funk, and a host of other hyphenations -- for more than 40 years. Caribbean, Hawaiian, African, Latin, and Cuban sounds and rhythms mix with folk, jazz, zydeco, gospel, rock, pop, soul, and R&B, all layered on top of a solid country blues foundation. What ties it all together is Taj's abiding interest in musical discovery, particularly in tracing many American musical forms back to their roots in Africa and Europe. Following his passion, Taj has spent time in the Caribbean, West Africa, Hawaii, Europe, the South Pacific, Australia, South America, and all over the continental U.S. His music reflects his global perspective, incorporating sounds from everywhere he's lived and traveled. A self-taught musician, Taj plays more than 20 instruments, including the National Steel and Dobro guitars. His remarkable voice ranges from gruff and gravelly to smooth and sultry. While attending the University of Massachusetts at Amherst as an agriculture student in the early 1960s, the musician transformed himself into Taj Mahal, an idea that came to him in a dream. He began playing with the popular UMass. party band The Elektras, then left Massachusetts in 1964 for the blues-heavy L.A. club scene. There he formed The Rising Sons with Ry Cooder. At the Whiskey A Go Go in Los Angeles, The Rising Sons opened for Otis Redding, Sam the Sham, The Temptations, and Martha and the Vandellas at The Trip. Taj also had the opportunity to hear, meet, and play with such blues legends as Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Sleepy John Estes, and Lightin' Hopkins. He has recorded over 30 albums from folk blues to electric blues to rock and even world music from India, the Caribbean and Hawaii. While Taj's music has always been well received, popular culture finally caught up to him. Taj walked away with the Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album for 1997's Señor Blues and again for 2000's Shoutin' in Key, both recorded with The Phantom Blues Band. He has garnered nine Grammy nominations in all. After more than a decade of playing with larger ensembles, Taj wanted to do more guitar playing with a smaller group. He is now touring with The Taj Mahal Trio – just Taj on guitar, piano, and banjo, Bill Rich on bass and Kester Smith on drums. These musicians have been playing together on and off for more than 30 years. Together, they draw on a long, shared history of Taj's music. The Trio allows the music between voice and guitar to happen with the smallest amount of accompaniment – bass and drums," says Taj. "That leaves a lot of space to be filled. The guitar is not submerged but right up front in the music. It's a challenging place to play. His latest release is Maestro: Celebrating 40 Years, marking the fortieth anniversary of Taj's rich and varied recording career by mixing original material, chestnuts borrowed from classic sources, and songs written by a cadre of highly talented guest artists. This anniversary gala includes performances by Ben Harper, Jack Johnson, Ziggy Marley, Angelique Kidjo, Los Lobos and others – many of whom have been directly influenced by Taj's music and guidance.