Taj is stopping off in Bend as part of a tour (along with his trio) supporting his new album, Maestro, which is slated to hit the shelves on September 30, just two days after his show at the Tower Theatre. The album is a 12-track, wide-reaching collaborative project meant to celebrate Taj's 40 years laying down music. A collection of collaborations from an aging blues man might, on the surface, sound trite - the late-career collaboration-heavy disc is almost a right of passage - but thankfully, Taj has come through with a record not only impressive because of who plays on the cuts (Los Lobos, Ben Harper, Jack Johnson, Ziggy Marley, Phantom Blues Band) but because they are genuinely good songs. And Taj seems to know they're good.
What's perhaps most intriguing about this album is the fact that, in contrast to the typical collaboration album, Taj didn't invite these well-recognized names to play on songs within his own style, but rather branched out to embrace the vibe of his guest artists. Although Taj wrote "Further on Down the Road," he nicely plays along with Jack Johnson's patented flip-flop wearing laid-back pop. And on "Black Man, Brown Man," he jumps right into the reggae vibe brought to the table by Ziggy Marley and his band.
"Ziggy came in and rolled up his sleeves and said 'let's do this.' You know, that's the third generation of Marleys I've been communicating with," Taj says. This is one of many anecdotes Taj relays and this is why there's some remorse in having to hang up the phone when my 20 minutes expire.
He discusses his qualms with the recording industry ("You let the record company take all the money so they can get your music out there, which is good, but not always good for you."), his Caribbean ancestry and his daughter (Deva Mahal) and her incredible voice that can be heard on the album's "Never Let You Go." He also mentions the early days of his 40-year-career.
"When the Sears catalogue would arrive that was like our entertainment. It seems funny to say that now, but in those days with families just trying to make it, that was the way it was," Taj says of his guitar shopping memories. One would guess that now, four decades later, he likely gets his guitars from places other than Sears.
While he does enjoy talking about days past, the focus is still very much on the present and Maestro seems to be a record indicative of a man who still has his finger on the pulse of modern music -as well as a sense for wordly influences. With reggae, R&B, calypso, African, rock, and of course blues sounds on the album, Maestro proves as culturally diverse as it does fresh, and that will certainly surprise some.
"I didn't realize how odd that is to Americans, but I guess it is," he says of his eclectic influences before launching into a brief history lesson that culminates with a rather pointed critique of the way the past is often recalled.
"There's some people who think that it went Woody Guthrie and then Frank Sinatra and then there was Elvis Presley. Nothing against those people, but there were other things going on," he says.
Yes there were, and are, other things going, and Taj Mahal is one of those things.