Otis Taylor: Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs

By: Dennis Cook

The most exciting, creative new voice to emerge from the blues world in the past decade continues to confound expectations on his tenth album, Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs (released June 23 on Telarc). As the title implies, the theme of love swirls in this latest baker's dozen, but the ribbons, bows and romance novel clich├ęs are ditched for a harder, sturdier kind of love full of heat and calloused endurance.

For a musician known for sussing out the wonder of simplicity, often kicking around a single chord for a good spell just to see what might be seen, Taylor drives outwards from his African-rooted incisiveness to create a song cycle that's amorous without being drippy, an adult conception of universally held feelings that's commensurately weighted. New to the Taylor mix are succulent piano (courtesy of jazz riser Jason Moran) and flamenco and electric accents from U.K. guitar hero (and Taylor pal) Gary Moore. Daughter Cassie Taylor continues her upward climb as both a singing siren and fine, feel-oriented bassist, and there's African accented percussion, cello, glinting cornet and Otis' own sublime, frequently understated guitar and banjo. There's no one else putting together these components in quite the same way, and with each passing year and each new release Taylor proves himself one of the preeminent musicians of our time. Pentatonic Wars once again finds him commingling deep traditions in ways that give them fresh voice and renewed life. While the label "trance blues" is the most frequent tag for his sound, this new set goes some ways towards stealing ANY shorthand for his work. As with all true originals, Otis Taylor's music stand alone.

The songs here examine love from many angles, from a lost guitar to the respite of a Sunday morning bed to something perhaps higher and more elusive to human beings. While his gift for finely chosen expressions repeated mantra-like for maximum impact remains as a thread, there's a whole boatload of new wrinkles here, perhaps most poignantly a delicacy and pronounced sensuality (often expressed in vibe more than actual words) that some of his more hard-nosed, unsentimental tales have sometimes lacked. He's a truth-teller, utterly unafraid to go where his muse takes him, and while some that walk this oft-dark path can feel morose, Taylor just feels resoundingly honest, telling it like it is, without moralizing or hand holding, and leaving it for us to sort out. To hear him tackle love is a real treat and assures him another spot on Best Albums of the Year lists far and wide.

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[Published on: 7/14/09]

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