Album Review: Taj Mahal — Savoy

Taj Mahal is music royalty. A prime exponent of both Americana and so-called “world music” long before either of those labels came into widespread use, he’s a bluesman at his core. His musical vision has always been wide-screen, from his days with Ry Cooder in the Rising Sons to present day. That band cut the Goffin/King tune “Take a Giant Step” even before the Monkees got around to it. Taj Mahal has always been ahead of his time, and outside of it.

On his latest release, Savoy, the Blues Foundation Hall of Famer and three-time Grammy winning roots legend takes a journey into music’s past. Savoy is a collection of songs from the big band/swing era of the 1930s and ‘40s. Across 14 standards, 80-year-old Taj Mahal applies his blues-based sensibility to jazz tunes, and results are remarkably timeless. A revered and accomplished songwriter in his own right, on Savoy Taj Mahal reasserts his primacy as one of music’s foremost interpreters of the work of other composers.

Taj Mahal introduces the album with some personal reminiscences. A jazz band and silky-smooth female vocal chorus back him, playing Stompin at the Savoy. His singing doesn’t come in until midway through the song. The approach sets the stage for a collection of studio recordings that feel like a live performance. He event throws some good-natured scat vocals in toward the song’s end, sounding for all the world like a 21st century Louis Prima.

The song selection leans toward the familiar, but in Taj’s capable hands, each and every tune feels fresh and new. The swaggering “I’m Just a Lucky So and So” leads into the understated and slightly forlorn “Gee Baby Ain’t I Good to You.” He turns George Gershwin’s evergreen “Summertime” into an uptempo swing tune. Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” is delivered in a more conventional manner.

Taj’s reading of Louis Jordan’s “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby” is more understated than both Jordan’s original and Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive-era remake, but the song’s sly character is wholly intact. “Sweet Georgia Brown” gets a jazz manouche arrangement. Continuing the back-and-forth between reverence and reinvention, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” features an arrangement quite close to the way most listeners know it.

Jordan’s relentlessly uptempo “Caldonia” reminds listeners of the through-line that connects big band jazz and rock and roll. Benny Golson’s instrumental classic “Killer Joe” gets some shoop-doo-wah vocalese applied to it; the song showcases the record’s instrumental expertise.

Savoy concludes as it simply must: with a cover of “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road),” a song designed as a set-closer. Harold Arlen’s classic saloon song is known as a Frank Sinatra vehicle, but it has been effectively covered by many greats from Fred Astaire to Willie Nelson. And as he does with each and every of Savoy’s 14 songs, Taj Mahal makes the late-night weeper his own.

You may also enjoy my interviews with Taj Mahal: one from 2018, yet another from 2018 and yet a third, this time from 2019.