Taj Mahal – Savoy | Album Review

Taj Mahal – Savoy 

Stony Plain Records – 2023


14 Songs – 59 minutes

Taj Mahal has spent his entire life in the pursuit and involvement of music. Mahal was born Henry St. Clair Fredericks in Harlem on May 17, 1942. His father was a jazz pianist with Caribbean roots. His mother was a gospel-singing schoolteacher from South Carolina. He was raised to have an appreciation of the arts and to have a great consciousness of his African heritage.

In the early 60’s, while studying agriculture and animal husbandry at the University of Massachusetts, he claims that the name of Taj Mahal came to him in a dream. He formed a folk-blues group named Taj Mahal & The Elektras, which performed regionally during that period. After graduation, he moved to Los Angeles where he formed a friendship with Ry Cooder which resulted in the formation of The Rising Sons and an album released in 1964.

In 1968, he released his first solo self-titled album. Over the course of years following that release, Taj has released dozens of albums exploring the gamut of roots music, ranging from children’s music to the Caribbean, Hawaiian, Africa and certainly variations of electric and acoustic blues. His most recent releases include a team-up with Keb Mo on Tajmo and a return to his beginning with a Ry Cooder team up on 2022’s Get On Board: The Songs of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. 

With this newest release he is looking further into the past to the classical music that was heard at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom in the 1930’s and 40’s. Taj said that he grew up in the era of swing and be-bop. The album takes a huge leap back to that era’s big band styled-swing music.  In the album’s introduction, Taj says his parents first met at the Savoy while listening to Ella Fitzgerald and offers his version of “Stompin’ at the Savoy” concluding with a little scat singing.

He moves on into Duke Ellington’s 1945 song, “I’m Just A Lucky So and So” accented by some nice flute work from Kristen Strom. “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You” was first recorded in 1929 by McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. Nat King Cole subsequently had a hit with it in 1945, which is the version Taj references on this album. John Simon, Taj’s long-time musical associate and producer of many of Taj’s albums over the years including this one, plays piano on the cut.

George Gershwin’s “Summertime” was first written in 1935 and performed in the stage musical “Porgy and Bess”.  Billie Holiday had a hit with the song in 1936. John gives Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” a fresh arrangement and was Taj’s first choice for songs to include on the album. The mood shifts to jump blues as Louis Jordan’s 1943 hit “Is You or Is You Ain’t My Baby” with Danny Caron’s guitar and John Simon’s piano floating among the horns including a strong trumpet solo by Erik Jekabson.

Danny’s guitar again comes to the front on “Do Nothing ‘Till You Hear From Me”, previously recorded by both Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. “Sweet Georgia Brown” was first recorded in 1925 and has been recorded by numerous performers in the years since including a jazz inflection by The Mills Brothers in the 1930’s. The bouncy song features a violin solo by Evan Price. Frank Loesser wrote “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in 1944 and received an Oscar for Best Original Song in the 1949 movie “Neptune’s Daughter”, which starred Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban. Dean Martin also later had a hit with it. Maria Muldaur joins Taj for the classic duet of man begging his woman to spend the night.

The 1924 musical “Lady Be Good” featured the song of the same name. Taj references the song version to one by Lester Young and again Taj scat sings through it as sax players Charles McNeal and Lincoln Adler trade notes. “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” was a hit for Bessie Smith. Eric Jekabson again has a strong trumpet solo.  The jump blues of Louis Jordan’s 1945 “Caldonia” again brings some heat to the mix.

Taj adds harp and Kristen Strom adds sax to Benny Golson’s “Killer Joe”, which was first recorded in 1960.   Johnny Mercer recorded “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road” for the 1943 film “The Sky’s The Limit”. Count Basie, Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles all had hits with the song. Taj said he is remaining faithful to the performances of all the artists, but particularly is referencing the performance of Charles.

The Savoy Ballroom existed from 1926 to 1958. With exception of “Killer Joe”, which as noted was first released in 1960, all of these songs would have been featured in many of the performances at the famed venue. Taj clearly has a love of all of these classic songs and presents them in faithful new versions.

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