“Some of us were gifted by our ancestors to be in a long line of musicians,” says Taj
Mahal. “It’s in your DNA. Others are lucky to find it and put in the dedication that it takes
to be able to get there. So that’s my life as an 81-year-old—still playing music, still
enjoying it, still getting to do the things I want to do.”
With his latest release, Swingin’ Live at the Church in Tulsa, Taj adds to his legendary
legacy with an extraordinary set recorded at the Tulsa studio best known as the home
base of the late, great Leon Russell. The ten songs reach across multiple genres that
he has explored in his incomparable career, and feature his long-time quartet—bassist
Bill Rich, drummer Kester Smith, and guitarist/Hawaiian lap steel player Bobby
Ingano—augmented by dobro player Rob Ickes and guitarist and vocalist Trey Hensley.
“It was a great opportunity to capture this particular sextet, and also pay tribute to Leon
and all that he did, and my friendship with him, at one of the premier studios on planet
Earth,” says Taj. “Certain bands have a certain sound, so I was glad that I was able to
not only play live, but have it be in the Church where we mix this stuff, too—when I saw
that was what the possibility was, I was thrilled. It’s a great venue and it feels wonderful
to be involved in it.”
In a career spanning seven decades and almost 50 albums, Taj Mahal has not only
helped popularize and reshape the scope of the blues, but he has also personified the
concept of “World Music” since years before the phrase even existed. From a base of
traditional country blues, Taj has explored and incorporated reggae, Latin, R&B, Cajun,
Caribbean, gospel, West African, jazz, calypso, Hawaiian slack-key, and countless other
musical styles into his astonishing body of work.
Along the way, he has become proficient on about 20 different instruments and
collaborated with a vast range of musicians including the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton,
Etta James, Angelique Kidjo, Ziggy Marley, and masters from such countries as India
and Mali. For his work, Taj has won four Grammy Awards (out of fifteen nominations),
been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, and was a recipient of the Americana Music
Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Growing up in a musical family in the vibrant immigrant community of Springfield,
Massachusetts, Taj first became aware of Oklahoma’s central role in American music
through a family friend named James Brewer. “He was one of the coolest guys that we
ever met,” says Taj. “Dressed sharp all the time, played alto a little bit with those territory
bands out there like Ernie Fields and Bennie Moten.” Later, he solidified a connection to
the region’s musicians through guitarist and close collaborator Jesse Ed Davis, who
introduced him to such Tulsa-based players as JJ Cale, Bobby Keys, and, eventually,
the force of nature known as Leon Russell.
Russell purchased the distinctive church with the stone façade in 1972, converting it into
a recording studio and home office for his Shelter Records label. Artists including Tom
Petty, Jimmy Buffett, Willie Nelson, Stevie Wonder, and many more worked in the
studio. Current owners Ivan Acosta and Teresa Knox completed their renovation of the
space in 2022, dedicated to showcasing the legacy of the “Tulsa Sound” and creating
opportunities for the next generation of musicians.
“Through my friend Claudia Lennear—who sang with Joe Cocker on the Mad Dogs &
Englishmen tour, on which Leon was the bandleader—I was hearing about Teresa and
what she was doing,” says Taj. “That she had restored the Church and was making it a
big tribute to Leon and what he meant to the area and was really trying to turn this entity
into a destination to record and to play. Teresa was interested in having me come out
there and see the studio, maybe record in it. It was on the back burner, and then we
kind of put it on the front burner and turned it up a little bit, and the next thing we know,
we had the perfect setting for a live and exciting recording.”
He and his band responded with a set that ranges from some of the songs he is best
known for—“Corinna,” “Queen Bee”—to the instrumental “Twilight in Hawaii”
(representing his long association with the Aloha State’s musical traditions, especially
through his Hula Blues Band) to a glorious closing jam on T-Bone Walker’s “Mean Old
World” that stretches beyond the ten-minute mark. Though the selections only hint at
the scope of Taj Mahal’s musical exploration, they give a sense of the approach that still
sustains him night after night, project after project.
“I’ve always had this thing where if you play the songs that everybody wants, they go to
sleep on you,” he says. “And as soon as you start playing something different, all of a
sudden, they get scared that you’re leaving them. So I’ve always kept them on their
“You’re not going to disrespect me or the music by having me stay in one spot so you
feel comfortable,” he continues. “The people that made this music, my ancestors, were
uncomfortable making the music that makes you feel comfortable now. So it’s time that
we all make an exchange here, and you stretch out and realize how wide, how
intelligent, how creative, how beautiful this music is. You can’t go back in my catalog
and hear no whining going on. It’s all about lifting the spirit, positive towards women,
positive towards yourself, positive toward life, toward other people, other languages,
other cultures.”
Taj studied Animal Husbandry at the University of Massachusetts before heading to Los
Angeles in 1964 to pursue music. He began his solo career with such pioneering
projects as The Natch’l Blues and the expansive double album Giant Step/De Old Folks
at Home, demonstrating his ambitious sense of possibility for American roots music.
Over the decades, his records became even more adventurous, incorporating global
influences including Mumtaz Mahal, a 1995 collaboration with Indian classical
musicians, and 1999’s Kulanjan, a project with Malian kora master Toumani Diabate
that Taj felt represented his musical spirit truly “arriving full circle.” He won back-to-back
Grammys for Best Contemporary Blues Album with Señor Blues and Shoutin’ in Key.
The 21st Century has seen Taj working with many of the remarkable musicians who
were directly influenced by his work and his example, including Keb’ Mo, Los Lobos,
and Ben Harper. His reunion with Ry Cooder on 2022’s Get On Board won his latest
Grammy, for Best Traditional Blues Album, and his most recent studio release, Savoy, is
a collection of classic jazz songs.
“I don’t record stuff that I don’t like,” says Taj. “A lot of people record songs that
somebody brought to them, so they’re doing it because they have to. I don’t play no
song because I have to. I play songs because I love them, and I want to share them.
There were a lot of good songs to be able to do that on this album. It’s really nice to be
able to record that and know that we have a good record of what it was that we did.”
With Swingin’ Live at the Church in Tulsa, all the variables came together—a
well-seasoned band being pushed by talented guests sitting in; a musically
sophisticated audience; a venue that not only offered a sense of history, but also
top-of-the-line acoustics as both a performance and recording space.
“People don’t pay me for the music,” says Taj Mahal. “They pay me for what it takes me
to get there. I would gladly play music for free if I could be heard, but I found I can make
a living at it. And then I can come to a place like the Church, and it’s all the great things
at one time.”

6 maart 2024
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