Otis Taylor – Otis Taylor’s Banjo
11 tracks – 55 minutes
Before we get into the details of the songs or the history of the musician, let’s first look at the basic engineering of the album. As clearly splashed on the back of the album, it has been “Recorded in Pure DSD”, which is the highest resolution available for digital downloads, and further shows the cd is in “Hybrid stereo SA-CD”. Both point to a high-definition listening experience.
Next, let’s look at the title. The banjo has long been a major part of Otis Taylor’s songs. However, he has long interspersed the banjo with his guitar. While the banjo is demonstrably out in front in the album title, the instrument is only utilized on four of the eleven songs. Otis explained that while the banjo is certainly one of his instruments of choice, the term banjo to him also expresses an attitude or a reach to a good feeling.
Otis started as a bluesman back in 1960’s Chicago. He moved first to Denver and then to London. He stepped away from music in 1977 and started an antique business but eventually returned to the music releasing his first album in 1997. He has not shied away from controversy in any of his albums as can easily be determined form the titles of his first three album releases, “Blue Eyed Monster”, “When Negroes Walked the Earth”, and “White African”. He remains outspoken against racial injustice, drug-use and social concerns on all of his subsequent albums including this new release. His music balances somewhere between a folk and hill country style.
The album consists of five new originals and six remasters of previously released Taylor originals. Otis provides vocals, guitar, banjo, harmonica, and kazoo on the various tracks. Taylor stalwarts J.P. Johnson plays lead guitar, Nick Amodeo is on bass and mandolin, Brian Juan plays the organ, piano and Moog synthesizer, and Chuck Louden is the drummer. Joseph Howe and Beth Rosbach show up on cellos on three cuts.
Each song on the album has Otis Taylor’s own description of the background of the song. I will quote his statement for each song as it clearly lays out his basis of what he wrote. The opening track “1964” is the date when he first started playing in a band. His notes say that the song was “Inspired by my friend Billy Hillyard, who told me a story about Travelling to Morocco.” On the song he says he wants to travel “on a ship with no sails” and “sit on the sand and play with you on the beach”. He does a little jazz scat at the end of the song.
“A grandmother’s advice to her Black grandson is to watch what you do.” Her advice was to be careful what you say or do, where you walk as somebody might “Write a Book About It”. The banjo provides a bouncy, happy feel to the song.
“See My Face” looks back to a story of “On A Plantation, an old blind man gives orders to an enslaved black man.” Juan’s organ provides the lead with a guitar drone emphasizing the song behind Taylor’s banjo. On “Travel Guide” “A Black world traveler wants to bring his lover home to New Orleans.” Taylor pulls out his harmonica on this one and blends with Juan’s synthesizer which brings a consistent driving rhythm to the song.
Otis goes solo playing both the guitar and banjo on “12 Feet Under” as “A man believes he is good, but he dines with the devil.” He says “Hey, hey people walk across my grave.” On Friday afternoon, he had dinner with the devil, and he asks for help from above as he is 12 feet under.
“Little Willie” tells the story of “A young boy shot dead on the playground and his mother is telephoned.” This is a tragic tale of a mother’s despair at the unexpected loss of a child, something that is getting repeated way too often in our current times. “Sometimes a letter isn’t signed, but you know where it came from” in a “Nasty Letter”. He hopes “his tears dry on the paper and his lips turn to stone…as he has been wronged.”
On “Resurrection Blues”, Otis says “Some people have to suffer before they die, like Jesus did. Some have cancer, AIDS, or other illnesses. But they don’t want to be Jesus.” Johnson’s guitar and Juan’s organ provide an intense backing to Otis’s declaration that “I don’t want to be Jesus”.
“A Black man sings about fighting for freedom. ” He says he “hides from the right”, and “Hit from the Left” to fight for freedom. Otis banjo’s drives the song. On “American Dime” “An American traveler in France remembers his girlfriend’s injected-drug addiction. Blue lights in a bathroom make it difficult for users to see their veins.” The trio foregoes the drums on this one as Amodeo adds the mandolin to Juan’s piano to offer a sad recollection.
An eight and half minute upbeat ballad and declaration to “Live Your Life” “…before you die” offers Amodeo’s jazzy piano blending with the cellos to deliver a smooth, optimistic end to the album.
Otis Taylor’s strained vocals and controversial positions might make this a difficult album for many listeners. But his somewhat mono-toned singing is nonetheless captivating and aids the delivery of his messages.