Recapturing the Banjo

recapturing_banjo.jpgTitle: Recapturing the Banjo

Artist: Otis Taylor

Label: Telarc

Catalog No.: 83667

Date: 2008

Colorado isn’t the first state you probably think of as a center for the blues. Perhaps that outsider status is what allows Otis Taylor to construct his own framework of the genre. Taylor, who currently resides in Boulder, has worked out of Colorado for years. Though he took a hiatus from music making in 1977 to deal in antiques, he began playing again in 1995 and released the acclaimed album Blue-Eyed Monster in 1997. Taylor’s style has never been orthodox, nor has it adhered to a site-specific sound such as Delta blues, Memphis blues, or Chicago blues, yet he’s incorporated elements of each in the past. His latest release, Recapturing the Banjo, maps similar outsider space, although this time it’s more historical than spatial.

Recapturing the Banjo is undoubtedly Taylor’s project, but more accurately he leads a dream team of contemporary blues musicians, each with strong affiliations to traditional forms. Guy Davis, Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Keb’ Mo’, and Don Vappie all contribute substantially through combinations of picking, singing, and songwriting. The roster of musicians and their diverse contributions render the idea of a uniform “black” way to play the banjo dead on arrival.

The banjo has an uncomfortable but nonetheless essential role in African-American music, yet undoubtedly it has become more synonymous with white vernacular forms such as old-time and bluegrass music. The prototype came from West Africa on slave ships and evolved from such instruments as the xalam and akonting, reflecting such “melting-pot” concepts in its variations. Recapturing the Banjo showcases not only those variations of instrumentation but of playing styles, from Guy Davis’ percussive, thumb-heavy clawhammer on “Little Liza Jane,” to Don Vappie’s jazzy rhythms played on the tenor banjo in “Les Ognons.”

The song writing and selection reflect a frank and concerned role of African-American experiences. While Taylor’s own writing tends towards the dark side, including songs about a Klan lynching, “shot ’em down” ballads, and white indifference to black suffering, the disc also includes up-tempo songs such as Gus Cannon’s seminal “Walk Right In” (made famous by the all white, folk-pop, sans-banjo trio The Rooftop Singers), the Creole children’s song “Les Ognons,” and the brooding affirmation of Keb’ Mo’s “The Way It Goes.”

Though there is much to learn here (the liner notes are complete with a bibliography and discography providing a more detailed history of black banjo music), the sound and feel of the music is anything but academic. Taylor refuses to substitute pedagogy for groove, and the album cranks along with a blend of old-time rollicking tunes and swampy electric guitar blues accented by the ever-present banjo. Taylor’s iconoclastic style is on full display here and it’s a shame he isn’t better known outside of blues circles, since his taste is so wide-ranging, never solidly fitting into genre categories, but always negotiating between them.

Posted by Thomas Grant Richardson