Taj Mahal — “Savoy” — Stony Plain Records (April 28 release)
Since he released his first two albums in 1967-68, Henry St. Claire Fredericks Jr. has not only recorded roughly 50 more, he’s also helped to define the face of Americana and roots music, world music, and a huge amount of great blues music.
By then, Fredericks was already calling himself Taj Mahal, having left behind his animal husbandry, veterinary science and agronomy studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he also led an R&B band called Taj Mahal & The Elektras. The Elektras turned out to be the correct prescription.
(In October 2018, Taj returned to UMass Amherst for the 100th Anniversary of the Stockbridge School of Agriculture. In this video, he reminisces about his early life and career.)
A big leap in time, space and mood later, Taj and longtime friend and producer John Simon have put together a tribute to the music that worked its way into Taj’s consciousness as a child in his parents’ home.
That is essentially the music of “Savoy,” standards from the great American songbook, written by some of the great names in American music, a throwback to the sounds of the swing jazz big band era. “Savoy is just pure fun for me and a chance to display my jazz vocal chops,” Taj explains. And Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom is where his parents met during an Ella Fitzgerald show. Talk about predestination.
The “fun” that Taj mentions is a great description of the results here. The music swings easily but with an insistent groove from the fine band assembled for the occasion — a rhythm section of Danny Caron – guitar; Ruth Davies – bass; John Simon – piano; and Leon Joyce, Jr. – drums; with background vocals by Carla Holbrook, Leesa Humphrey and Charlotte McKinnon. Evan Price’s violin graces two cuts. There’s also a special group of horn players, including Erik Jekabson — trumpet; Mike Rinta — trombone; Sheldon Brown — clarinet, tenor sax; Charles McNeal — tenor sax; Andrew Stephens — trumpet; Kristen Strom — flute, tenor sax; Lincoln Adler — tenor sax.
All those players deserve special mention because the music they so effortlessly create moves the album into an irresistible groove that provides the perfect background for Mahal’s easy vocals that flow smoothly through his vintage, soon to be 81-year-old pipes, with a gruff elegance.
The classic songs? “Stompin’ At The Savoy” with a spoken intro on how his parents met; “I’m Just A Lucky So-And-So,” the fine and mellow “Gee Baby Ain’t I Good To You,” and easy-living “Summertime,” the classic Duke Ellington “Mood Indigo,” the bouncy “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” the soulful alto sax intro on “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me.”
Then there’s “Sweet Georgia Brown” with fiddle romping, a sensuous duet with Maria Muldaur on “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” the horn-powered opening to “Lady Be Good,” “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” with sweet fiddle, a swinging “Caldonia,” “Killer Joe,” a mostly instrumental that’s a more recent tune, and the heartfelt eight minutes of “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road).”
This is a thoroughly enjoyable album, in which Taj Mahal stretches his many musical talents in yet another direction. The results sparkle with a fresh and swinging look at classic American music.
From the album, “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You”:
- Stompin’ At The Savoy
- I’m Just A Lucky So And So
- Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You
- Mood Indigo
- Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby
- Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me
- Sweet Georgia Brown
- Baby It’s Cold Outside (duet with Maria Muldaur)
- Lady Be Good
- Baby Won’t You Please Come Home
- Killer Joe
- One For My Baby