By: Dennis Cook
Otis Taylor is the baddest thing happening in blues today. That's meant in the fur-lined '70s colloquial sense, super bad with trim to spare. What makes him so compelling is how he can sound both old as sea salt and far-flung as the furthest space cowboy. In between lies Africa, urban terrors, baby's laughter and grown man tears. From his calloused big bear hands Taylor coaxes sounds that skirt the usual facile 12-bar repetition, drilling down to the black and blue heart of the genre. By resisting orthodoxy he actually serves the true spirit of the blues best. And he's never been more unorthodox than Definition Of A Circle (Telarc).
Opener "Little Betty" hijacks the angel choir from Pink Floyd's "Great Gig In The Sky" and has it push wind behind fat, gritty electric guitar (courtesy of Brit blues-rock cult figure Gary Moore) and slinky, intoxicating organ while Taylor testifies about things found on the side of the road. They jump from that jook house to the Appalachia on "Black's Mandolin Boogie." Iinspired by the gypsies of Eastern Europe, Taylor and Nick Amodeo's mandolins june bug skitter over the luxurious, substantive bass of Taylor's daughter, Cassie Taylor. Broad, quick shifts in tone and instrumentation are common in Taylor's music, a testament to the huge brain behind his genre stretching, organically musical offerings.
Many cuts are drumless, finding rhythm flow inside different instrumentation than standard percussion, like the pulse Charlie Musselwhite's harmonica gives "Looking Over Your Fence," one of the most classically "blues" numbers in Taylor's catalog - a raw, stripped down steeplechase of harp, electric bass and guitars in the vein of early '70s John Mayall. Even more haunting is "They Wore Blue," written while watching the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on television. Cassie's ever-haunting voice glides like a ghost through electric mandolin, Otis' probing electric guitar and Brian Juan's cool, liquid organ until they explode in a joyous, oddly hopeful instrumental coda that takes us to the people's church.
The emphasis is always on ensemble playing. Taylor carefully chooses the instrumental colors and their placement in arrangements. There's no fat and the flavors tend to blend rather than stand out in traditional solos. These tactics allow them to sound like a more hellhound chased Led Zeppelin one minute ("Something In Your Back Pocket," where Gary Moore again shines) and acid-folk minstrels the next ("Maharaja Daughter").
There's something to be said for respecting tradition but if traditions are to be kept alive, able to feed and fuel new generations, it needs practitioners like Taylor who'll ignore the right parts of the past in order to forge the future. Definition Of A Circle, like the six albums that precede it, moves the blues more than a few country miles towards a fresh horizon.
JamBase | Colorado
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