On Taj Mahal‘s latest album, Savoy, the octogenarian reconstructs the music of his youth in its original style for a contemporary audience. He describes it as the stuff his jazz piano-playing father and gospel-singing mother listened to when they went out to the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem and whose words and rhythms they brought home. The specific songs mostly date from the 1930s and 1940s and capture the swinging mood of the period. It’s good time music for both when times are good and when they are not—from the Great Depression to World War II and after.
Mahal collaborated with producer John Simon (who also plays piano on the album) and a small combo of San Francisco area musicians to create a lively record that snaps like a pair of hipster’s digits. The arrangements are tight. The main players (guitarist Danny Caron, bassist Ruth Davies, and drummer Leon Joyce) capture the cool vibe of the originals. Simon also employs several backup singers to frame Mahal’s phrasing. Several tracks, such as the jumping “Lady Be Good” and “Mood Indigo”, utilize horns and other instrumentalists to jazz up the tunes.
Mahal’s gravelly voice complements the material. Sometimes it grounds the sweetness of the instrumentation, such as with Kristen Strom’s flute solo on “I’m Just a Lucky So and So”. Other times, Taj Mahal’s lower range adds gravitas to songs such as “Summertime” and “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You”. He makes lines like, “What makes me treat you the way that I do?” simultaneously humorous and sexy. When he answers the rhetorical with “Love makes me treat you that way that I do”, we clearly understand the risqué connotations of the lyrics.
Maria Muldaur joins him in the duet “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”. The Frank Loesser-penned classic has been controversial recently because some critics suggest the song promotes date rape. Mahal and Muldaur perform the track as originally written with all its seductive inferences intact. They are not afraid of offending their audience. They are more concerned with expressing the sultry nature of the song. And they sound like they are having fun!
Two of the most energetic tracks are covers of the Louis Jordan, “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby” and “Caledonia”. Taj Mahal scats on the first and plays a mean harmonica on the latter of the two cuts. He sets a lively pace, and Simon has the band bring it back to him. The tempo never flags, even when Taj Mahal engages in a conversational dialogue with the instrumentation.
Savoy appropriately ends with the closing time ballad, “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)”. Taj Mahal keeps the vocals liquid to fit the slurry nature of the lyrics. The singer sounds like he’s at the end of the night tired and a little drunk. Sure, he’s gloomy without his girl, but the pain has been dulled, and he’s ready to move on. Savoy ends with a promise of a new tomorrow and a thank you for listening.